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One day in the late 1920s, C. H. Griffiths, who was responsible for typographic development at Mergenthaler Linotype at the time, read a magazine article bemoaning the lack of worthy sans serif typefaces available for Linotype composition. The article was written by William Addison Dwiggins, an eminent calligrapher, illustrator, writer and graphic designer of the day. Rather than ignoring Dwiggins’ rant, Griffiths sent him a letter that, in essence, offered, If you think you know so much, let’s see the sans serif you can draw.
Dwiggins rose to the challenge and it wasn’t long before typeface designer became the newest of his accomplishments. Metro quickly became a mainstay of graphic design in North America. Its widespread prominence lasted until the early 1950s, when faces from Europe began to find their way across the Atlantic. Metro also proved to be the first of 17 typeface families Dwiggins would draw for Linotype.
Fast forward 80-some years, and the Metro Nova story begins with the making of a movie. Doug Wilson, producer and director of the documentary “Linotype: The Film,” did some of his research for the project at the Printing Museum in North Andover, Mass. The museum’s director told Wilson about the original Mergenthaler Linotype typeface drawings stored in the museum. Eagerly sifting through these artifacts, Wilson happened across the original production drawings for Metro ??” and it was love at first sight.
Wilson was determined to have Metro for his film’s credits. Several e-mails, a spate of phone calls and an in-person meeting or two later, it was agreed that Toshi Omagari, a Monotype type designer, would develop a custom font for the movie.
Doug specifically wanted the original version of Metro, recalls Omagari, so I only made small modifications to the design. Then it was decided Metro would be revived for Monotype, and I felt that it would be appropriate to make farther-reaching changes.
The original Metro was designed to be compatible with the early, somewhat rudimentary Linotype 18-unit spacing system. Metro was also a duplexed family. (Duplexed typefaces are a pair of designs ??” usually roman and bold or italic — sharing common character widths.) Omagari comments, An interesting challenge on the Metro Nova project was removing the duplexing restrictions while still maintaining the character of the design. I eventually stopped drawing letters based on the earlier shapes and began to refine proportions to what I considered right. And to what I hope Dwiggins probably would have done, if he had been given the opportunity.
Omagari worked to make Metro Nova appealing to current design sensibilities without sacrificing the essence of the original. There were a number of idiosyncrasies in Dwiggins original, he recalls. Distilling these was a challenge. They were perhaps the most difficult, and the most rewarding, part of the design process. Addressing them was when Metro Nova became my own design.