The history of Canadian type design -- by Nicholas Fabian
The history of
Canadian type design

N. Fabian by Nicholas Fabian

In 1841, James Evans, a stubborn Methodist missionary, designed the first typographical images in Norway House, a settlement in northern Manitoba. Having spent the previous two years preparing his now famous Cree spelling-book, Evans felt that it was time to get a press, proper type, paper and ink to finish the project of evangelizing the Crees.

The Hudson's Bay Company was less than enthusiastic to relinquish absolute control of communication, having had a practical monopoly of transportation in the area. Evans' efforts were blocked based on 'excessive weight of the required materials'. Rather curiously, in 1834, a Catholic missionary, the Abbé Georges-Antoine Belcourt, was also denied a similar request in spite of having 'opened a school for the instruction of the little savages...'.

But in James Evans, The Hudson's Bay Company met its match. He refused to be stopped by any obstacle. This courageous pioneer, in fact, designed the type, carved the moulds with a crude knife, cast the type from lead melted down from the lining of tea boxes and made the ink from chimney-soot. As well, he constructed his own press and printed, on birch bark split into small leaves, the spelling-book for the Crees. 'Norway House, 1841' will forever remain the genesis of Canadian type design.

Norway House
'Norway House, 1841'

For more than one hundred years after, there is complete type design desolation. Legally a Confederation since 1867, culturally Canada remained a colony well into the 1950s. For legitimate business requirements, it was prudent to order the type from another country, it being technically sound, historically proven and less expensive than doing your own. Creating and supporting a new and independent cultural entity in one of the colonies, understandably, was not well received by the watchdogs of monarchy. They clearly understood that by 'not supporting' type design in Canada, it would expire of a natural death. It did.

In 1957, over one hundred and sixteen years later, it was Mr. Alan Jarvis who conceived the brilliant idea of creating a new and distinctive Canadian typeface, of international calibre, for the 1967 Centennial. Not having too many choices, Jarvis suggested that a Canadian artist should study in Holland at Joh. Enchedé en Zonen, Haarlem, under the watchful eyes of Jan van Krimpen and S. L. Hartz, and financed by the Canadian Government Overseas Awards, to become the first professionally trained Canadian Type Designer. The new typeface, properly used, would give the required cultural legitimacy, a sense of independence and a visual seal of approval to the nation of Canada. The sponsors of the application were Dr. Louis Blake Duff, Mr. Gerry Moses, Mr. Arthur Y. Smith, and the Royal Society of Canada. The artist selected was Carl Dair. In 1966 the first proof of Cartier (roman & italic) was published as 'the first Canadian type for text composition' designed by CARL DAIR to mark the Centenary of Canadian Confederation.

CARTIER. Designed by Carl Dair.

Carl Dair spent ten years designing Cartier. And as he stated '...time alone will be the infallible judge of whether the conception & the effort has validity.' He died in 1968. Some of his sketches and finished drawings are on display at the Robertson Davies Library print shop at Massey College, The University of Toronto.

Les Usherwood was the most prolific type designer in Canadian history. He was trained in Kent, England as a lettering artist, emigrated to Canada in 1957, and practised his art in Toronto at Photo Engravers & Electrotypers, Art Associates and later at Art & Design Studios. In 1968 he started Typsettra Ltd. in partnership with David Thomason. The company employed up to four typesetters (two on each shift)³ and five lettering artists, catering mostly to studios and advertising agencies. Typsettra's stated policy was to produce first class advertising typography. The company started operations with one VGC Typositor with 60 fonts and shortly expanded to four Typositors, two Berthold Diatypes, two Diatronic DC-3s, a DC-4, three ADS 3000 and two APU output units. And, in 1981 Typsettra purchased their first Micom 2001 word processor.¹¹ In 26 years Usherwood designed¹² an astonishing 211 alphabets. All the finished artwork was created by Typsettra's lettering artists.¹³ Many of his faces are available under the Letraset, ITC and Berthold labels. Usherwood's best known design is Caxton. He died in 1983 at the age of 51 from a heart attack. In his honor the Toronto Art Directors Club created the annual Les Usherwood Award to recognize creative achievements in the communication arts industry. The first one, in 1983, was awarded to Les Usherwood posthumously.

Usherwood Caxton
CAXTON. Designed by Les Usherwood.

From the fifties to the early eighties, a number of other artists were also creating fonts, mostly for display advertising. The most notable was Al Elliott, a type designer at Cooper & Beatty Ltd., he produced more than two dozen type faces, mostly elegant scripts, including Charade, Balladeer, Valentine, and Ballerina.

In the last twenty years Canadian creativity and superb craftsmanship has produced some impressive results. Jim Rimmer, type designer and punch cutter, produced for hot metal Nephi (1980), Joanna (.), a Roman named after his daughter who died, Quill (.), and Fellowship (.). His digital fonts include Albertan (1988), Roman, Italic, and Small Caps; Albertan Bold Roman and Bold Italic. He revived Kaatskill Roman and Small Caps (1988), and designed a matching Italic (Which Goudy never did.) Albertan Inline (1990). Currently, he is cutting in metal "Cartier", (the typeface designed by Carl Dair), a task which is a major undertaking for any craftsman.¹

Gérard Mariscalchi designed ITC Redonda™ (1997/1998), Baylac (1998), Comic Strip (1997/1998), Evita (1997/1998), Iona (1998), Lineale (1994/1998), Link (1995/1998), Marnie (1997/1998), and Toots (1997/1998). He is a Canadian designer born in France with twenty five years of international experience. His design works include typefaces, calligraphic art, stamps, logotypes, posters, illustrations, and other professional graphic projects.

