Memorial Type

What’s in a typeface? Especially when it’s on the surface on a memorial intended to send an eternal, national message?

The lettering of the earliest surviving war memorials is still with us. The Latin square capitals on Trajan’s Column* in the Roman Forum have been the inspiration for inscription texts since before the Renaissance. Today you can put these strict, monumental letters with their slender serifs on anything just by using Carol Twombly’s Trajan typeface, but for hundreds of years they were much-copied by stone carvers – trends in typography went in other directions.

Latin capitals were still the state of the memorial art when World War I came to an end in 1918, even as the typographic world was on the cusp of a new, sans-serif era. Johnston Sans, the inescapable symbol of the London Underground, had first appeared in 1916, and Gill Sans, the work of carver and type designer Eric Gill, would be created in the mid-1920s. But when it was time for the Imperial (later Commonwealth) War Graves Commission to pick a lettering design for the tens of thousands of tombstones it would be engraving it went with a traditional, measured approach. MacDonald (or Max) Gill, Eric Gill’s brother, designed a well-balanced set of serif letters that matched the spirit of the Commission’s other work: modern but classical.

That was, in many ways, where things stood for many years, even after World War II (for the graves of which Max Gill revised his lettering.) Then, in the 1980s, Maya Lin chose Optima in which to engrave the 58,000 names on the US Vietnam Veterans Memorial. That typeface, designed by a sans-serif whose letters do homage to Latin capitals with their flared ends but whose lines are far more humane. Dignified and measured, Optima was created in the 1950s by German designer Herman Zapf (responsible for many iconic fonts, but probably best known to computer users for Zapf Dingbats). Under the circumstances, it’s a little cringe-inducing that type designer Jonathan Hoefler wrote about it that “after three decades of signifying a very down-market notion of luxe [a dig at the Estée Lauder brands], this particular sans-serif has settled into being the font of choice for the hygiene aisle.”

Hoefler’s comments came at a moment when Optima was battling it out, at least by proxy, with a typeface by his creative partner at Hoefler & Frere-Jones. In the 2008 US presidential election, John McCain used Optima as his campaign font while Barack Obama adopted Tobias Frere-Jones’s Gotham. Inspired by New York architectural signage, sans-serif Gotham was a little square but never chunky, tough without being too obvious. By the time the Obama campaign adopted the typeface it was already the official choice of the memorial at Ground Zero, engraved on the Freedom Tower’s cornerstone in 2004. Today, Gotham, mixed with a little of Hoefler & Frere-Jones’s Verlag (inspired by the facade of New York’s Guggenheim museum), is still the official typeface at Ground Zero – but when it came to inscribing the victims’ names on the memorial, designer Michael Arad went with Optima.

Optima, Gotham, and Verlag, simple sans-serifs that evoke dignity without official-ness, aren’t the only memorial option. It was engraver John Benson of the John Stephens Shop (despite the name, it’s owned and run by Benson) who recommended Optima to Lin. His son Nick, who now runs the Shop, is still in demand to hand carve Latin capitals on public monuments. It was Nick Benson who did the engraving on the National World War II Memorial in Washington (he chose a variant of a classic design he though “would work for the very heavy, monumental scale of the design,” making rounded “u cuts” to let more light into the space) and the Four Freedoms Park in New York. And in 2010 he won a MacArthur “Genius” grant for preserving the art of stone carving and expanding the scope of its work.

It’s no surprise that, with its massive pillars and monumental design, the World War II Memorial opted for Benson’s deep classical letters. Or that, after Vietnam, modest sans-serifs could become a symbol of mourning. One wonders, though, just what typography exists in the middle ground between the imperial and the lachrymose.

*Strictly speaking, Trajan’s Column is more of a victory monument than a memorial, but the two types of structures share a lot of features. The difference is that a memorial honors those who served or died, while a monument honors what they did. Until the middle of the nineteenth-century the idea of honoring each and every lower-class common soldier was inconceivable, while since World War Two there’s been a tendency not to celebrate victory so unabashedly, so the overlap between the two types is only about a hundred years. The US Marine Corps Memorial, which despite its name is much more of a monument than a memorial, is probably the last national war monument to be raised in the US.

Source Note: Simon Garfield’s book Just My Type was the inspiration for this post, but it was Tom Vanderbilt’s article “Making the Cut” in the January/February 2005 issue of Print magazine that gave it its shape. Oddly enough (or not), there’s not much written about the use of typefaces on public monuments and memorials.


3 thoughts on “Memorial Type

  1. Pingback: Typography Research – Memorial – sarahdesign11

  2. Thank you for this article! I design a lot of fake memorials and gravestones for TV & Film and it’s good to be able to pinpoint specific typefaces for accuracy! Good work!

    • Often, the typefaces in signage, etc. in films are not in keeping with the era of the drama. This pushes me out of my suspension of disbelief every time, so I’m happy that you care to get things right.

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