The Origin Of The Playfair Typeface

Examples of Playfair typeface and their history

Living in Edinburgh, I see the name Playfair from time to time.

The Playfair Steps are on the footpath leading from Princes Street to Market Street at the top of the Mound. They are named in honour of the architect William Henry Playfair (1789 -1857).

Then there is the Playfair Building (often called Surgeons’s Hall) on Nicholson Street, up from North Bridge, that is part of Edinburgh University and the home of The Royal College of Surgeons.

And there are other places names.

Meanwhile…

I use Playfair Display typeface and I happened to be reading about the Scottish scientist and mathematician, John Playfair.

And that got me wondering.

The typeface was designed by Claus Eggars Sørensen, who describes it on his website ForTheHearts as follows:

An Open Source typeface family for display and titling use: Play­fair is a trans­itional design. From the time of enlight­en­ment in the late 18th cen­tury, the broad nib quills were replaced by poin­ted steel pens. This influenced typographical letterforms to become increas­ingly detached from the writ­ten ones. Devel­op­ments in print­ing tech­no­logy, ink and paper mak­ing, made it pos­sible to print let­ter­forms of high con­trast and del­ic­ate hairlines.

I wondered how the typeface got its name, so I wrote to Mr Sørensen who designed the font, and asked him.

He replied.

Dear David
The naming of the Playfair typeface was indeed inspired by the Playfair brothers of Scotland. I was looking for a name from the era in which the transitional style of typefaces (to which Playfair Display belongs) was developed, and preferably from the with a Scottish connection since Playfair Display is inspired from the so called Scotch Roman style developed by printers in Scotland. With this in mind Playfair was both topical, evocative of the era, and free to use (important for an OpenSource product).

With kind regards,
Claus


About The Brothers Playfair

Both John Playfair (1748-1819) and his brother James Playfair (1755-1794) are buried in Calton Old Cemetery, which is in the centre of Edinburgh on the street leading from Princes Street to Calton Hill. In gilt lettering on the wooden plaque at the entrance, John is mentioned as one of the notables buried there.

Here is a link to the font on GitHub along with a photo of the designer, Claus Eggars Sorensen.

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