Ross Mills designed "1530 Garamond" and the Plantagenet families. The families consists of regular, light and dark; and each weight is supplemented by a set of alternate, swash and diacritic characters.

John Hudson designed Aeneas and the Manticore families. These families also consists of regular, light and dark; and each weight is supplemented by a set of alternate, swash and diacritic characters. Not surprisingly, both Ross Mills and John Hudson are featured by Tiro TypeWorks from Vancouver, Canada.

Wil Hudson's re-cutting of the Inuit Alphabet,¹ which was originally introduced in 1855, followed closely the existing Cree and Ojibwa models. It was "cut in Toronto and probably cast in Cape Dorsett for an Inuit cultural society. Wil Hudson ran his printing and publishing business in Cape Dorsett for eight years."²

Inuit sample characters
Sample characters from a digital version of the Inuktitut (Amerindian Eskimo) alphabet created by K. Srinivasan in 1993, based on a document published by the Inuit Cultural Institute at Rankin Inlet. (Note many of the similarities to the Cree characters drawn by James Evans in 1841.)
Note: A free copy of a professional Inuit font can be downloaded from the Nunatsiaq News (An Inuit newspaper.)

Nicholas Fabian, an independent type designer, has designed 60 typefaces since the mid 1960s, covering a wide historical scope, all under the 'FABIUS FONTS' trademark. Some of his best known typefaces are Uncials, Alien, Inverso, Dürer, Massey, Classic, Millennium, and the Studio series.

In the last forty years, type design in Canada has achieved international calibre because of the superb talent and dedication of a handful of Canadian artists. We are approaching the 21st century, with all the sophisticated tools technology can offer, but the basic challenge remains the same. Create new and exciting typefaces that communicate better then the ones currently available. Are you willing to take up the challenge? You'll be up against the best type designers in recorded history, so, the odds are very much against you, but, probably James Evans is smiling in his grave.

¹ Most Eskimo groups use Roman orthography while the eastern Arctic Inuits employ unique syllabic characters. For the Inuits it was a matter of luck and it depended on which missionary group they happen to come in contact with. The very first time, in 1742 in Greenland, the spoken Eskimo language was transcribed using the Roman alphabet by Hans Egede, a Norwegian missionary. In the 19th century some of the other Eskimo language groups were transcribed by special customized orthography using the Roman alphabet with the addition of special characters and unique accents. In the 1970s the written language was simplified to employ only the basic characters of the Roman alphabet. The syllabic characters were introduced to eastern Arctic Inuits in 1855 with borrowed characters from the Cree and Ojibwa languages. In the western Arctic, Roman orthography is used and in 1976 a systematic orthography in the Roman alphabet was proposed for all the Inuit of Canada.

² Updated information from Gerald Giampa (Lanston Type Co. Ltd.) As a point of interest Lanston made the most matrices of any firm in Canada and a little know fact is Lanston Monotype had one previous Canadian owner before it was sold to ATF.

³ Corrected figures from Peter Stanbridge and Robert Stewart, both of whom had worked for Typsettra.

¹¹ Equipment information is courtesy of Albert Macchiusi, an inventive technical associate of Les Usherwood. "My role in the typefaces development with Les was in the text versions of his drawings. I became involved because of my technical skills in designing and manufacturing the equipment needed for the process, which proved to be very profitable for the company." — Albert Macchiusi

¹² "I used to have 3 (type) books and loaned them to Les, he photocopied a lot of pages so he could update the faces. Les never pretended to develop many original faces." — Robert Stewart

¹³ Some of the "artists who assisted Les in his profound work of designing type (were) Karen Cheeseman, Louise Cossi, Hon Leung and Antonio Luna, an amazing lettering artist from the Philippines." . . . "As a matter of interest, Raleigh, a much copied font was created (lettered) by Dave Anderson while he was at Typesttra." . . . " I worked on the Typositor mainly but also did some lettering. I lettered two fonts for Les just before Karen Cheeseman came. She was brilliant! actually to be quite honest, all of the lettering artists hired after me were simply superb. Les was not only a great letterer but he seemed to see great lettering possibilities in others. Under his guidance fantastic things were done at Typsettra. However, the one lettering artist whom I personally feel topped the lot was Leslie's partner, David Thomason." — Anthony Liliefeldt

I "noticed your reference to "Raleigh as being a much copied font" is not quite correct Carl Dair designed a font named Cartier for the Canadian Centenial (1967) Dave Anderson lettered Raleigh (very similar to Cartier) in 1973. The name Raleigh according to Elsie Usherwood is owned by Typsettra. There may be some disputes going on because the way it's displayed in some type catalogues and for royalty collection i.e. the Font Book (Font shop 1998) and the Type Book (Compugraphic 1985) If you check these books the Font book lists as 1977: (Dair 1967) (Anderson, 1973) Adrian Williams, and in the Compugraphic book it's under license from Ingrama , S.A. All the other information regarding artists is perfectly correct." — Albert Macchiusi


People with different cultural, educational, technical backgrounds and diverging economic interests often define their common experiences quite differently. The question of who has used what references and to what degree for which "new" and "original" typeface can not be, and will not be, resolved in the foreseeable future, if ever. — Nicholas Fabian

The End

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