Michael Bierut | Essays

The Bodoni Conspiracy


If the cover of the book version of the 9/11 Commission Report looks familiar to you, there a good reason. The black (okay, dark blue) and red and white color scheme, the centered all-type, all-caps layout, and most of all, the use of Bodoni Book: all of these were used six years ago for the original cover of the book version of The Starr Report.

Two historic documents, each using the same 200-year-old Italian typeface on the cover. Coincidence? I don't think so.

Actually, it probably is a coincidence. But it is interesting to think about.

Giambattista Bodoni, born in 1740 in Saluzzo, Italy, was a Vatican typesetter before being invited by the Duke of Parma in 1766 to become his court printer. Five years later he established his own foundry, and it was there that he created hundreds of fonts, including the family of typefaces that bears his name. Bodoni's monumental Manuale Tipografico, published in 1818 by his widow five years after his death, has been called the greatest type specimen book ever printed.

Does Giambattista Bodoni's pedigree -- typesetter to Dukes and Popes -- somehow invest his eponymous font with some vague sense of institutional authority? I doubt it. Instead, it's this elegant typeface's intrinsic characteristics that make it the perfect vehicle to communicate contemporary gravitas. Serious in a way that a sans serif can never be, yet neither as comfortable as Garamond nor as pompous as Trajan, Bodoni is the typeface of choice of Giorgio Armani and Landor Associates, not to mention defense contractors Lockheed Martin and the designers of the Ground Zero viewing wall.

And when it comes to layout, nothing signals momentous import like using all type. Think of George Lois's famous Vietnam-era Esquire cover with a black background and stark white typography: "Oh my God -- we hit a little girl." ("This sentence leaped out at me from [reporter John] Sack's description of a search-and-destroy mission," says Lois. "The words are a GI's horrified reaction as he comes on the body of a dead Vietnamese child.") And the typeface? Of course: Bodoni.

Almost 25 years ago, I moved to New York and started by first real job, working for the brilliant Italian designers Massimo and Lella Vignelli. Massimo has always loved using Bodoni, and I think one of the reasons I was hired was because, like Giambattista, I hailed from Parma. Except my hometown was Parma, Ohio, a downmarket Cleveland suburb without a decent Italian restaurant.

Today, Parma, Ohio, is perhaps most famous for being the heart of the congressional district represented by our country's most outspoken antiwar politician, Dennis Kucinich. Coincidence?

Posted in: Media, Politics, Typography

Comments [15]

Jonathan Hoefler, reluctant to embarass me publicly, points out that the font on the 9/11 report is Baskerville, perhaps implicating "all of classicism" in the conspiracy.

I still maintain the big numbers are Bodoni. And any good conspiracy theorist knows how to edit out the non-conforming evidence: it's obviously been placed there just to distract us.

More importantly, Hoefler directs our attention to the resemblance between the Starr report and the cover of the New Order album "Substance." This introduces speculation about a possible Monica Lewinsky-Peter Saville connection that I find, in truth, too unnerving to contemplate at this time.
Michael Bierut

Furthermore, both Substance and The Starr Report include Temptation, Confusion, Shame of the Nation, and Bizarre Love Triangle, making the Bodoni connection a cinch. Yet Amazon offers a link to Power, Corruption and Lies for only one of these items.
Jonathan Hoefler

Maybe a more settling connection for the Bodoni type conspiracy is the excellent headline typesetting of McSweeney's #13 by Chris Ware, which has been mentioned here several times. He doesn't follow the same tracked out all-uppercase style, but it is truly a gorgeous example.
Jordan Winick

Interesting theory Michael and Jonathan. Being a big New Order/Joy Division/Saville fan myself, the idea of a connection between Lewinsky and Saville is kind of scary. Maybe Saville was researching Jersey chic? Or maybe it was just that Substance was on the mood board for the design of the Starr report?
Manuel Typographique

Our government is the New Order.

Let's look on the bright side. The use of Bodoni in all of its hard authoritarian splendor is a step up, from say, Spaceship Gothic (see an earlier DO discussion) which speaks less of a organized conspiracy and more of a "rogue element" in the government printing offices. Facism or anarchism, take your pick!
Lorraine Wild

Give me anarchy. The space program is more fun when its design decisions (and, hell, the rest of its operations) are deeply wacky.
Saint Kris

...and what is that typeface that welcomes us to Pentagram's web presence?
frank derose

...not Bodoni, but certainly a close relative. Like Alan Fletcher and Mr. Bush.
frank derose

But Bodoni can be less than serious if you use the proper non-serious colors like pink or alternate the color of each letter. And there is nothing more silly than Poster Bodoni - it gives you real silly circus vibe.
Michael Pinto

to explore the Kucinich connection...

