Family design information

Family is an everyday typeface based on Clearface—originally designed by father and son, Morris Fuller and Linn Boyd Benton. As an extension of its lineage, Family keeps Clearface’s easy-going curves and idiosyncrasies, while updating it for modern use.

2,960 words by Kris Sowersby
18 January 2023

I first started thinking about Clearface when I picked up issue 5 of Apartamento magazine in 2010. Jess and I were travelling, apartment-sitting in Brooklyn. I’d likely been sniffing ink at some New York book shop full of exotic printed treasures when I saw it. After three months on the road maybe I was a bit homesick? For whatever reason, Apartamento appealed to me.

Apartamento bills itself as “an everyday life interiors magazine”. It’s a modest publication: uncoated stock, 170 × 240mm, low-key design with personal stories and intimate photography. The homes are unstaged, lived in and human. Unlike most other interior magazines with “clean” photography, Apartamento is messy and real. It’s designed with a light hand, tending towards vernacular. Of course, every decision is painstakingly considered, but it doesn’t feel precious. It’s a perfect mix of content and form.

Clearface, Futura and a bit of Plantin make up the vast majority of Apartamento’s typography. They mostly use the bold cuts, even for setting text. It’s an unusual but welcome move; the dense type matches the dense images. Futura’s sober geometry plays off Clearface’s weird curves, perhaps echoing the contrasts within the stories and images. I’ve already gone deep on Futura;¹ every type designer knows it intimately. Clearface was my blind spot.² Of course, I knew it existed, but I wasn’t interested until I picked up Apartamento.

And about to go hard on Plantin 😉

Researching this, I’ve wondered why. Clearface wasn’t used locally, we preferred British and European pre-digital types. It seemingly wasn’t popular in the EU, only Stephenson Blake carried it in the UK. I’ve checked almost all of my type and typography books and there’s basically zero mention of Clearface anywhere. Tracy, Updike, Morison, Bringhurst, Lawson, Warde, Carter — why hast thou forsaken me?

Various styles of Clearface, ATF specimen (1923).

Clearface was designed by Morris Fuller Benton in collaboration with his father, Linn Boyd Benton. It was released in 1907 by American Type Founders (ATF).

Morris Fuller Benton was a prolific typeface designer. He headed ATF’s design department from 1900 to 1937, creating 221 originals and revivals like Franklin & News Gothic, Cheltenham, Hobo, Souvenir and the Century series. Unlike verbose typeface designers today, Morris Fuller Benton was a private man. Described by Juliet Shen³ as “frustratingly laconic”, historians have had their work cut out for them.

Juliet Shen, “Searching for Morris Fuller Benton”, (2006): 5.

Linn Boyd Benton was a type founder, designer and inventor. His most important invention was the Benton Pantograph. This machine allowed a range of type sizes to be cut from a single pattern. Previously, every single size of type had to be cut individually. The Benton Pantograph drastically modernised typeface production, foreshadowing digital methods. In 1892 Linn Boyd Benton’s type foundry was one of 23 foundries that amalgamated to form ATF. This was a protective measure as the Linotype machine’s efficiency threatened their core business of handset type.

After early financial difficulty, ATF filled the burgeoning niche between Linotype-dominated newspaper typesetting and Monotype-dominated book typography with advertising typefaces. Robert Wickham Nelson became ATF’s general manager in 1894, and when he realised that “display and advertising type… would be the mainstay of the foundry type business, immediately began an extensive advertising campaign and commissioned the production of new type designs.” He also tasked Morris Fuller Benton with purging “obsolete and duplicated type faces” from ATF’s amalgamated type catalogue. Thus the conditions were set for a suite of popular typefaces, both original and revivals.

It wasn’t the first pantograph for cutting type, but it was very important.

Benton, Waldo & Co. Type Foundry.

I highly recommend Doug Wilson’s documentary “Linotype, the film”.

Wikipedia writes, “Throughout the late 1880s, prices had been maintained by an informal cartel of foundries”. Ironically it seems like the industry went from an informal cartel to a virtual Monotype monopoly.

American Type Founders”, Wikipedia. Retrieved 24 January 2023.

Various fake ads from the Stephenson, Blake & Co. specimen, 1924.

