How Trajan Rose From The Grave To Become The New Helvetica


When it comes to fonts, Adobe’s Trajan is one of the most seen, but not necessarily the most known. The imperial, Roman-inspired typeface is used for everything from movie posters, book jackets, signage, corporate branding, labeling, even to sell condoms and lingerie. In fact, a few years ago, type historian James Mosley called Trajan the new Helvetica. But Trajan’s success story is a strange one spanning almost 2,000 years and involving Roman landmarks, Catholic priests, and, of course, Adobe employees.

Taken from the first-century letterforms originally etched on Rome’s famous Trajan Column, the letters didn’t actually become a typeface until 1989, when they were digitally scanned and recreated by typographer Carol Twomby. But the whole story goes back decades, which is recounted on the blog of typography blog, former Adobe Director of Type Sumner Stone—the man responsible for authorizing the type.

An accomplished typographer himself—he created the ITC Stone typeface for Adobe—Stone’s history with Trajan Column-inspired typefaces actually extended back to his time as an undergraduate at Reed College.

Stone talks about how he was able to watch Edward Catich, a Catholic priest from St. Ambrose College in Davenport, Iowa, chisel Trajan letters into the scaffolding of the oldest building on campus. Before Adobe made a font out of it, it was Catich who had done more than anybody to pluck Trajan from 1st Century obscurity: in addition to making their study his life work, Catich had created a full-sized cast of the letters directly from the Trajan monument itself.

Sumner Stone and Carol Twombycourtesy Adobe

Soon, Stone became fascinated with Trajan. “Experiencing the Trajan letters engendered a kind of epiphany in many young calligraphers,” Stone recalls. “For us, it was a pinnacle of complexity and subtlety. Nobody knew who had invented them. Evidently it was some anonymous craftsman in the first century. And nobody in the contemporary calligraphy world beyond Catich, a few of his students, and a scattering of others could write them with a level of quality that approached the originals.”