The development of the Metro typeface began as a “design dare.” First released in 1930, Metro was the wildly popular result of a challenge to create a new, versatile and distinctive sans serif typeface for Linotype typesetters. Over 80 years later, Toshi Omagari welcomed the opportunity to update this seminal design for digital imaging. The new typeface, Metro Nova, builds on the foundation of the original Metro, preparing it perfectly for today’s taste and technology.
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.”
A graduate of Musashino Art University in Tokyo, Omagari also earned a master’s degree in typeface design from the University of Reading in England. Shortly after receiving his master’s, Omagari began to design typefaces for Monotype. Clearly proficient in drawing letters for the Latin alphabet, he is also skilled at designing for several other alphabets, including Greek, Cyrillic and Mongolian. “Designing type is an opportunity to maintain the visual aspects of a culture, as well as to bring it forward,” says Omagari. “Sensitivity to other languages and scripts is essential for a type designer. In the case of Metro Nova, I wanted to honor the original intent of Dwiggins.”
The May 1930 issue of The Linotype Magazine described Metro as having “finely proportioned capitals suggesting the feeling of inscriptions on old Greek and Roman coins.” The article went on to say, “While the Metro letters are true sans serifs, they retain something of the feeling of a well-designed old style lowercase – they have more life and sparkle than the average sans serif, and may be read more quickly and easily.” Omagari built on this design foundation to create Metro Nova. Dwiggins’ original Metro was released in two flavors: Metro and Metro No. 2. The difference between the two designs is several alternative letters: seven capitals (A, G, J, M, N, and W) and four lowercase (a, g, v, and w). These alternates have been retained in the Metro Nova character set. Because of the duplexing requirement, characters in the original Metro started quite wide in the lightest weight and became progressively more condensed in heavier designs. Metro Nova, however, is not encumbered by these design restrictions. The bold weights are robustly full-figured. Omagari also drew the shoulders of characters like the m and n more rounded, and created fuller bowls for letters like the a and d, giving Metro Nova a softer demeanor than its predecessor. The Metro Nova family includes seven weights, from thin to extra black, in regular proportions, and six weights of condensed designs. Each design has an italic complement for a total of 26 styles. The family is also available as a suite of OpenType Pro fonts, allowing for the automatic insertion of ligatures and fractions, in addition to the alternate characters Omagari included in each design.
“Dwiggins envisioned Metro as a text face for newspaper, advertising and book typography,” says Omagari. “I look forward to seeing Metro Nova used in books and other publications, and, of course, in Web and mobile environments.” In fact, there are few projects that Metro Nova cannot handle with style.