Josna Rege

323. Tympan and Times Roman

In blogs and blogging, Books, Media, reading, Stories, Words & phrases, Work on April 26, 2015 at 2:55 am

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Tympan is an ancient and evocative word. The Latin tympanum is a drum or tambourine. In music a tympan is the stretched membrane of a drum. In anatomy, it is the eardrum. In letterpress printing it refers to paper used to distribute the pressure evenly and correctly over the entire surface to be printed.

tympan paper on cylinder (Steam Whistle Press)

tympan paper on cylinder (Steam Whistle Press)

Tympan paper is like manila but is oiled for durability and some resistance to ink. It is used to cover the platen or the cylinder and provide a hard surface under the paper being printed on. During the process of makeready—making sure that the impression of the inked type on the paper is even and neither too light nor too heavy—the tympan is the topsheet and layers of padding, soft or hard, tracing-paper-thin or thicker, are positioned strategically underneath as needed to distribute the pressure correctly. It must be clamped on and stretched firmly and tightly so that it stays in place during printing.

Somewhere in the basement we still have a large roll of shiny-smooth, creamy yellow tympan paper, enough to last several lifetimes at the rate we use it now.

And now, to a different kind of paper:

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Times New Roman is a serif typeface  commissioned by the British newspaper The Times in 1931, created by Victor Lardent at the English branch of Monotype. It was commissioned after Stanley Morison had written an article criticizing The Times for being badly printed and typographically antiquated. The font was supervised by Morison and drawn by Victor Lardent, an artist from the advertising department of The Times. Morison used an older font named Plantin as the basis for his design, but made revisions for legibility and economy of space (wikipedia). “Times Roman” is the name used by Linotype, and the name they registered as a trademark for the design in the U.S. “Times New Roman” was and still is the name used by The Monotype Corporation (Bigelow).

Times New Roman has become the default serif typeface. I use it all the time, and yet it doesn’t give me pleasure. Why then do I persist in this aesthetic perversity? There are so many far more elegant serif faces that are quite as readable: Baskerville, Centaur, Garamond, Palatino, Perpetua. In all my years working in letterpress printing and graphic design I never gave Times a second thought, except in the titles of time-honoured dailies of my world, The Times of India, The Times (London), and The New York Times. But now that I am no longer a connoisseur of the printed word, but merely an academic with a word processor, I have simply allowed Times New Roman to take over. This must change.

What is wrong with Times New Roman? Here’s what Matthew Butterick says about it in Typography for Lawyers:

Fame has a dark side. When Times New Roman appears in a book, document, or advertisement, it connotes apathy. It says, “I submitted to the font of least resistance.” Times New Roman is not a font choice so much as the absence of a font choice, like the blackness of deep space is not a color. To look at Times New Roman is to gaze into the void.

Times New Roman is serviceable, but it is not beautiful. It doesn’t set the soul on fire. Here’s how Stanley Morison, its developer, put it in A Tally of Types, his typographic memoir, humorously imagining how the late William Morris might have seen it:

As a new face it should, by the grace of God and the art of man, have been broad and open, gen­er­ous and am­ple; in­stead, by the vice of Mam­mon and the mis­ery of the ma­chine, it is big­oted and nar­row, mean and puritan (qtd. in A Brief History of Times New Roman).

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  1. Wonderful stuff Josna. I don’t agree with Butterick’s description, but it’s very good. 🙂

    • To be honest, Don I don’t either—at least, not entirely. But I’m getting punchy as the month wears on, and would rather overstate than its careful opposite. Perhaps I can provoke someone into an argument!

  2. I feel the same about Times. I wonder what the type the Times was using looked like before they switched.

    • Actually, Kristin, I found an image showing both side by side and almost used it in the post. It certainly did look more readable.

  3. As a matter of fact, I chose Times New Roman as my font of choice because it is so easily
    readable. There may be more elegant and beautiful fonts out there, as only you would know, but I actually prefer it! So there! I dare anyone to call me bigoted, mean, and narrow
    just because I choose to use it!
    Your blog is great fun and you are educating us all, Jo, Thanks!

    • I use it all the time, too, Marianne. And I agree, it’s very readable. I was just getting passionate about beauty and being provocative, Thanks for commenting–always makes my day. x J

  4. I have gotten into the habit of using Times Roman too, mainly because it is the font most writing competitions and submissions prefer because of readability.

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