Carol Twombly, An Extraordinary Type Designer

by Joel Friedlander on March 19, 2010 · 28 comments

Carol TwomblyWhen you’re working with type every day, you become sensitive to type design, an area of subtle refinement and architecture on a very small scale. Book designers, of course, are particularly interested in text typefaces for setting long documents, but typefaces in general are objects of unique attraction, interest, even mystery.

Most of the notable typeface designers have historically been men, but one of the twentieth century’s most influential designers is Carol Twombly, who worked for years in the type design department at Adobe, when many of the Adobe Originals typefaces were planned and carried out in the 1990s.


Twombly is distinctive for many reasons, and her story has an element of mystery to it as well. At the beginning, she was a promising student at the Rhode Island School of Design, where one of her professors was the type designer Charles Bigelow, the designer of the Lucida, Apple Chicago, Apple Geneva and Wingdings fonts, among others.

After studying under Bigelow again at Stamford, and receiving one of the few degrees in their digital typography program, Twombly went to work in Bigelow’s type design studio, Bigelow & Holmes, where her first notable design, the upright italic Mirarae, won the prestigious Morisawa Typeface Design Competition in 1984. Mirarae was licensed and issued by the Bitstream type foundry.
It’s obvious that Twombly was deeply impressed by historical models, and this would be proven again and again as she looked for sources for more type designs. From 1988 through 1999, Twombly produced some of the most beautiful and most popular typefaces that came out of Adobe, most of which were firmly anchored in classical roots.

Historical Models Make Stunningly Modern Typefaces

In 1989, Twombly along with the team of designers at Adobe, created three faces all based on different historical models, and each of which would go on to tremendous popularity. Charlegmagne was modeled on classical Roman engravings. (All font samples are from, where these fonts can also be purchased.)
Lithos was modeled on 5th century BC Greek stone inscriptions.
And Trajan was modeled on the classic letterforms of the inscription on the Column of Trajan, which was built in 133 AD in Rome. If you think Trajan looks familiar, it’s because it is the most popular font that I know of for movie posters.
I had long enjoyed these fonts before I knew they were all from the same designer. Her next font, released in 1990, was Adobe Caslon, considered by many to be the best text typeface ever to come out of the Adobe design studio. This font is still widely popular as a text face today. It’s modeled on the fonts of the British printer William Caslon, who released his first typefaces in 1722.
Next, in 1991, working with the famous type designer Robert Slimbach, Twombly created one of the most versatile san serif typefaces, Myriad. I use this font almost every day.
In 1993, Twombly reached out in a new direction, when she created the decorative face, Viva.
And in 1994, She reached even farther with Nueva, which I just used last month on the cover of a inspirational/self-help book, much to my client’s delight. Although based on historical models, Nueva has a liveliness and modernity all its own.
Finally, in 1997, Carol Twombly released her last typeface, Chaparral, in an extensive family of fonts.

Which Brings Us To Today

It was discovering this gorgious slab-serif font, which I had fogotten about years ago, that reignited my interest in Twombly, and I started to look into what she had been doing. After all, this one designer had created several of my all time favorite fonts, and the overall quality of her work was diverse and startling.

In 1994, she became the first woman, and only the second American ever to be awarded the prestigious Prix Charles Peignot at the 1994 ATypI conference in San Francisco, given to outstanding type designers under the age of 35.

But the years at Adobe, operating in the corporate world seemed to have been enough for Twombly. After an incredible run of creative design, she completely retired from type design in 1999. She now lives a private life devoted, apparently, to her other creative pursuits in crafts unrelated to typography.

Although the type world is poorer for having lost such an amazing talent after an abreviated career, Carol Twombly has left us with a remarkable legacy of excellence and vitality in type design that will live for many many years.

Type fonts have an odd and colorful role as carriers of our cultural DNA. The work of Carol Twombly has transported that influence, modernized and digitized, into the twenty-first century.

Takeaway: The typefaces of Carol Twombly, created at Adobe Systems, although small in number are among the most popular and most versatile fonts we have at our disposal. Carol, wherever you are, thank you.

The Many Faces of Carol Twombly essay by Elio L. Arteaga
A long discussion on the Typophile blog about Carol Twombly
An interesting Carol Twombly poster by designer eunice lo

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    { 21 comments… read them below or add one }

    Daniel April 7, 2013 at 3:09 am

    Dear Joel and friends
    I’m trying to invite Carol Twombly as a key speaker to an event about typography, but we can’t find the right contact.
    So I ask you if it’s possible to give me the contact of Carol Twombly.



    Joel Friedlander May 25, 2013 at 10:34 am

    Daniel, as you can see, despite repeated requests, no one who has any contact information for Carol has stepped forward. It could be because she does not want to be contacted.


    Erle Grubb August 9, 2012 at 1:10 pm

    Delightful and thought-provoking information about Carol Twombly. Cant’ say “thank you” enough for posting this read.


    Willie Baronet January 19, 2012 at 4:04 pm

    In doing some research while I prepare to apply for teaching positions, I came across a piece of mine in the Typography 14 annual (by the Type Directors Club). My piece (a wedding announcement) was chosen by Carol Twombly as her Judge’s Choice, her favorite piece in the book. For some reason this had escaped my memory and it was quite amazing to be reminded of it. In looking to see where she is now I came across this thread, and would love to contact her if anyone knows how. Many thanks!