Clearface was released during the ascendency of advertising. Benton was well-aware of the changing market, and catered to the novelty craved by advertisers and their clients. Serifs are typically the domain of the serious; their ancestors have bookish typography in their DNA. It’s hard to make a multipurpose serif feel charming instead of goofy. Benton’s genius was to pull a stuffy genre into the present, dusting it off to create a modern, affable serif. He took the aesthetic from a traditional market and refreshed it for a new one.

Writing about typefaces is a relatively recent act. We rarely know what typefaces designers thought about their own work, or their rationale for making them. The “laconic” Benton was no exception. But — unusually — ATF issued an “Explanatory Statement” for Clearface Bold & Italic in 1908. It’s aggressive marketing and doesn’t mince words:

“Clearface Bold is a distinct, but closely related branch of the oldstyle Roman letter, and is expected to be a permanent addition to the very few master designs in type.”

The Explanatory Statement painstakingly rationalises Benton’s design decisions, based upon now-outdated notions of legibility. Clearface was considered optically efficient at the time, apparently based on scientific studies and branded one of ATF’s “legible” families. In all my years of typeface design, I’ve never heard of Clearface cited as optimally legible. It’s not illegible by any means, but I think its charm is precisely the opposite: Clearface embraces warm style over cold function.

Thanks to the combined artistic engineering of father and son, Clearface is a very tidy typeface. Curves are well-defined, joins are sharp and details are crisp. Thin slab serifs are plain and rectangular, except on thin strokes where they’re bracketed. This deliberate design gesture was jarring at first, but it makes sense for small sizes. Thin stems need bracketing to hold together; they’d fall apart if they were unbracketed like rigorous European moderns. Another type designer might be compelled to regularise the serifs into one style or the other, but his adroit blending works like a charm. The Explanatory Statement says:

Of course I tried to regularise both ways with Family, and neither were satisfying.

The square serif is used because it can be made shorter than a rounded Roman serif, and by shortening the serifs the spaces between the letters are considerably reduced, making every word set in Clearface Bold compact, and equalizing the background or white space, especially in words containing the letters A, V, W, X and Y. The rounded Roman serif is used on the thin lines, where there is ample room to display its graceful curves, which indeed strengthen the thin lines.

Clearface Bold.

Family Medium.

A V W strokes in Clearface are offset and wide at the vertex, apparently to optically narrow the characters for better spacing. ATF says these, “thick lines are carried over and beyond the light lines to further reduce the excessive outside white space”. These letters were rarely kerned in metal, and space saving is irrelevant in digital. A looks good, but V W felt quite out of place. Which is another way of saying I couldn’t quite make it work.

Clearface Regular.

Clearface Bold.

Clearface Heavy.

Clearface Regular Italic.

Family Regular.

Family Medium.

Family Heavy.

Family Regular Italic.

Benton’s best detail is the lovely elliptic terminal, formed by a continuous line curving back on itself. I’m not sure if it’s original, but it’s certainly an early example. The terminal feels drawn, designed with modern production in mind. It’s a defining feature of Clearface, but not everyone was enamoured. In the 1960s British newspaper designer Allen Hutt called it, “an Edwardian shocker… few faces, the monstrosities apart, have more departures from normal letter design — strokes curved when they should be straight, blobs substituted for serifs… counters misshapen, horizontal strokes made diagonal.”¹⁰

Clearface”, Wikipedia. Retrieved 24 Jan 2023.

Clearface Bold.

Family Medium.

Clearface Bold.

Family Medium.

If we put aside his pompous venom, Hutt essentially described all the good things about Clearface. He’s quite wrong about the “blobs”, which I assume was directed at the elliptic terminals. Perhaps he was reacting to its overuse — it’s all through the lowercase: a c f g j k r v w y and notably s. This is normal for an italic, but unusual for a roman. It’s a subtle informal gesture. The hybrid serif/terminal on v w y are less successful. They’re occasionally nice in large sizes but detract from the overall utility of it. I could get it to work convincingly on k, but v w y stubbornly refused to play nicely with their siblings.

