Get to Know a Typeface! Minion

Normally, on this site, we write about expressive typefaces that evoke strong responses. And since Shea and I are bitter, unhappy people, we write about typefaces that are easy to hate like Comic Sans and Papyrus.

Minion, designed by Robert Slimbach in 1990, is one of those typefaces that only a typographer could love (not that other people dislike it; they just don’t notice it). If Minion were at a high school dance, it would sip punch with its back against the wall trying not to make any sudden movements while Curlz MT and Mistral breakdanced in the middle of the floor. Meanwhile, Comic Sans would try to make his friend Marker Felt laugh so hard that milk came out his nose and Papyrus would be smoking in the girls room. (This metaphor may be starting to break down.)

The Elements of Typographic Style by Robert Bringhurst is one of the most influential books on typography. It discusses everything from the anatomy of individual letterforms to how to choose and combine typefaces, from the basics of effective composition to the history of the field going back more than 500 years. Some designers call it the Typographer’s Bible, and it’s set in Minion. (The cover pictured here is from an old edition of the book; I used this one instead of the newer one because it’s the one I’ve had on my shelf for about 10 years.)

Minion is a serifed typeface designed in the “classical tradition,” which is designer code for “It was designed to look like pretty much every other serifed typeface out there.” What makes it so great is its flexibility. If it played high school sports, it would never make the football team, but I can guarantee you it would make varsity running cross country. (Meanwhile, Comic Sans would play sousaphone in the band and Papyrus would smoke in the parking lot and make snarky comments about how people who play team sports are such conformists.)

There is nothing to dislike about Minion. Sure, typographers who like to argue about the tiniest of details will say things like, “The slight upward angle of the cross-stroke of the lower-case e is too whimsical,” but it’s expertly designed to maximize legibility, and the practical advantages to most designers are immeasurable.

In short, the advantage of Minion, specifically Minion Pro, is that it contains more characters (called glyphs) than most other fonts. A small fraction of Minion’s glyphs are pictured here; you can see that it has a lot more versions of the letter O than you’re likely to ever use. When I laid out an article in Legacy magazine that required unique characters from the Hawaiian language, Minion Pro was the only typeface on my computer that had characters with the diacritical marks I needed. The cover of The Elements of Typographic Style pictured above pays homage to the importance of glyphs by featuring 11 of them based on a lower-case a in a row in red.

Minion Pro has multiple weights (bold, semi-bold, medium, roman) plus old-style letterforms and small caps. Most typefaces simply use small versions of upper-case letters for their small caps, while in high-end typefaces like Minion, small caps are upper-case letters specifically designed to be read at smaller sizes.

Beyond the practical benefits of a large character set, there are aesthetic applications as well. Suppose you were setting the word “Phlegm” at a display size and wanted give it that extra bit of flair we all know it deserves. Most classical typefaces don’t give you many options, but among Minion’s many glyphs are traditional characters that contain swashes. The swashed m in the top “Phlegm” is just that much more elegant than the traditional version underneath.

Another important feature of Minion is ligatures, where certain letters in sequence are joined. Most classical typefaces include “fi” and “fl” ligatures, but Minion Pro includes many more. The top example of “Office” here features an “ffi” ligature, while the example underneath does not. (Most of the time, your computer will default to any ligature included in the font you’re using when the appropriate letters appear in sequence. I had to trick the computer into not defaulting to the ligature on the second example.)

Some interesting typographic trivia (if there is such a thing): The ampersand (&) derives from a ligature of the letters E and T (et is Latin for and).

Like many who were scared to talk to girls and who were not that great at sports in high school, Minion found a niche in the grown-up world where it is appreciated for its strengths. These days, Comic Sans thinks about those high-school glory days while it goes to work on take-out menus and garage sale flyers, and Papyrus begrudgingly tries to make a living promoting massage therapists on business cards on coffee shop bulletin boards, but that nerd Minion is the one that finds itself on the pages of the book typographers call their Bible.