Most overlooked typefaces: Penumbra

Here’s another really first-rate type family that is quite versatile but little seen: Penumbra (available in 16 fonts, four styles x four weights). This 1994 all-caps design by Lance Hidy is based on his own poster lettering. The letter proportions are in turn based on the classical Roman lettering of 2000 years ago, most frequently seen today in serifed form in Adobe’s Trajan.

The unusual thing about Penumbra is that it has a continuum of four designs from sans serif to fully serifed, with two steps in between Sans, Flare, Half-Serif and Serif sub-families. Penumbra was originally created as a Multiple Master typeface, a technology which is being phased out, but is still interesting enough that it will doubtless be the subject of a future blog posting.

Here are four of the sixteen Penumbra fonts:
Penumbra Sans Light
Penumbra Serif Regular
Penumbra Sans Semibold
Penumbra Serif Bold

In its pure sans serif form, Penumbra almost recalls Futura or other geometric sans serifs, while in the pure serif form it has the versatility of the previously mentioned Trajan, while being more robust. I think one can use Penumbra for titling/display work anywhere one might think of using Trajan or all-caps Futura, which is saying a lot: book and magazine covers, posters, flyers and headlines are all fine candidates for Penumbra.

I must confess I owe a personal debt to Penumbra: it was the typeface that made me rethink the relationship between classical roman forms and geometric ones, and showed me how well those classical proportions could be used in a sans serif (though of course it was not the first to do so). My own upcoming typeface, Hypatia Sans (of which more later), represents my own take on this issue, among others.

8 Responses

  1. David Coffin says:

    Interesting! The only reason I clicked in here today (after hearing about your blog on an InDesign list) was that I’d been thinking about how to revive my favorite old MM font(s): Penumbra. I always dialed in something not quite like any of the “new” versions, and none of these suits me. IS there any way to access these old beauties in IDCS2, using Tiger?

  2. Thomas Phinney says:

    Sorry that none of the 16 instances we made into stand-alone fonts meets your needs. I believe you can still create instances using ATM in Classic, and those should show up in Tiger. Alternatively, you can buy an application such as FontLab or its younger sibling, TypeTool. These would allow you to generate stand-alone fonts from the original MM font.Regards,T

  3. Earlier this year, I found Penumbra via the Adobe Typography website and suggested the Flare Semibold version to set the logo of a client. But it didn’t convince my boss, much to my disappoinment. :(At that time I had no idea that it was an “overlooked” font, but I guess even my own experience shows that indeed it is.

  4. Patrick Geiller says:

    I’m but an amateur in typography but sometimes need a nice font. I shop through, where Chaparral and Penumbra appear only by name : no preview available. That makes me unlikely to buy an Adobe font as I don’t have time to browse each founder’s catalog on their website.If you find some fonts overlooked, the first step would be to make them at least seeable to potential buyers.

  5. Well, you’re welcome to shop wherever you want, but the reason that MyFonts has no preview available for either Chaparral or Penumbra is that they don’t sell those fonts. They don’t sell them because Adobe does not have a relationship with MyFonts. MyFonts has some (mostly much older) Adobe fonts because they do resell fonts from Linotype, who in turn resell fonts from Adobe. MyFonts doesn’t yet stock any of Adobe’s OpenType fonts, so they are at least five years behind what Adobe is currently selling.If you want to get current or even vaguely recent Adobe fonts, the most reliable way to do so is at the Adobe Web site: web site also has rather extensive previews available.Regards,T

  6. krout says:

    Hey, this is a peace of pick! Yeah!!!

  7. Excellent pick, Thomas! Looks like the Da Vinci Code people agree. Perhaps they saw this article. ;)Little quibble: the description for Penumbra saysPenumbra is an ‘androgynous’ letterform which morphs seamlessly between the worlds of sans serif and serif. There is no other typeface which does this.Now that it’s no longer available as a MM, perhaps “seamlessly” should be removed from the description.

  8. Urm, yeah, that’s a good point. I’ll get that fixed!T

Comments are closed.

Thomas Phinney

Adobe type alumnus (1997–2008), now VP at FontLab, also helped create WebINK at Extensis. Lives in Portland (OR), enjoys board games, movies, and loves spicy food.

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