The Development of the Trajan Typeface


Lloyd Reynolds & Calligraphy at Reed College

Until very recently there was no academic degree in type design. The tiny number of people who actually received training in the discipline were apprentices or, since the late nineteenth century, employees of companies that manufactured type or typesetting equipment.

I certainly had no intention of becoming a type designer when I began my freshman year at Reed College in Portland, Oregon. One of the unexpected features of my education at Reed was a daily viewing of calligraphy. All campus events were announced by posters written out in one of the several historical styles that Lloyd Reynolds taught in his calligraphy class, namely Roman capitals, Edward Johnston’s Foundational hand, rustics, uncials, italic, and his beloved secretary hand.1 The posters were large, written out on butcher paper and prominently displayed in the eating area known as the Commons.

There was a spirit of both cooperation and competition in the design and execution of these pieces of graphic art. They were often done in several colors, using designs that clearly displayed craft, often in more than one sense of the word. The posters were frequently the topic of lunch or dinner conversation, especially the letterforms themselves. These would be examined not only for correctness of detail, but even more importantly whether or not they embodied the quality that Reynolds called ‘life movement’. He told the students in his art history class that this characteristic is what imbues letters with spirit. It is what brings them to life.

Later, when I took Reynolds’ calligraphy class I learned more. He believed that making art with the quality of life movement requires “disciplined freedom” on the part of the artist. Movement must be full of energy. How did one acquire disciplined freedom? The unwelcome, but unsurprising news was that it required practice, and plenty of it.

Reed is known for producing hard-headed academic thinkers. For many years it has produced the largest percentage of graduates who became college professors of any college or university in the United States. The fact that Reynolds could not only get these highly intellectual undergraduates to listen to oriental concepts like life movement, but also somehow inspire them to become serious practitioners of writing Medieval and Renaissance letterforms with a broad-edged pen was a testimony to his charisma.


Edward Catich

Walking across campus one day, still in my freshman year, and still with no direct experience of doing calligraphy, I noticed a group of students watching a small, wiry man up on scaffolding in front of the oldest building on campus, chisel in hand, inscribing the name of the building, Eliot Hall, in the stone arch above the doorway. He was wearing a clerical collar, confidently laying out the letters on stone with a brush. It was stunning to watch him write. It was magic. This was a man who had disciplined freedom. Then, chisel in hand, he went over his painted letters, carving them into the stone.

The man was Father Edward Catich, a Catholic priest who taught at St. Ambrose College in Davenport, Iowa. Reynolds, of course, was responsible for bringing him to Reed. I had no idea at that moment that I would devote my life to making letters, and not an inkling that Father Catich would play a significant role in that life, but within a few years I would join the ranks of those fortunate students who took the calligraphy class from Reynolds. I came to learn that Catich was one of the luminaries in the fascinating world of lettermaking, a world I would soon enter.

Every student of Lloyd Reynolds during this era must have been infused with the story of how Catich had re-discovered the underlying structure of the Trajan letters.2 I was. Experiencing the Trajan letters engendered a kind of epiphany in many young calligraphers. For us, it was a pinnacle of complexity and subtlety. Nobody knew who had invented them. Evidently it was some anonymous craftsman in the first century. And nobody in the contemporary calligraphy world beyond Catich, a few of his students, and a scattering of others could write them with a level of quality that approached the originals.


Adobe, Carol Twombly & The Trajan Typeface

My career as a type designer followed a fractal-like path. In the 1970s, I worked as a lettering artist for Hallmark Cards, then studied mathematics while running my own graphic design business and teaching. My first real opportunity to design typefaces came when I joined Adobe Systems in 1984 as their Director of Typography. The job entailed planning a whole new program of typeface development, which, in retrospect, seems almost inevitably to have included the Trajan letters.

In the beginning, the process of digitizing drawings that had been done on paper to convert them into bézier curves on the computer screen was slow and rough. But around 1987 there had been a promising technical development. Adobe Illustrator had arrived at the point that it was ready for beta testing, and a new feature had been added to the basic font editing software on which Adobe Illustrator was based, namely the ability to draw bèziers using a scanned template. I hired Carol Twombly to try out this new digitizing tool. The Trajan letterforms, with their many nuances, seemed perfect subjects for the experiment.

Trajan, the typeface, was released in 1989 as part of a set of typefaces designed by Twombly along with Lithos, based on ancient Greek inscriptional forms, and Charlemagne, based on Carolingian manuscript capitals. Despite my deep love of these historical forms, I did not expect them to become part of mainstream typography. But, to my surprise, Lithos was an immediate success. Trajan was not.

However, the popularity of Trajan grew slowly but steadily, and it still seems to be on an upward trajectory. In the process of following the Trajan design through all its stages, including its seemingly inexorable growth in popularity, I became increasingly intrigued by the history of the Imperial letterforms. I began to dig more deeply into their origins. In addition to the scholarly pursuit of the early Roman letter and the history that produced it, I undertook a project to photograph examples of the Imperial Roman letter during journeys to Italy including a stay at the American Academy in Rome. Along the way I also made a few rubbings.