In the autumn of 1946, an invisible entertainer named Robert Smith came to NBC radio with a character named Elmer, who jovially ended each show with a heaving "HOOWDY DOOODY." This hee-haw fellow resonated with youngsters, and NBC(defensecontractors) asked Smith to bring his gig to live television in the fall of 1947. A toothy, and freckled puppet was forged, and aptly coined Howdy Doody.

Strawberry blonde, but now brown haired; Dennis Kucinich was born on October 8, 1946. Through color televisions (defensecontractors), the saavy and informed citizens of Cleveland, Ohio saw in Dennis, the glass eyes of the outspoken and liberal puppet Howdy Doody. "He" was elected mayor of Cleveland by popular vote in 1977. Coincidence?

It gets worse...

Today, in an attempt to thwart the poll-creeping Kucinich, the Bush/Cheney campaign has introduced the farm ranch team line of knicknacks and apparel; perhaps intended to harness the same olde west/golly-gee energy from the Kucinich sweep of '77.

Actually, one might wonder how the polls would shift, if Kucinich embraced his hee-haw charm, and paraded with something other than Helvetica on his campaign. No less than a sweep?

Shucks, the cover of the Warren commission feels more like an authorless Wanted Bill than an authoritative exposé.
Joe Marianek

In the spirit of DO's earlier call for attribution of common, seemingly authorless objects, let's credit the designer of the 9/11 cover: Archie Ferguson.

Kurt, thanks for the Archie Ferguson attribution. (My copy of the book does not have a design credit, and I looked.) It is a nice cover, and "designed" in a way that the 9/11 cover is not. I espcially like the contrast between the elegant typography and the "xeroxed" border.

The Pentagram logo is Modern No. 20, by the way. Close but no smoking gun.
Michael Bierut

why does it matter if its the same font, layout design??

Numbers are amusing.

For example the four armed black swastika symbol is made up of 17 black squares sets in a set of 5 x 5 squares, with 8 left white.

The cobra, the Ancient Egyptian serpent, has a 17 day average incubation period.

The average male thigh bone is 17 inches long.

So the Crossbones represent the serpent, as does the swastika (SS).

OK, so to 9/11.

The word 'Al Qaeda' is said to mean the 'Base'

The base of Al Qaeda is Afghanistan, the area of Afghanistan is 253,000 square miles.

So Al Qaeda has a reference number 253.

And September 11th is day 253.

And 9/11 that is 9 divided by 11 x 253 is 207 and the average gestation period for a bear is 207 days. And 230 less the tithe is 207.

And 23 is the reference for power, and 23 x 7 x 2 is 322, the red dragon. So the Red Dragon at 322 + the Serpent x Serpent at 289 is 611 the reference for the Skull and Crossbones.

Now to the Ring at 23

The first part, 'The Fellowship of the Ring, told how Gandalf the Grey discovered that the ring possessed by Frodo the Hobbit, was in fact the One Ring, ruler of all Rings of Power. The story recounted the flight of Frodo and his companions from the quiet Shire of their home, pursued by the terror of the Black Riders of Mordor, until at last, with the aid of Aragon, the Ranger of Eriador, they came through desperate perils to the House of Elrond in Rivendell. There was held a great Council of Elrond, at which it was decided to attempt the destruction of the Ring, and Frodo was appointed Ring-Bearer. The Companions of the Ring were then chosen, who were to aid him in quest. To come to the Mountain of Fire in Mordor, the land of the Enemy himself, where alone the Ring could be UNMADE.

OK, and so now to:

"Three Rings for the Elven-kings under the sky,
Seven for the Dwarf-lords in their halls of stone,
Nine for Mortal Men doomed to die,
One for the Dark Lord on his throne
In the Land of Mordor where shadows lie.

One Ring to Rule them all, One Ring to find them,
One Ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them. In the Land of Mordor where the Shadows lie.

So to the count of the Rings at 3 + 7 + 9 + 1 + 1 + 1 +1 = 23 Rings, the One Ring.

And 3 x 7 x 9 x 1 x 1 x 1 x 1 is 189 or 3 lots of 63, the label for Anubis, the jackal headed Ancient Egyptian god, the Funeral Director, the Navigator, the Helmsman, for the souls that are carried to Middle Earth so to speak.

John D. Miller

Jobs | July 23