Rod McDonald: Simply Grotesque

Legendary type designer spends eight years developing a new “classic”

ADC and Monotype‘s Typography & Lettering Month has been a wonderful chance to showcase the incredible talents of so many creatives within the ADC community. Many of the people we have featured are up and comers, just starting to make their mark on the industry.

And then there’s Rod McDonald, the legendary type designer whose creative career has spanned several decades.

Rod, a Monotype Design Fellow and one of Canada’s preeminent type designers, spent the past eight years researching, drawing, testing and refining his attempt to reimagine Grotesque, the Serif typeface with over a century of history behind it. Rod’s efforts culminated a few weeks ago with the star-studded (well, star-studded for the industry) unveiling of more than 50 styles of the Classic Grotesque™ font family at the Type Directors Club here in New York.

We had an opportunity to chat with Rod from his Nova Scotia studio about his fantastic career journey and the subsequent path he took to realize this new addition to Monotype’s library.


You never hear a kid say “I’m gonna be a type designer when I grow up!” How did this become your calling? Your father was a car guy, dealing in automotive parts…

Rod-McDonaldWithout question I inherited my dad’s attention to detail but, on the other hand, he never really understood what I did for a living. It was so foreign to him that I think he simply couldn’t see it.

At the age of 12 I started pinstriping cars. I honestly don’t know why I decided to do that, I just thought it was kind of cool and it never occurred to me that I couldn’t do it. I can’t imagine anyone today allowing a 12 year old to do that! By the ripe old age of 14 I had graduated to lettering and was working after school at a local sign shop. I was a sign painter until I was about 30. I loved that trade but, like so many others, it gradually disappeared. I then got a job at a photo-lettering studio doing hand lettering for agencies and studios. From there it was a pretty short step to advertising typography, that’s what we called it back then, and magazine work. Those were exciting times for me, lots to learn and do. Then about 20 years ago I realized that what I had really wanted to do all along was create text typefaces. Looking back, it seems as if I was destined to be a type designer – I just had to make a few stops on the way.

What made you want to take on your own spin on a Grotesque font? Did the versions from 100 years ago hold a certain place in your creative heart? Did you feel there was something, well, missing in the type world? Or was this such a passion project that you weren’t thinking about its place in the pantheon of typefaces?

Like many type designers I have always been attracted to the early 20th century grotesques. Even when I was a kid working in the sign shop I remember being in love with Venus™, one of the early grotesques that I drew upon in developing Classic Grotesque. Maybe we like them because they are among the earliest sans serifs and have a kind of honest earthiness about them.

But the world of sans serifs changed dramatically in 1957 with the release of Helvetica® and Univers®. After that the grotesques were kind of left behind. When I started work on Classic Grotesque, I was surprised to discover how committed I was to proving that those early grotesques could still play a significant role in contemporary typography. It was as if they had been buried in my subconscious all those years, just waiting to rise to the surface. I firmly believe that they can do anything the neo-grotesques, like Helvetica and Univers, can do, except they’re a little friendlier.

What was the biggest challenge, the greatest stumbling block when it came to developing this library?

Beyond a doubt the biggest stumbling block was Arial®. I should mention that Classic Grotesque started out as a reworking of the Monotype Grotesques. However, in 1982 Robin Nicholas had also used the Monotype Grotesques as the basis for Arial, so for a long time everything I did just looked like Arial – at least to me. But that initial stumbling block forced me to go back and look harder at all the early grotesques, which eventually took me in a totally new direction. I may be the only type designer in the world who owes a debt of gratitude to Arial!

“I may be the only type designer in the world who owes a debt of gratitude to Arial!”

How did the gang at Monotype help in making this a reality? You had mentioned having access to their archives in the United Kingdom, which to me conjures up visions of some Harry Potter-esque enclave of dust and magic.

The people at Monotype were incredibly helpful. From the beginning they opened the archives at Salfords, outside London, and gave me access to drawings, records and previously unpublished material. It’s astonishing how much is in those archives – sorry, no dust, but there is plenty of magic. Armed with material from the archives, and later from other sources, I was also able to piece together a slightly different history of the early grotesques than previously known. Surprisingly it is still a largely unexplored field in type history. I am currently working on that story and have just arranged to have it published in a year or two.

A glimpse at the Monotype archives

A glimpse at the Monotype archives

Now that it’s all finished (or is it? Can anything creative be truly finished?) how do you expect to see Classic Grotesque employed in the real world?

There is an old saying that goes something like “A typeface is never really finished, it is abandoned.” I know that some type designers talk about how they would like to see their faces used but I see it a little differently. Unless I’m developing a typeface for a specific purpose, my job is to make a good typeface that art directors and designers can use in any number of ways. Which means that I’ve seen my faces used in ways that I could never have imagined. Sometimes the results are not always what I want to see, but then I’ll see something that a really good art director has done and I can hardly believe I created a typeface that beautiful. For me typefaces are never finished, not because they are abandoned, but because until I see how a good designer uses it I really don’t know how well it can work. In that sense it truly is a collaborative process.

We’ve been jokingly asking the letterers and type designers in our community “who would win in a fight: serif or sans serif?” I’m gonna guess you’re on team Sans Serif?

In the past I have often had to use typefaces that I didn’t particularly like only to be surprised later at how well they worked. I want to be open to whatever will work best, for the client, or the product and I don’t want to enter into anything with preconceived ideas. But the kind of fight you’re talking about is rigged. If the match is held at a book publishers then the odds are heavily in favor of the Serif. But if you hold it online then the odds switch in favor of the Sans. If you really want to find out who’s going to win the fight between Serif and Sans you first better find out where the fight is going to be held.

The full Classic Grotesque font library is now available from Monotype.



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Venus is a Trademark of Bauer Types. Classic Grotesque is a trademark of Monotype Imaging Inc. and may be registered in certain jurisdictions. Helvetica is a trademark of Monotype GmbH registered in the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office and may be registered in certain other jurisdictions. Univers is a trademark of Monotype GmbH registered in the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office and may be registered in certain other jurisdictions. Arial is a trademark of The Monotype Corporation registered in the United States Patent and Trademark Office and may be registered in certain jurisdictions.