Featured Banner Image

Featured Banner Image

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

How Carol Twombly Asserted the Formal Characteristics of Classical Typeface Design into the Design of Typefaces at the Dawn of the Digital Age

This posting is the fourth in a series on this blog that examines the contributions of particular women to the evolution of visual communication design.

In 1994, Carol Twombly became the first woman and the second American to win the Prix Charles Peignot award for outstanding achievement in typographic design by a designer under the age of 35. Three years earlier, the first American recipient of this award had been Robert Slimbach, one of her colleagues at the digital type foundry operated by Adobe Systems in San Francisco, California. Twombly and Slimbach and a small group of typeface designers had been working under the direction of Adobe Systems type director Sumner Stone since the late 1980s. This group was challenged to adapt the designs of several classical typefaces (such as Jenson, Garamond and Minion) so that they could be effectively utilized in the digital design environment, and they were afforded several opportunities to create original designs that Adobe could market in what is now known as the Adobe Font Folio.

Twombly studied typographic design in the late 1970s at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD). One of her professors was Charles Bigelow, who designed the typefaces Lucida, Apple Chicago, Apple Geneva and Wingdings in the early 1980s so that their readability would not be compromised when they were rendered upon early computer monitors and via low-resolution output devices.

When Bigelow moved to Stanford University in Palo Alto, California to help launch their digital typography program, Twombly followed and earned one of the first degrees they awarded. She then accepted a position at Bigelow’s type design studio Bigelow & Holmes, where she designed the the typeface Mirarae in 1983-84. Twombly gained her first international acclaim as a type designer in 1984 when this upright italic won the Morisawa Typeface Design Competition.

Slimbach recruited Twombly to the then fledgling digital type foundry at Abobe Systems in 1988, where she began to deploy her deep understanding of the formal structure of historical Greek and Roman lettering systems to affect the designs of typeface families that could be effectively rendered in the digital realm. Her efforts yielded the typeface families Charlemagne, Lithos and Trajan, and these became the first display fonts that Adobe issued in their Originals line in 1992.

Charlemagne is derived from Twombly’s adaptation of an amalgamation of typographic forms she observed in Carolingian-era illuminated manuscripts from western Europe. Lithos is based on her observations of what Philip Meggs’ refers to as the “monoline simplicity and even-textured economy of Greek stone inscriptions,” but Twombly’s typeface family includes five differently weighted variants and several invented characters. It became the on-screen choice for most of the type that was displayed by MTV in the mid- to late-1990s. It was also used for a time on some American coinage. Her version of Trajan closely mimics the appearance of the type on the famous column in Rome upon which it originally appeared in A.D. 113, but she added slightly more prominent serifs, a heavier “S” and a lighter-weight “N.”
Twombly collaborated with Slimbach in 1990-91 to design the typeface family Myriad, which has become one of the most commonly used “default” typefaces on computing systems around the world as of this writing in June of 2010. Her re-design of the typeface family that bears William Caslon’s name in the early 1990s is one of the most popular in the Adobe collection, and often appears on the printed material students enrolled in our communication design program receive from their instructors. (It should be noted that Twombly recommended that Adobe Caslon not be used above 14 points in size, as it was not intended as a display face.) 

Nueva and Chaparral, typeface families that Twombly designed in 1994 and 1999-2000 respectively, are also widely known and used by communication designers and art directors around the world. She is also responsible for the designs of the typefaces Zebrawood, Pepperwood, and Rosewood.

The following passage from an interview with Twombly originally published in Serif magazine in 1994, sheds light on her working processes:

“Drawing with a pencil often helps because my hand can usually make pleasing curves intuitively, and then I can go back to the screen to re-create what my hand has realized on paper... The shapes drawn with the hand are more organic and unpredictable, and therefore more lively.”

She left Adobe Systems in 1999, and has since pursued interests outside the realm of typographic design.

There are numerous locations on the worldwide web where Ms. Twombly’s typeface designs can be located and purchased. Here are a few of them:




More information about Carol Twombly’s contributions to the design of type can be found at:


The poster that appears at the top of this post was designed by Eunice Lo. —Mg