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123: Didot: An Incomplete History of Type

Updated: Dec 15, 2023



Name: Didot

Release Date: Between 1784 and 1811

Designer: Firmin Didot

Classification: Modern Serif

Owned By: Various type foundries, most notably Hoefler & Co. and Linotype

Claim to Fame: The beginning of the Neoclassical typeface movement and recognized fashion icon as Vogue Magazine’s logo


Didot has often been regarded as the first Modern typeface. This style was perfected by Firmin Didot and later by Giambattista Bodoni, with both men eventually being recognized as the fathers of the Didone typography movement. Inspired by perhaps one of the most widely known Transitional typefaces of the 18th century, Baskerville, Firmin Didot experimented with the current letterforms of that era, stretching the boundaries of typography to its extremes before releasing his first typeface in 1784. Interestingly, the original typeface was never fully completed by Firmin Didot and he actually spent over 27 years making changes before his death. As a result, many type foundries have created their own Didot derivatives in honour of the typographic giant. For this episode, we will explore two revivals of the Didot typeface--HTF Didot by Hoefler & Co. and Linotype Didot by Linotype.


The Didot typeface features a character set with increased stroke contrast, condensed armature, hairline strokes, vertical stress and flat, unbracketed serifs. While unsuitable for body copy due to its almost extreme contrast level, Didot is often seen in large format signage and for various display purposes. The Hoefler & Co. revival of this typeface features a staggering 42 fonts compared to its Linotype cousin which only has 7 variations. This was possible with their introduction of italics that they designed to work at large sizes which in the realm of modern typography, was the first of its kind. Additionally, Hoefler & Co. drew each of the family’s 6 styles in 7 different “optical sizes,” to keep its hairlines delicate at every size: 6, 11, 16, 24, 42, 64, and 96 point. Using the appropriate font along with its corresponding size keeps the hairlines crisp and the type legible.


Didot as we know is often associated with grandeur, denoting luxury, opulence and artistry of only the highest degree, attracting the eyes of large fashion publications, designers and brands. In fact, Didot also found itself being sought after by royalty, thanks to Firmin Didot himself whose family owned the most influential and successful print shop and font foundry in France. So much so that Firmin along with seven other family members became printers for the King himself at the time. Eventually, the Didot typeface would be considered the standard in French printing for over a century. Vogue, the most influential and most recognizable publication in the world of fashion, decided to use the typeface for its iconic logo in 1947. From Japan to the United States, the typeface’s fame spreads. In 1991, Harper’s Bazaar, a prominent magazine dedicated to looking at the lives of women through the lens of fashion, commissioned Hoefler & Co. to create a typeface that, in their words “works like no other, a Modern which--unlike the commercial cuts on Bodoni--would have hairline serifs, and maintain over a range of sizes.” This was followed by companies and brands such as the Columbia Broadcasting Station or CBS, the band Nirvana, Zara, and Giorgio Armani.


Ironically, Firmin Didot, inventor of this widely known “luxurious” typeface and trusted printer of the King of France, is also credited with the invention of stereotypography, an innovation in print production and distribution that ultimately changed the book industry. It involved the use of a stereotype, a solid plate of type metal that was cast from a papier mache or plaster mould taken from the surface of a forme of type. Fun fact, the mould used in creating a stereotype was indeed called a flong. Didot’s stereotypes were far lighter, less fragile and took up less space than a forme full of type. This process allowed books to be printed less expensively which opened up book ownership and casual literacy to the masses.


Printing this typeface required only the highest quality paper and equipment, which given its association with luxury, seemed almost fitting. Writer and typographer Sarah Hyndman, embarked on an investigation that explored the relationship between typography and cost. Hyndman’s previous book discussed the tastes we associate with different fonts so this time she was on a mission to discover whether a typeface could truly make a product appear more expensive and also whether other typographic characteristics have been associated with being cheap. Hyndman conducted her survey in a vacuum, with black typefaces laid out against white paper, with only the words “Buy Me.” I found this particularly interesting since typefaces are rarely seen in such an isolated manner--free from any kind of context. Hyndman’s survey which was answered by over 370 participants, suggested that bold typefaces with round terminals appear inexpensive whereas lighter weights, serifs and contrasts elicited a higher price point, with Didot being considered the diamond of all typefaces.


Reading about these results had me wondering whether the same associations would be made for a designer working on a luxury brand, which begs to ask the question--Can a typeface or a family of fonts like Didot truly symbolizes luxury, and therefore distinctiveness, if they’re commonly used? Roanne Adams, creative director of RoAndCo, a boutique agency, sees luxury as an “ever-evolving space” rather than some static concept. She says “For a long time, thin, wispy or high contrast serifs were common and seemingly only associated with luxury. But, as the industry evolved and looked for new customers, naturally a more subtle, less flashy aesthetic was born.” This can be seen in brands like Chanel, Proenza Schouler, Balenciaga, and Fendi who have all led the trend towards a more subdued and somewhat understated sans serif type system. If we think about it, this change actually suits the time if we consider the digital space, where thin serifs are often hard to replicate on screen and inadvertently called for stronger, more usable and clear typography.


Type expert and designer Jonathan Hoefler describes HTF Didot as a “major part of the most fashionable brands, a testament to the flexibility and durability of the style.” However, he also adds “the best [typefaces] are those that can speak in different voices, and convey different things.”


So, perhaps there’s no one typeface that can truly evoke a sense of luxury. Instead, the relationship between typography and luxury is an ever-evolving concept that adapts with consumer trends that are also ever-evolving. However, Hyndman’s survey does suggest that cultural associations are in fact deeply ingrained in the way we experience typography and until she conducts another study, Didot will forever remain a diamond in the world of typography.



REFERENCES

Dumitrașcu, B. (2020, June 9). The revival of the neoclassic typefaces, part II: The Didots. Bianca Dumitrașcu. Retrieved February 26, 2022, from https://biancadumitrascu.com/the-didots/


Admin, J. (2021, July 19). Vogue Logo & Its History. LogoMyWay. Retrieved February 26, 2022, from https://blog.logomyway.com/vogue-logo/#:~:text=The%20Didot%20font%20made%20an,scripts%20alongside%20illustrative%20picturesque%20letters.


Encyclopædia Britannica, inc. (n.d.). Didot family. Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved February 26, 2022, from https://www.britannica.com/topic/Didot-family


Encyclopædia Britannica, inc. (n.d.). Stereotype. Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved February 26, 2022, from https://www.britannica.com/technology/stereotype-printing


Hart, D. (2015, June 10). Firmin Didot: A French Legacy. Metmuseum.org. Retrieved February 26, 2022, from https://www.metmuseum.org/blogs/in-circulation/2015/firmin-didot


Harvey, A. (2016, March 7). Didot typeface. Medium. Retrieved February 26, 2022, from


Hoefler, J. (n.d.). Fonts by hoefler&co. Fonts by Hoefler&Co. Retrieved February 26, 2022, from https://www.typography.com/fonts/didot/design-notes






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I’m Nate (he/him/his) and I’m a Toronto-based graphic designer, a Graphic Production Artist at TC Transcontinental and a graduate of the Graphic Communications Management at Toronto Metropolitan University. I have had the pleasure of working with various clients to help them with brand strategy, custom print and digital products, contract work and social media management. I love taking on new challenges in order to learn and add to my ever growing skillset. While I mainly work in graphic design, I enjoy dabbling in photography, videography and web design too. Outside of work, you can find me cooking and developing new recipes, working out, spending time outdoors and hanging out with my boyfriend, siblings and friends.



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