Book publishing was central to the revival of classical learning that characterized the Renaissance, and the types cut for those books spanned multiple languages. Scholarly works might require more than one script: notably Greek, alongside Latin, but sometimes other scripts from other writing systems, both contemporary and historical. As a versatile and expansive digital type family, Minion 3 provides the tools for similarly polyglot publishing in the modern world.

Minion is situated firmly within the tradition of old-style text typefaces, used for books since not long after the invention of printing with movable type. Minion draws on the form and style of the book types of the Renaissance, but it also draws on the robust 20th-­century revival of classic typefaces, from the early revivals in foundry type by Deberny & Peignot and American Type Founders to the later, highly successful revivals for machine setting by the Monotype and Linotype companies.

Detail of a page from Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, showing the roman type cut by Francesco Griffo for the scholar-printer Aldus Manutius in Venice in 1499. New York Public Library Digital Collections.

While books printed in the 19th century, especially in English, tended to be typeset in either high-contrast “modern” faces or revivals of Caslon’s types, by the early decades of the 20th century readers had become accustomed to reading pages set in historical revivals with names like Garamond, Granjon, Janson, and Baskerville. These revivals were almost always interpretations, regularized to fit the unit systems of typesetting machines or expanded into multi-weight families to meet the demands of modern printing and advertising.

The result was that 20th-century book designers found, in contemporary type-specimens, a wide palette of type designs to choose from, and many of the best designers studied the typography and printing of past centuries in order to understand their context and how to use them effectively. The text typefaces offered by Monotype, Linotype, Bert­hold, and other major vendors set a high standard of machine-set book typesetting. Many of those typefaces had their roots in the Renaissance.

Specimen of Bembo, a revival for hot-metal machine composition, based on Griffo’s roman types, and released by Monotype in 1929. Monotype Corporation Limited. Solothurn, Switzerland, 1953. Letterform Archive.

Although Minion is not based directly on any of the Renaissance Italian or French types, its heart is in the same place. Since its introduction in 1990 it has become, for many designers with experience in fine book typography and an awareness of modern typesetting systems, the go-to typeface for a certain kind of book page. (Book designer Will Powers, in his New Types for New Books, said of Minion’s inclusion of true small caps: “How good it was to see that Minion, early on, included these sorts.” They were an unusual addition to a digital typeface at that time. Powers also praised Minion for its “color,” the texture of a block of type upon the page. It’s telling that he used Minion as the text typeface for New Types.)

Minion used as a text face by Will Powers in his practical study of contemporary book typography, New Types for New Books (2003). Will Powers/Minnesota Historical Society Press/University of Notre Dame Press. Minneapolis, MN, 2003. Letterform Archive.

Unlike an adaptation or revival, Minion was designed from the ground up for digital typesetting. Its letter forms have a refined elegance reminiscent of calligraphy and early metal type, but the engineering behind them renders them well at the various resolutions of today’s publishing. Although Minion was designed originally with print in mind, it works well onscreen as well. (The typeface you are reading right now is Minion 3.) The letter forms are a little more condensed than some of the Italian Renaissance types (though no more condensed than many of the classic Dutch text typefaces of the 17th century) and its x-height is taller, but not so much that it looks ungainly or inauthentic. Minion was designed to be a contemporary digital typeface with a classic feel – a goal that’s easy to state but difficult to achieve – and for the most part it succeeds.

Minion’s italic is noteworthy for achieving what its Renaissance predecessors did: being a highly readable running hand, or rather a typographic embodiment of that running hand. This is achieved by basing the italic on the chancery hand of the Italian scribes of the 15th and early 16th centuries, which was sometimes ornate but was always intended for reading. The flow and rhythm of an italic hand moves the eye along the line, and the shapes of Minion’s italic letters are easy to recognize and easy to read. Unlike the more modern, rounded italic complements to typefaces like Times New Roman, which serve well to accent a word or a title in a passage of roman type but don’t invite reading on their own, Minion italic can be read easily by itself. It could be used for long text. It isn’t used in that way very often, since contemporary readers, unlike the readers of Aldus Manutius’s handy books, are predisposed to avoid passages of italic type. But Minion italic lends itself easily to short poems, epigraphs, sidebars, pull quotes, and many kinds of shorter text, as well as the more common uses such as for setting off titles, or for emphasis and foreign words in the midst of a roman text.