A couple of decades after Hutt’s condemnation, Victor Caruso revived Clearface for The International Typeface Corporation (ITC) in New York. Founded by Aaron Burns, Herb Lubalin and Edward Rondthaler, ITC was one of the first type foundries to have no history in the production of metal type.¹¹ Burns, Lubalin and Rondthaler were very good typographers and art directors, and they knew how to market fonts to their own.¹² As ATF adapted to the changing market, ITC adapted to the rising cadre of art directors and graphic designers. In their impressive 1980 specimen, ITC state their overall concept. Based on non-exclusivity, ITC’s mission was to “develop and market typeface designs for manufacturers who offer typographic equipment and materials.” Their typefaces were therefore broadly available and accessible. Like ATF’s legibility push for Clearface, ITC declare “The New Legibility”:

At this stage, ITC might not technically be considered a “type foundry” as they didn’t make fonts until the digital era. They licensed master typeface artwork to phototype manufacturers. The manufacturer then made fonts for its machine, and sold those fonts to its customers.

Burns also grasped the potential of digital fonts: “Look! All these lights are offices. Imagine if each one had a laser printer. It would need fonts, and even if a font only cost a dollar, imagine how many fonts people would need!”

It is a truism that if type can’t be read, there’s not much point in setting it… The age-old battle between how much legibility to sacrifice in order to achieve distinction has taken a new turn with the development of photographic and digital typesetting machines. The ITC concept recognizes this and attempts to bring to its original designs and to its versions of classic metal faces a satisfying blend of distinction and legibility.

ITC Clearface Regular.

ITC Clearface Bold.

ITC Clearface Heavy.

ITC Clearface Black.

They also recognized the need for a broad range of weights and styles within each typeface family. “ITC’s concept includes the development of as full a family for each design as the market, in its judgment, would seem to require.” Caruso therefore added a sympathetic black weight to his ITC Clearface. Overall it’s an excellent design. But he introduced inconsistencies with the elliptical terminal, effectively bringing Hutt’s “blob” criticism to life. In some letters the join is sharp, in others curved. There doesn’t seem to be a consistent pattern, and it set the tone for subsequent digital revivals.

Clearface (black) and Family Regular g (blue).

Clearface (black) and Family Heavy g (blue).

There are two forms of g in the original Clearface: open-tailed in Regular and closed in Bold and Heavy. I like the open form. Benton’s other quintessentially American serif, Cheltenham, has it too. I don’t know why it’s closed in the Bold and Heavy cuts. Caruso chose the closed g for ITC Clearface Regular. All the subsequent Clearface digitisations are modelled from Caruso’s version; none have the open g. I’ve opted for the open as default across all the weights, and the closed is available as an alternate. Clearface’s Bold and Heavy g has a strained, squashed loop. Its curve quality differs from the rest of the lowercase, so I harmonised them for Family.

ITC Clearface Black, f and j terminals.

Family Black, f and j terminals.

Certain overhanging glyphs like f j cause spacing headaches in metal type. The overhang in f clashes with ascending glyphs like l i and even itself, which lead to development of special ligatures like fl fi and ff. Benton’s solution for Clearface Heavy reduces the f j overhang, and abruptly cuts back into the main vertical stem. In theory it’s an extreme solution, but in practice it accords perfectly with the rest of the design. Caruso recognised this and incorporated it into ITC Clearface Heavy and Black. I really like the solution, as it performs double duty of style and function. I’ve applied this consistently throughout all weights in Family.

Clearface Bold.

Family Medium, default e.

Family Medium, alternate e.

The sloped e can be traced back to the first roman book typefaces of the 1400s. The crossbar eventually settled horizontally in the following centuries and styles. It occasionally popped back, then made a strong return in the typefaces influenced by the late 1800s Arts and Crafts anti-industrial movement. It’s usually considered an anachronism, triggering Hutt in the 1960s.¹³ Benton was right to use it in Clearface. It’s a charming, happy wee glyph. I kept it as Family’s default with a more sober sister in the alternates.

Maybe he’d also had a gutsful of Stephenson Blake’s softwonk Windsor?

Clearface Italic.

Lots of serif italics behave like the eccentric cousin of the family. They’re fun to be around, but are best seen only a couple times a year on special occasions. Benton didn’t break new ground with Clearface’s italic, but he broke enough with oldstyle serif traditions to make something that felt fresh and new. Like the roman, Clearface’s italic is cleanly drawn with unique details. It’s reasonably sloped, open and unfussy. There’s liberal use of the elliptical terminal and fewer surprises overall.

Clearface Italic.

Sabon Kursiv.

Englische Kursiv.

G.B. Bodoni Italic.

