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Trajan’s Column

2012 March 23

The real Trajan’s Column, as every graphic design student probably learns by his or her Junior year at latest, is a stone monument erected by (or rather, on the orders of) the Roman Emperor Trajan, now mainly of importance only to western designers and typographers as an ideal example of the Roman capitals from which many of our modern typefaces are descended. It’s also, more specifically, the model for the typeface Trajan, created by Carol Twombly.

This typeface gets a lot of use. In fact, once you know enough about lettering to recognize it (which is fairly easy, though I realize that many people will never notice a difference between Trajan and Times) you see it all the time. In fact I recall some years ago seeing an article online, somewhere, basically pleading “use something else once in a while!” I don’t think it had much effect, though. In fact lately I’ve been thinking about how often I encounter Trajan, and in response I’ve created a different kind of Trajan’s Column, composed of photos of several recent sightings just within my living room:

Cover of The Final Cut dvd

This is what started it all. I got this from the library (obviously) a few weeks ago. I absolutely loved it; wonderful BBC drama set in British Parliament, featuring Ian Richardson in what may have been the performance of his career. One thing I found odd, though, was that the title within the video was a kind of condensed gothic, whereas on the cover someone had elected to ditch that logotype for, as you see, Trajan.

And I thought, man, that article was right, people always go to the well for Trajan, on everything. Indeed, a week or so later, I had another DVD from the library which did the same thing:

Cover of 'The Town that Was'

And note that I don’t just mean using Trajan, but replacing the typography used for the title within the video with Trajan on the DVD packaging. Why? I don’t know. Presumably just because everyone else does the same thing. (Note on The Town That Was: if it’s worth a look, it’s mainly for the unintentional humor of a film trying to be moving and poignant, and ending up simply ridiculous.) Anyway, just on a brief recce around my apartment, I turned up:

Part of the History of Britain DVD collection

Cover of The Fifth Element

Dust-jacket wrap thing for 'Westminster Abbey' by Richard Jenkyns

Cover of The Timechart of Military History

Cover of 'Son of Holmes' by John Lescroart

I myself don’t use Trajan, that much, and perhaps even less often than I otherwise might simply because many of my clients in publishing prefer mixed-case lettering for the cover type. Even so, within a minute or two I turned up one example from my own work:

Front cover of Community Policy Analysis Modeling

This is a really old design, I will note, though I’ve always thought it was rather good design all the same, in a very, very subtle way. Anyway, this isn’t a zillion items of course, but considering the huge number of typefaces available to designers, and how cursory was my search, I think it’s still significant.

It’s also perhaps a little ironic, in association with this following item which, out of all this stuff, is the one that does not use Trajan:

Slipcase for three-volume set of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire

I mean, if anything was legitimately “entitled” to the use of Trajan, you would think… but no, definitely not. I think that’s Garamond (both the Roman capitals and the italics look like it), which did not exist until more than 1,000 years after the fall of the Roman Empire. (The author’s name, I’m going to make a guess, is maybe set in Futura, and at any rate in some sans serif which obviously did not exist until even later.)

Anyway, weird. I’ve got a few more thoughts related to Trajan which will show up in another post, maybe later this weekend.

4 Responses
  1. March 24, 2012

    Well, typefaces rise and fall in popularity and Trajan will fall out of favor soon enough. But there were much worse looking fonts that used to crop up everywhere. Blippo had a run in the mid-1970s, Cupertino was big in the late ’80s and there was some stereotypical-looking Greek font whose name I don’t recall offhand in the mid-’90s. At least Trajan has a bit of class to it.

  2. Matt permalink
    March 25, 2012

    For reference: Blippo. Cupertino. (I confess that I don’t really remember either of these.) And, maybe, Lithos?

    Plus, on the subject of overused fonts which weren’t very good to begin with, there was also Windsor Elongated, bleahhh.

  3. March 25, 2012

    LITHOS! That was it!

    Obviously, Blippo was pre-personal computing so I don’t know that it showed up nearly to the extent that Trajan, et. al. have. But it did show up in ads, book covers, etc. Possibly, it’s most famous usage was on the movie poster for “Deep Throat.” Cupertino, as I recall, was one of the earliest display fonts on the Mac that didn’t look like complete ass. (San Francisco? Really? Who thought that was a good idea?)

    Somewhat embarrassingly, my father used Blippo in one of his early logos, and I used Cupertino in one of mine.

  4. Matt permalink
    March 25, 2012

    One does kind of wonder whether the San Francisco font was slipped past without The Steve’s notice.

    And I suppose we’ve all made some (hopefully early) design bloopers. I could do some “design confessions” posts, in fact. Have to consider whether that’s a good idea or not. 🙂

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