Creating Minion

Minion grew out of the confluence of Robert Slimbach’s practice of calligraphy with a broad-edged pen and his researches into the history of Renaissance type design and production while he was creating Adobe Garamond. He had been studying not only Garamond’s historical types but Jenson’s, and the Aldine types cut by Griffo. The Aldine types in particular seemed to him directly related to letters written with the broad-edged pen. They represent a refinement of the earlier Venetian models, yet still retain the immediacy and principled forms of the original manuscript hands.

Aldine roman: enlarged detail of a page from Pietro Bembo’s De Aetna. Bembo, Pietro. Petri Bembi de Aetna ad Angelum Chabrielem Liber. Venice: Aldus Manutius, February 1496. Courtesy of The Grolier Club and T. Kimball Brooker. Photography by Robert Lorenzson.

This kinship may be most obvious in the italics, which were based more or less directly on the common writing style of the Italian scholars of the late 15th century, but it’s true as well of the roman types, with their roots in more formal Humanist writing styles. Slimbach found all of these types to be a revelation: “beautiful and practical in perfect balance,” he says. His own calligraphic practice made him acutely aware of the handwritten ante­cedents of the early Renaissance types, and he began his studies for what would become Minion by writing out the letters before ever converting them into digital outlines.

In its construction, Minion roman as originally conceived was “sympathetic to the digital limitations of the time,” as Slimbach puts it. It has flat serifs, and its stems are straight, without any flare; the curves, he says, “handle most of the face’s calligraphic feel.” This made sense given the lower resolution of both screens and much printed output in 1990; the straight stems also made the face look “contemporary” despite its historical inspiration. It’s a fine balance of the digital and the hand-made, well suited to long texts in the modern world.

Minion multiple master

Minion, a multiple master Typeface, Adobe Systems Inc. Mountain View, CA, October 1993. Letterform Archive.

When Adobe introduced multiple master font technology in 1992, Slimbach created a new version of Minion, one that could exploit the technological possibilities of multiple master fonts. Along with the sans-serif Myriad, Minion was one of the first multiple master fonts, and the first one to offer an optical size axis.

“Multiple master” meant that each typeface had two or more “master” designs; the font software allowed the creation of any intermediate form between two extremes. Each pair of masters anchored the ends of an “axis,” and the gradations in between were effectively infinite. (In practice, the font designer could create intermediate masters as well, though this potential didn’t get used until much later.) The software, under the guidance of the type designer and Adobe’s engineers, determined how this range would be achieved: how to balance the widening of thick and thin strokes within a letter as it got wider or narrower, or where and how to add weight to make a letter bolder while still looking properly designed.

Minion multiple master had three design axes: weight, width, and optical size. Minion’s weight axis ranged from light to heavy, and its width axis ranged from condensed to slightly expanded. (There could have been a much wider version, but Slimbach didn’t feel that the nature of Minion leant itself to an overly wide design.)

The truly innovative aspect of Minion multiple master was the optical size axis. This harked back to the origins of type in hand-cut punches and types cast in metal molds. In those days, there was no way to make the printed image of a letter bigger or smaller; it was always exactly the size at which the type had been cut and cast in hard metal. Punchcutters would cut multiple sizes of type, but the design of each letter would vary slightly from size to size; it could hardly fail to, since they were all cut individually and at size. Naturally, the fine details of a letter would vary from one size to the next, even if the punchcutter was attempting to make a similar ­letter each time. The advantage of this for the reader was that different sizes of type were carefully adapted so that they looked and read well at the size in which they would be printed.