Clearface’s notable italic detail is the entry stroke on m n p r u v w y. Historically, this bit usually denotes the entry of a pen’s stroke to form the main stem. In oldstyle italics it’s abrupt and sharp, whereas modern italics have either a looping pothook or a severe horizontal line. Benton’s looks like it melted in the heat, or a serif started roman but changed its mind and became italic. Despite this peculiarity it works really well. It’s got enough flavour for large sizes and a decent bite at small.

Clearface Italic.

Family Italic.

Benton introduced a subtle, unexpected elliptical nod in a. The top of the bowl swells out to a teardrop and nestles on top of the main stem. When I first noticed it at small sizes, I thought it was sharper. I don’t particularly like the curvature and teardrop, but the unusual construction aligns with the entry stroke. I’ve sharpened it for Family, and harmonised it across g q as well.

Clearface Italic.

Family Italic.

Lowercase descending italic letters like p q usually have serifs, g is binocular, f has a tail and y is made by two separate strokes, like its roman counterpart. Benton didn’t do any of this for Clearface italic. He trimmed the p q serifs, axed the descender on f, and g y are “schoolbook” form. This simplified the forms, allowing the text block to feel less fussy than traditional italics. I liked all his decisions. My only change is re-introducing a descending f with the curved cutback to match the roman.

Clearface Regular.

Family Regular.

Clearface Regular Italic.

Family Regular Italic.

Most old type specimens run from large to small sizes, presumably so you clearly grasp the details for display before getting a feel for text setting.¹⁴ While browsing Clearface specimens I assumed all the details would make for jilted paragraphs and a jarring reading experience. But it’s quite the opposite. Even with all its idiosyncrasies, Clearface sets small text very nicely. The specimens above convinced me — sturdy 10pt type printed on uncoated stock. At this point I realised Benton’s mastery of form and function.

This is what we do on our website. In metal type specimens it also showed the sizes of type available to buy. If there was no 48pt specimen, there was probably no 48pt size available.

Benton’s work gives me a sense of the man-machine. His letterforms are unfussy and pleasantly plain. They’re obviously well-designed, his functional groundwork was never overrun by mannerism. He was clearly comfortable working with modern tools to achieve his vision. I must admit that I feel an affinity towards Benton’s work. Certain Clearface letters feel familiar… like I would have drawn them the same way. This isn’t something I feel with any other typefaces.

Benton did such a bloody good job with Clearface. Family takes all the good parts of Clearface and extends it for modern use. It’s just nice to have an everyday serif without all the stuffy baggage of the 17th century.

Featured fonts

Notes & references

And about to go hard on Plantin 😉

Researching this, I’ve wondered why. Clearface wasn’t used locally, we preferred British and European pre-digital types. It seemingly wasn’t popular in the EU, only Stephenson Blake carried it in the UK. I’ve checked almost all of my type and typography books and there’s basically zero mention of Clearface anywhere. Tracy, Updike, Morison, Bringhurst, Lawson, Warde, Carter — why hast thou forsaken me?

Juliet Shen, “Searching for Morris Fuller Benton”, (2006): 5.

It wasn’t the first pantograph for cutting type, but it was very important.

Benton, Waldo & Co. Type Foundry.

I highly recommend Doug Wilson’s documentary “Linotype, the film”.

Wikipedia writes, “Throughout the late 1880s, prices had been maintained by an informal cartel of foundries”. Ironically it seems like the industry went from an informal cartel to a virtual Monotype monopoly.

American Type Founders”, Wikipedia. Retrieved 24 January 2023.

Of course I tried to regularise both ways with Family, and neither were satisfying.

Clearface”, Wikipedia. Retrieved 24 Jan 2023.

At this stage, ITC might not technically be considered a “type foundry” as they didn’t make fonts until the digital era. They licensed master typeface artwork to phototype manufacturers. The manufacturer then made fonts for its machine, and sold those fonts to its customers.

Burns also grasped the potential of digital fonts: “Look! All these lights are offices. Imagine if each one had a laser printer. It would need fonts, and even if a font only cost a dollar, imagine how many fonts people would need!”

Maybe he’d also had a gutsful of Stephenson Blake’s softwonk Windsor?

This is what we do on our website. In metal type specimens it also showed the sizes of type available to buy. If there was no 48pt specimen, there was probably no 48pt size available.

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