Trajan is now arguably the most popular typeface ever designed. It is widely used for branding, labeling, book jackets, signs of all sorts, advertising campaigns for everything from lingerie to real estate, and much more. It has become known as the movie font” because it has appeared on so many movie posters. A few years ago, type historian James Mosley, referring to Trajan’s widespread popularity, said that it had become another Helvetica.3

Tastes change. The Imperial capitals have been around for two thousand years. Although they have had remarkable longevity, the Trajan letterforms have not always been as hot as they are now. In fact, the last time they enjoyed such a high level of popularity was in the Roman Empire of the first century.4






I recently asked Carol to recount what she remembered about the process of designing

the Trajan typeface family. Here are her words:

I remember working from scanned drawings (from Catich's books) using

Adobe Illustrator, but they were a rough starting point only. Many months of refinement followed: evening out the stem and hairline weights primarily (stroke “weights” were all over the map in the original inscription and wouldn't work well as black letters on a white background without fine tuning). Having a full size copy of an original rubbing of the Trajan inscription borrowed from stonecutter Chris Stinehour on our hallway wall was extremely inspiring and helpful for reference. Then I worked on adjusting letter proportions (ex: the E F L and S were a bit too narrow in the original inscription), finding the correct serif shape and weight, designing the missing letters and extra characters, letter spacing them all, creating the bold weight from the regular, and then making lists and lists of those *!#?%* kerning pairs.

You were there throughout the Trajan process, so you’ll likely recall all the meetings with you, me, Rob (Robert Slimbach), and sometimes the Type Advisory Board, to review the design as it unfolded. We all knew I needed to do these iconic letterforms justice. I basically tried to “take the average shape” when there were two or more original A’s to work from, for example. And for missing letters, I copied pieces of existing characters to “Frankenstein” as much of the letter as possible, then (through trial and error) I drew shapes for their still-missing bits that looked like they fit in with the other capitals in the font. (So much of the design process can’t be explained in words!) But you can see how the following existing characters influenced the missing letters :  

R > K, I R Q >J, A I M >Y, V X > W, V I H > U, E S V >Z.

I followed the same general scheme for designing the figures, but, with figures being Arabic rather than Roman in origin, their underlying shapes just never “jive” very well. I took my best shot, though. And luckily you seemed more or less OK with how slowly I worked!

(C E >3 and 5, C Z >2, >1, E H >4, Z 2 >7,  S 3 & >8, O >6, 9 and 0.)

As do most designers, I also looked through countless type specimen books for possible ideas on how to approach the figures, punctuation, typographic and math symbols, accents, and on and on... No idea now which fonts may have influenced my choices.




Early in the process of designing new typefaces I decided to assemble a panel of experts

to participate as advisors and critics. Alvin Eisenman, Steven Harvard, Lance Hidy, Roger Black, Jack Stauffacher, and Max Caflisch made up the Adobe Type Advisory Board. We met twice a year, and each meeting included a guest advisor or two as well. The Advisory Board played an important role in the development of the Adobe Originals. Lance, for example, suggested that we do a bold weight of the Trajan typeface on the basis of his experience as a poster designer. The Board also strongly endorsed the development of further pre-Gutenberg types. Carol Twombly responded by designing Lithos and Charlemagne.

These three typefaces, based on historical models from before the beginning of printing with movable metal type in Europe, were among the first Adobe Originals released. Lithos became an instant hit and was widely used during the early 90s. Trajan’s popularity was slower to develop but has been much longer lived. All three of the typefaces contained only capitals, no lower case. Some of the people involved in the project wondered whether this would limit their use. Nobody, myself included, imagined that Trajan would become omnipresent in the typographic landscape. Its success speaks volumes about the enduring qualities of the Imperial Roman capital – strength, beauty, harmony, and legibility.



1 Paleographers call rustics Capitalis Rustica, they call uncials Capitalis Unciala. The secretary hand, a cursive blackletter, was called Bâtarde or Bastarda.


2 Letters Redrawn from the Trajan Inscription in Rome, Catfish Press, 1961, and The Origin of the Serif, Catfish Press, 1968.


3 Personal communication at the Rare Book School, Universty of Virginia, 2008.


4 Perhaps the beginning of the present era of popularity for the Trajan letter is the result of a plaster replica of the entire Trajan column made at Napoleon’s behest and now residing in the Victoria and Albert museum in London. It was regarded as a model for teaching the Roman capital letter in art schools until after WWII and was used for street signs in London. Many Anglo-American writers have praised it as the zenith of lettering in the Roman tradition.




Images of Lloyd Reynolds with students and Edward Catich are from the Special Collections, Eric V. Hauser Memorial Library, Reed College. Image of the Trajan Inscription taken by Sumner Stone, 1998.


Sumner Stone, August, 2014













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