A Brief His­to­ry of
Times New Roman

Times New Ro­man gets its name from the Times of Lon­don, the British news­pa­per. In 1929, the Times hired ty­pog­ra­ph­er Stan­ley Mori­son of Mono­type, a British font foundry, to cre­ate a new text font. Mori­son led the project and su­per­vised Vic­tor Lar­dent, an ad­ver­tis­ing artist for the Times, who drew the letterforms.

Af­ter Mono­type com­plet­ed Times New Ro­man, it had to li­cense the de­sign to then-ri­val Lino­type, be­cause the Times used Lino­type’s type­set­ting ma­chines. (Think of Mono­type and Lino­type as the De­pres­sion-era Mi­crosoft and Ap­ple.) Since then, Mono­type has sold the font as “Times New Ro­man” and Lino­type has mar­ket­ed its ver­sion as “Times Roman.”

Mean­while, type­set­ting tech­nol­o­gy has evolved, but due to its en­dur­ing pop­u­lar­i­ty, Times New Ro­man has al­ways been one of the first fonts avail­able in each new for­mat. This, in turn, has only in­creased its reach. In 1984, Ap­ple li­censed Times Ro­man for the Mac­in­tosh; in 1992, Mi­crosoft li­censed Times New Ro­man for Win­dows. This put the font into the hands of mil­lions of new users. The num­ber of doc­u­ments set in Times New Ro­man exploded.

As a work of de­sign, it’s hard to com­plain about Times New Ro­man. It was cre­at­ed for a news­pa­per, so it’s a bit nar­row­er than most text fonts—es­pe­cial­ly the bold style. (News­pa­pers pre­fer nar­row fonts be­cause they fit more text per line.) The ital­ic is mediocre. But those aren’t fa­tal flaws. Times New Ro­man is a work­horse font that’s been suc­cess­ful for a reason.

Yet it’s an open ques­tion whether its longevi­ty is at­trib­ut­able to its qual­i­ty or mere­ly to its ubiq­ui­ty. Hel­veti­ca still in­spires enough af­fec­tion to have been the sub­ject of a 2007 doc­u­men­tary fea­ture. Times New Ro­man, mean­while, has not at­tract­ed sim­i­lar acts of homage.

Why not? Fame has a dark side. When Times New Ro­man ap­pears in a book, doc­u­ment, or ad­ver­tise­ment, it con­notes ap­a­thy. It says, “I sub­mit­ted to the font of least re­sis­tance.” Times New Ro­man is not a font choice so much as the ab­sence of a font choice, like the black­ness of deep space is not a col­or. To look at Times New Ro­man is to gaze into the void.

If you have a choice about us­ing Times New Ro­man, please stop. Use some­thing else. See font rec­om­men­da­tions for oth­er options.

Did you make your busi­ness cards and let­ter­head at your lo­cal copy shop? No, you didn’t, be­cause you didn’t want them to look shod­dy and cheap. If you cared enough to avoid the copy shop, then you care enough to avoid Times New Ro­man. Times New Ro­man con­notes ap­a­thy. You are not apathetic.

The ori­gin of the Times New Ro­man de­sign has al­ways been a bit mys­te­ri­ous. Stan­ley Mori­son was cer­tain­ly fa­mil­iar with 16th-cen­tu­ry French ty­pog­ra­ph­er Robert Granjon, whose work has been said to be a start­ing point for Times New Roman.

But its more di­rect an­ces­tor is prob­a­bly Plan­tin, an­oth­er Mono­type font, de­signed in 1914 by Frank Pier­pont. Plan­tin was also based on Granjon’s work. Seen side by side, the re­sem­blance is un­mis­tak­able: Times New Ro­man is a taller, brighter ver­sion of Plantin.

Or is it? Ty­pog­ra­ph­er Mike Park­er dis­cov­ered that in the ear­ly 1900s—be­fore Times New Ro­man or Plan­tin ex­ist­ed—Boston yacht builder William Star­ling Burgess drew sam­ples of a new font and sent them to Mono­type’s U.S. af­fil­i­ate. Burgess lost in­ter­est in the project, but his draw­ings were nev­er re­turned. Park­er the­o­rizes that years lat­er, Burgess’s draw­ings were passed along to Mori­son, who used them as the ba­sis of Times New Roman.

Park­er’s the­o­ry is based in part on his ex­am­i­na­tion of Burgess’s draw­ings, which are archived at the Smith­son­ian. Park­er cre­at­ed a new font fam­i­ly from these draw­ings—and the re­sult is un­can­ni­ly sim­i­lar to Times New Ro­man. In hon­or of Burgess, Park­er named the font Starling.

Park­er’s the­o­ry is con­tro­ver­sial among some font his­to­ri­ans be­cause it im­plies that Mori­son ap­pro­pri­at­ed some­one else’s work with­out cred­it. But these crit­i­cisms are a lit­tle sil­ly. Just about every font de­sign is the prod­uct of new ideas mixed with old ideas—some ac­knowl­edged, some not. As with any cre­ative en­deav­or, the line be­tween ac­cept­able in­flu­ence and un­eth­i­cal ap­pro­pri­a­tion is of­ten subjective.

More­over, as time pass­es and mem­o­ries fade, it’s in­creas­ing­ly un­like­ly that the parent­age of Times New Ro­man will ever be con­clu­sive­ly determined.

These days, writ­ers and oth­er font users can choose from nu­mer­ous Times New Ro­man al­ter­na­tives that share its es­sen­tial fla­vor but avoid its short­com­ings (in­clud­ing one I de­signed, called Eq­ui­ty). If you’re a diehard fan of Times New Ro­man, con­sid­er them.

by the way
  • Stan­ley Mori­son had a sense of hu­mor about the crit­i­cisms lobbed at Times New Ro­man. In his ty­po­graph­ic mem­oir, A Tal­ly of Types, Mori­son imag­ined what William Mor­ris (men­tioned in page lay­out) might have said about it: “As a new face it should, by the grace of God and the art of man, have been broad and open, gen­er­ous and am­ple; in­stead, by the vice of Mam­mon and the mis­ery of the ma­chine, it is big­ot­ed and nar­row, mean and puritan.”