A little research paper on a classic favorite of mine.

Named after the Didot family, famous as printers and type producers, the typeface is based on a collection of related types developed from 1784–1811 by Firmin Didot. Firmin cut the letters and cast them as type in Paris, and his older brother Pierre used them in printing. Firmin was also the inventor of stereotypography, an innovation in the printing process that completely changed the book industry, allowing books to be printed less expensively. This opened book ownership and casual literacy up to the common person. The family owned and directed a foundry, a paper manufactory, and a printing shop. Firmin ran the family’s foundry after his father’s retirement in 1789. By 1811 he had been named printer to the Institut Français, and in 1814, Napoléon appointed him as the Director of the Imperial Foundry, a position he would hold until his death.

The Didot typeface is characterized by increased stroke contrast, condensed armature, hairline strokes, vertical stress, and flat, unbracketed serifs. It is a Neoclassical serif typeface. Firmin, along with Giambattista Bodoni, is credited with designing and establishing the “Modern,” “Neoclassical,” or “Didone” classification of typefaces. Modern typefaces, including Didot, are generally unsuitable for body copy due to their high contrast level (which makes them difficult to read), and are preferred for display or semi-display purposes. When used in small sizes or for large bodies of text, a “dazzling” effect may occur, where the thick lines overwhelm the hairline strokes, rendering them all but invisible. High quality paper and printing equipment are necessary in order to effectively print Modern typefaces, especially at smaller sizes, as the hairlines may break up or fill in if printing improperly.

Voltaire was one of Didot’s most prestigious clients. This version was set in 1819.

The Didot family’s long, prestigious history in the print industry and involvement in every step of the process allowed them to create works of unique quality. Novel procedures such as the use of woven paper and an improved printing press allowed for fine details in type to be reproduced relatively easily. This new precision allowed for the development of Firmin’s classic typeface. Development began on the face in 1783, and was first published in 1784. In the years following the face’s first usages (such as a Latin Bible in 1785 and the Discourse of Bossuet in 1786), Firmin continued to increase the contrast, and became the first person in the history of typography to record a font family with half-point increments. Later, after development of the face had ended, Pierre used it in his masterpiece, an 1819 edition of Voltaire’s La Henriade, shown at right. The Didot typeface would be considered the standard in French printing for over a century.

Neoclassical ideals were at the core of most of the Didot family’s work; minimal decoration, wide margins, and linear borders characterize their books. Rejecting the excess and opulence of the preceding Rococo style, Neoclassicism drew from Ancient Greek and Roman tradition, aiming for a certain simplicity and austerity of style, with mathematically idealized forms. The Neoclassical movement coincided with the Age of Enlightenment, a philosophical revolution of the 18th century that rigorously questioned established institutions, elevating reason, empiricism, reductionism, and scientific rigor as the primary informants of authority. In 1789, only five years after Didot began developing his eponymous typeface, the French Revolution broke out. The resulting displacement of the aristocracy and religious elite in France, and the general political unrest that accompanied it, made Enlightenment ideas of reason and control all the more relevant. The aesthetic of the Didot typeface is distinctly Neoclassical, with minimal embellishment, strong contrast, and mathematical precision. It is evocative of the vertical emphasis and open space characteristic of Ancient Greek architecture, much admired by Neoclassicists.

Firmin was also influenced by Baskerville’s transitional style, and in turn influenced Giambattista Bodoni. Bodoni’s eponymous font was heavily inspired by Didot, and became more popular than the original, possibly for practical reasons — Didot’s extreme hairline strokes often cracked or broke during printing. Bodoni’s typeface has a lower x-height, less stroke contrast, thicker serifs, and smaller counters. It lacks much of the open, elegant feel of Didot’s type.

There can be no definitive, single “original” Didot typeface. Technological limitations prevented a consistency of design across the different font sizes (metal type of different sizes could not be based on the same pattern until after the invention of the pantographic punchcutter in the late nineteenth century), and Didot’s works show significant variation in style, weight, and width across the different sizes. Furthermore, Firmin spent over 27 years developing and experimenting with variations on the design, and it does not appear that any of his original hand-drawn construction plans or designs are extant. As such, in order for the Didot typeface to be used in modern computer-based printing and design, an effort had to be made for historical revival. Many, many derivatives, interpretations, and copies have been made over the centuries, by such varied individuals and groups as CBS, the Linotype Foundry (adaptation drawn by Adrian Frutiger), and H&FJ (drawn by Jonathan Hoefler). Apple Computers Inc. and Adobe Systems Inc. both have their own version of Didot.

Works Cited

Alyssa. “Ask Me Anything about Didot!” Design, in Progress. Blogger, 3 Oct. 2010. Web. 29 Oct. 2015. <http://alyssabastien.blogspot.com/2010/10/ask-me-anything-about-didot_03.html>.

Macmillian, Neil. An A-Z of Type Designers. N.p.: Laurence King, 2006.Google Books. Google Inc. Web. 29 Oct. 2015. <https://books.google.com/books?id=8lpJXXQPEqUC&pg=PA73&sig=redCkcyj90rg3Dyu4OImhfxFg08&hl=en#v=onepage&q&f=false>.

“Linotype Didot®.” MyFonts. MyFonts Inc., n.d. Web. 29 Oct. 2015. <https://www.myfonts.com/fonts/linotype/didot/>.

“Didot Family | French Family.” Encyclopedia Britannica Online. Encyclopedia Britannica, n.d. Web. 29 Oct. 2015. <http://www.britannica.com/topic/Didot-family>.

O’Mahony, Niamh. “Firmin Didot.” Identifont. Identifont, n.d. Web. 29 Oct. 2015. <http://www.identifont.com/show?2T3>.

“Linotype Didot® Font Family: Typeface Story.” Fonts.com. Monotype Imaging Inc., n.d. Web. 29 Oct. 2015. <http://www.fonts.com/font/linotype/linotype-didot>.

Boardley, John. “A Brief History of Type Part Four: Modern (Didone).” I Love Typography RSS. Fonts by Hoefler & Co., 29 May 2008. Web. 29 Oct. 2015. <http://ilovetypography.com/2008/05/30/a-brief-history-of-type-part-4/>.

Smith, Jacob. “Didot Research.” SMITH. Wordpress, 28 Oct. 2014. Web. 29 Oct. 2015. <https://jacobsmithdesign.wordpress.com/2014/10/28/didot-research/>.

UTD, Redacción. “Grandes Maestros De La Tipografía: Firmin Didot.”UnosTiposDuros. Wordpress, 22 Apr. 2001. Web. 29 Oct. 2015. <http://www.unostiposduros.com/grandes-maestros-de-la-tipografia-firmin-didot/>.

“Didot Fonts: History.” Fonts by Hoefler & Co. Hoefler & Co., n.d. Web. 29 Oct. 2015.


Boardley, John. Example of type by Firmin Didot (1819). Digital image. I Love Typography. Fonts by Hoefler & Co., 08 Oct. 2014. Web. 29 Oct. 2015. <http://ilovetypography.com/2014/10/08/questa-fonts-project/>.

Student, artist, intellectual. (That’s what I’d like to think, anyhow.) I’m using this as a repository of sorts for my writing, so I can easily share it.

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