The Century Typeface: An American Original

by | Nov 18, 2010

I’ve been working for several months on a book that’s just getting ready to go to press. It’s the first book I’ve typeset in the Century typeface in quite a while.

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Century isn’t one typeface. It’s actually a family of related designs all based on an original by American Type Founders. The original was designed by Linn Boyd Benton in 1894. It’s a design that has always seemed peculiarly American to me. Despite it’s origins in the nineteenth century, Century remains popular especially in textbooks, periodicals and literature.

Versions have been issued by Linotype, Monotype, ITC, Elsner+Flake, Adobe and Bitstream, and all these variations are available online today.

One of Century’s main strengths is its exceptional legibility. The open forms of the letters allow for quick recognition, and you might recognize some of the Century variations as the typefaces in the very first books you learned to read.

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In fact, Century is so legible and neutral in tone, it’s required by the U.S. Supreme Court that all briefs presented be typeset in the Century family. Here’s an excerpt from Rule 33, “Document Preparation”:

(b) The text of every booklet-format document, including any appendix thereto, shall be typeset in Century family (e.g., Century Expanded, New Century Schoolbook, or Century Schoolbook) 12-point type with 2-point or more leading between lines. Quotations in excess of 50 words shall be indented. The typeface of footnotes shall be 10-point or larger with 2-point or more leading between lines. The text of the document must appear on both sides of the page.

(Citation from Cornell University Law School)

You can get an idea of the variety of faces available in the Century family by taking a look at the samples from half a dozen type foundries here.

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I’ve been impressed with how durable Century has been over the years, and how useful it remains. When this book reaches its publication date I’ll feature it in a Case Study here so you can see the way Century worked for book composition, but everyone who’s worked with the proofs has been impressed with its readability.

Takeaway: For a different look to a narrative book, try one of the fonts from the Century family for a strong and readable American typeface design.

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  1. Joseph

    Joel I know this is an old post but I wanted to ask about New Century Schoolbook being used in a novel. This is not a kids book though and a few people have told me: ” I like Schoolbook, but it is a font that was designed for children’s books, and I can see it turning a few off.”

    Any thoughts on this?

  2. Chrysolyte Choragudi

    Hi Joe
    For the first time, I have taken up type-setting a Biblical book of meditations on Psalms. The mood of the book is pretty serious and thoughts are profound – though not complex.

    I used a combination of Square 721 BT 9 point and Prisitna 11.5 point for page number and title note on each page as a unifier.

    Can I use constantia 12 point for the page content? Are there any other alternative fresh looking fonts you would suggest for a book of this kind? Thank you.

    • Joel Friedlander

      Chrysolyte, Constantia is a fine typeface for your book. You might also look at Apollo. Good luck with your project!

    • Michael N. Marcus

      Constantia 12 has become my standard font. I’ve used it for most of my recent books, but I’ll allow you to use it, too. [grin]

  3. Carolyn Branch

    I’m glad to hear good things about Century! My new book “Fulton, Missouri 1820-1920” is set in Century and Century Schoolbook 11 pt. I just thought it looked nice and was appropriate for the subject matter. How nice to hear my instincts were good… Thank you.

    • Joel Friedlander

      Carolyn, you instinctively choose a readable and highly appropriate typeface for your history. Added to that, the original was designed and first issued during the time period your book covers. Good luck with your publication.

  4. Michael N. Marcus

    Thanks for another interesting and useful post.

    I’ve always been concerned about readability of the books I publish, after suffering with books I’ve bought that were set in fly-poop-size type.

    One book I really looked forward to reading (“Semantic Antics: How and Why Words Change Meaning” by Saul Steinmetz) remains in a bookcase. It’s unread because I find its tiny typeface unreadable.

    Last night, while browsing my books, I grabbed Kirk Douglas’s autobiography, “The Ragman’s Son.” I bought it years ago, but never got around to read it. Sadly, I may never read the paperback I have because the type and margins are so small that the book is absolutely inhospitable. If it comes out as an eBook that lets me control the type size, I may try again.

    I think the tiny type on the back of credit cards should be illegal.

    One reviewer of one of my books complained that “The fonts are HUGE, my goodness, I haven’t seen fonts this big since elementary school!”

    I used Constantia, not Century, but it _was_ 12-pt.

    With your help, I can now reply to my critic that 12-pt type is sanctioned by the highest court in the land. I feel much better now.

    Michael N. Marcus
    — Create Better Books, with the Silver Sands Publishing Series:
    — “Stories I’d Tell My Children (but maybe not until they’re adults),”

    • Joel Friedlander

      An unusual source for typographic validation, but yes, by all means use it.

      Also worth noting that “12 point” is a technical measurement of the distance between lines of type when set with no spacing between them, but it’s only a guideline when choosing type sizes. For some fonts, 12 point would be comfortable for reading, in other fonts, it would be very large.

      • Michael N. Marcus

        >>“12 point” is a technical measurement of the distance between lines of type when set with no spacing between them<<

        Oh, I know. Different type designers fill the available space differently, so formatters have to be careful if they use different faces together.

        I recently discovered that the numeral 8 in my newly acquired Adobe Garamond Pro is shorter than in TNR, Trebuchet or Constantia. Ascenders, descenders and oldstyle figures make it even more complicated.

        Also: I don't like the way short oldstyle figures look when combined with full-height letters in a term like "YALE '14" or "Word 2010," so I substitute Adobe Garamond for Constantia — but I have to increase the Garamond size by 1pt.

        • Joel Friedlander

          This is probably a solution that would appeal to few professional typographers, but since you probably have a limited number of fonts it may work out well for you. Some typefaces come with both “oldstyle” figures which are designed to blend with type set in upper and lower case (like most text) as well as “lining” figures which blend well with capital letters since they are uniformly the same height. And some typefaces come with lining figures but have “expert” font sets available that provide the oldstyle figures. But hey, when it comes to DIY, whatever works for you is probably the best solution.


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