Lithos™ is a sans-serif glyphic upper case only typeface based on Greek inscription style, designed by Carol Twombly and released by Adobe Systems in 1990. Lithos is available in five weights; extra light, light, regular bold and black.
Lithos™ was inspired by Greek inscription writers from past millennia. It encompasses every aspect of the overall design of the Greek stonemasons of the past. Back in the days of ancient Greece, paper (or “papyrus” as it was known then) was expensive and not very long-lived as unless it was of premium quality it was difficult to read and deteriorated fairly quickly; also there was little in the way of permanent paint that could withstand weathering for very long, so painted signs of the day were not very durable.
This meant that the only way to get a lasting message (especially in a public place) was to inscribe the message in stone. This may sound laborious as a means of conveying a message and had to be carefully carried out because once carved in stone, a mistake was not easy to rectify. The other implication of inscribing is that it relies on light to shade one side of a character offering a depiction of the character based on relief. This meant that as the sun passed over the sky, the appearance of inscription changes to the passing reader. To achieve readability throughout the day, inscriptions were carved in such a style that only perpendicular light made them hard to read – this is an enduring feature of most stone inscription, relying on light and shadow to create form.
To add to the legibility of inscribed text, there are typically not many complex curves or intricate details; and the shapes tend to be geometric, presumably as they were easier to outline in the days before mechanical scribing. In addition, inscribed text is usually upper case only as is the case with Twombly’s Lithos and in keeping with the simplistic nature of inscribed text, there are no italics. A typical Greek inscription will have very squared letters, a characteristic of the Lithos typeface and so formed because it makes the text easier to read. These geometric forms were atypical of the inscriptions on nearly every Greek public building.
Lithos was never intended to be a Greek font as such; though that is where the inspiration came from for its design. The type designer, Twombly was interested in creating a typeface that was more representative than replicative of the inscribed style. The result is a quite modern looking typeface that conveys a sense of ethnicity. Even though the glyphs included have many Greek-specific characters such as “epsilon”, “pi” and “omega”, the Greek connotation is not the limit of applications to which this typeface is suited. Lithos has found its way into other usage that requires an African or tribal ethnicity and feel. This was surely not intentional at the time of design but it has turned out to be a popular choice for those looking to represent such areas and generate an ethnic appeal. This is largely because most of the ethnic peoples that fonts like this are commonly used to represent do not actually write at all so they have no actual written typographic or scripted style to reflect upon. This is not a new phenomena either; the appearance of the uppercase only Lithos has been historically associated with this tribal feel for decades with early black and white pictures in the 20th century using a Lithos-like typefaces in both the screen credits and on the sets, particularly when a tribal scene or theme was included or was the subject of a movie. The same style of typeface is used for that same ethnic feel in many post-war South Pacific movies, popular in the 1950’s.
In 2009 the US mint introduced a dollar coin that used Lithos on the reverse side. Again, the use of this typeface to represent ethnicity is apparent as the accompanying picture on that coin is of a Native American planting corn. The Oxford University Press use Lithos as a title typeface in their popular “Very Short Introductions.” Lithos was the main font for MTV from the late 1980s to the early 1990’s.