Times New Roman alternativesYou can do better

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? In 1994, ty­pog­ra­pher Mike Parker claimed 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 the­o­rized that years later, Burgess’s draw­ings were passed along to Mori­son, who used them as the ba­sis of Times New Roman.

Parker’s the­ory, how­ever, has long been re­jected by other ty­pog­ra­phy his­to­ri­ans due to lack of ev­i­dence. Fair enough. But Parker’s project was an­i­mated by a broader truth: that every font de­sign is the prod­uct of new ideas mixed with old ideas—some ac­knowl­edged, some not, some yet to be discovered.

These days, writ­ers and other font users can choose from nu­mer­ous al­ter­na­tives that share the es­sen­tial fla­vor of Times New Ro­man but avoid its short­com­ings, in­clud­ing Plan­tin, Star­ling, and Eq­uity (de­signed by me). 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.”

undock move Heliotrope Equity Valkyrie Century Supra Concourse Triplicate buy font close