    Erwin Heiser November 28, 2011 at 8:36 am

    Any reason why all the links right above the fonts just link back to this very article?


    Steve Harris November 15, 2011 at 11:27 am

    Carol Twomby’s name is in the back of my Grandfather’s (Thoughts and Memories of an OLD Cowhand)

    Any chance of getting another printing of the book?


    Bur Davis August 13, 2013 at 7:38 pm

    Steve: I am sure Carol’s name is in the back of the book because she designed it. I am equally sure another printing is not in the offing.


    Toni Pearson June 23, 2010 at 2:39 pm

    I am doing a report on Carol Twombly for my Typography class. The information in this article is very helpful. I was going to set the report in Caslon but now I’m considering Chapparal Pro. Thank you!


    Stephen Tiano June 23, 2010 at 2:48 pm

    Toni, good luck with your report! If you come across anything new that’s not mentioned here or in the long Typophile thread that Joel mentioned earlier, I’d be very interested in your sharing it.


    Joel Friedlander June 23, 2010 at 3:13 pm

    Hey Toni, glad I can be of some help, and thanks so much for your comment. Is typography a big interest of yours, or something that’s a requirement for your field of study?


    Toni Pearson June 24, 2010 at 1:51 pm

    Stephen – I enjoyed reading the Typophile thread, but didn’t exactly find what I was looking for. Lucky for me I did not plan on researching much about her life after type design. Mr. Arteaga’s essay has what I need. If I do come across anything of interest that has not already been mentioned I will gladly pass it along.
    Joel – I admit at first typography was only a required class I needed to take. In the last six weeks it has grown on me and I now love it. I’m only sorry that I have just two more weeks of this class. Eight weeks is not near enough time to learn typography in my opinion. I’ll be doing lots of research on type during my summer break.
    Any chance I could get the name of Sarah’s book so when my instructor looks at me strange for setting my final project in Chaparral I can show an instance of when it was used to set a book?
    Thank you again!


    Toni Pearson June 24, 2010 at 1:55 pm

    I have to wonder after that extensive discussion in the Typophile thread if Heather continued on her quest for more information on Ms. Twombly or switched to another type designer? :)


    Joel Friedlander June 24, 2010 at 2:57 pm

    Toni, the book is called Rymellan I and you can see it here:

    Rymellan in Book Buzzr

    I have a book in page proofs right now in Chapparal, the author loves it and I think it’s gorgeous. It was chosen out of three design treatments in coordination with an overseas publisher. After “rediscovering” Chapparal I was really determined to do a book with it that was suitable, and I’m really looking forward to showing this book on my blog once it’s on the market, so stay tuned.

    (Perhaps Heather will respond to your other question.)

    Joel March 20, 2010 at 10:00 am

    Sarah, of course it was looking at the page layouts for your book that started me off in search of Carol Twombly, so thanks to you (and Fiona) for that. Although it’s unusual for a book typeface, it is quite readable, and I’ve started using it for some of the reports I’m working on for my blog readers.


    Sarah Ettritch March 20, 2010 at 8:12 am

    Thanks for writing about the interesting person behind the typeface used in my book. Of the three samples Fiona gave me, everyone liked Chapparal Pro the best. I’ll use it in the next book in the series, too.


    Joel March 19, 2010 at 1:01 pm

    Hey Betty, when you get that article in the New Yorker you’ll give me a link, won’t you?


    Joel March 19, 2010 at 1:00 pm

    Stephen, I recommend you read through the (long and digressive) thread at Typophile that I linked to at the end of the article. It’s the best thing I know of and several people there are in touch with her. God, I’m loving Chaparral right now!


    betty ming liu March 19, 2010 at 11:01 am

    Weaving! That sounds so — zen. And it also sounds like there’s a story there. Couldn’t you just see the answer to this mystery as an article in The New Yorker? I want to know more too, in case you ever hear anything…


    Stephen Tiano March 19, 2010 at 10:49 am

    I’m a big Carol Twombley fan, Joel. I came to a deadend in trying to find out what she’s up to now. Do you have any more info about these non-type creative efforts? Was it big company politics that helped her decide she’d had enough designing type at Adobe? Or did she just run out of anything to say thru typeface design? I’m just as fascinated–maybe more so–by her decision to quit than with all her output (as much as I love Adobe Caslon, Myriad, and Chaparral).


    Joel March 19, 2010 at 10:32 am

    Betty, thanks. I believe she returned to weaving and the other interests she had before getting involved with typography. There’s a certain amount of controversy and influences that are hard to fathom for those of us who weren’t there at Adobe during this seminal time in their type design program. But she remains a figure of some fascination. I was interested because I’ve used and appreciated Charlemagne, Trajan, Lithos and Myriad for years, and now use Adobe Caslon regularly. Nueva is so distinctive I think it should be used sparingly, but it worked beautifully for the cover I just did, and which I’ll be featuring on my blog after the book comes out. Chaparral, which had fallen off my radar, has so entranced me I’ve been carrying a proof of a book page around with me for the last few days. Type nerd? Guilty!


    betty ming liu March 19, 2010 at 8:05 am

    Fascinating — this post makes me feel more in touch with the things I take for granted. I really enjoyed seeing Nueva, which is new to me because I’m just a regular person who doesn’t pay for fonts. Just curious…do you know what Twombly moved onto upon retirement? I’m always curious about where people’s long-term passions take them. Thanks for sharing this wonderful history.


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