This subtlety was partly compromised with the invention of the pantograph in the late 19th century, when the drawings for typefaces could be mechanically enlarged to make different sizes, and it had been almost entirely lost when metal typefaces were converted to photomechanical fonts in the 1960s; despite some attempts to keep multiple designs for different sizes, phototype quickly turned into a one-size-fits-all business, with a single design blown up or shrunk down photographically as it was being typeset.

In Minion multiple master, Slimbach brought back optically appropriate designs within a single typeface. He drew a 72-point master for very large display, and a 6-point master for very small text, and let the multiple master software interpolate all the sizes in between. The choices he made about what changes to implement along the size axis, and how, were the most finicky and complex aspects of the design; but once they were done, the user of the font was presented with a smooth scale of optically appropriate designs to choose from.

OpenType: Minion Pro

But times change and so does technology; the OpenType font format replaced PostScript and TrueType as the most versatile and popular form for digital type, and multiple master technology was superseded. Among the advantages of OpenType were its large character set (instead of 256 glyphs, a single font could hold more than 65,000) and its cross-platform compatibility. In 2000, Adobe released Minion Pro, in which the advanced typographic features such as small caps and old-style figures that had previously had to be provided in separate fonts were now incorporated within each OpenType font; at the same time, Minion Pro expanded the font’s language coverage to include extended Latin support, including Vietnamese, as well as Cyrillic and Greek.

Adobe had already released Minion Cyrillic as a separate set of PostScript Type 1 fonts in 1992. Minion Cyrillic was the first non-Latin typeface in the Adobe Originals type library; it supported Russian, Belarussian, Ukrainian, Serbian, Bulgarian, and Macedonian. In order to create it, Slimbach had to do extensive research into the history of Cyrillic type, which had no counterpart to the humanist letter forms of the Renaissance. The Russian alphabet had gone almost directly from medieval forms to “modern” forms in the early 18th century, when the autocratic czar Peter the Great initiated a compulsory reform to bring Russian in line with the contemporary type styles of Western Europe. Since there was no equivalent to the Western old-style types, Slimbach was essentially “re-imagining history” as he conducted a series of pen exercises to see how a humanist Cyrillic old style might work. (He was not the only type designer to undertake such a task, though he was one of the first: Vladimir Yefimov’s Kis Cyrillic, released by ParaType in 2001, is an imagining of what a Cyrillic typeface could have looked like if Peter had chosen the very best type designers in 17th-century Amsterdam to cut the new types, rather than the mediocre punchcutters who ended up doing the job.)

When he incorporated his original Minion Cyrillic into Minion Pro, Slimbach made a few revisions, but it was largely the same typeface in a new format.

Although Minion no longer had a multiple master font’s infinitely adjustable optical size axis, Slimbach gave Minion Pro four variations, called Opticals, for use at different sizes. These were based on the “primary fonts” (pre-defined instances) from the size axis of Minion multiple master, although of course he made adjustments and subtle changes. In Minion Pro, Slimbach says, he beefed up the thins and the weight slightly, and he lengthened the ascenders and descenders a little. These changes were very subtle, but they contributed to making Minion Pro an even more robust text typeface.

Minion Pro came with three weights (a fourth, Medium, was added later as an alternate, slightly heavier option for text) and in two widths (regular and condensed).

Minion 3 and the Future

The whole development of the Minion type family is a progression toward the future of digital type. The earliest release of Minion was a conventional PostScript Type 1 font family, which extended it into the rich world of typographic refinements but did so without a technological breakthrough. When Minion appeared as a multiple master typeface, it was at the forefront of a movement to give digital flexibility far beyond that available in any previous form of type.

Multiple master technology was not a commercial success, and it was succeeded by the universally adopted OpenType font format. Minion Pro took the OpenType technology and ran with it: automating advanced typographic refinements through OpenType layout features.

While Minion 3 is a family of OpenType fonts, the technological tools that Robert Slimbach used to create this latest iteration, especially in the optical sizes, look forward to the development of variable fonts and the possibilities for automating typographic quality at a high level. If it is implemented and supported completely, this technology can bring Minion’s typographic excellence to adaptive, responsive publishing across the full range of modern media.

Next, read about how to use Minion. Or go and get it.