Rod McDonald's journey through 110 years of grotesques

Renowned Canadian typeface designer Rod McDonald talks to us about his inspiration for the Classic Grotesque font family of more than 50 styles— the newest addition to the Monotype Library.

About 10 years ago, when designer Rod McDonald first conceived of the Classic Grotesque™ typeface family, he was unsure how the idea would be received. “I assumed that the Monotype Grotesques would be worked on in-house, but I wrote a proposal and pitched the idea to Monotype anyway,” recalls McDonald. “To my surprise I was told to ‘go for it.’”

No single spark ignited my desire to design a new grotesque—it was more like a lifetime of smoldering embers

Today, McDonald is a “Monotype Design Fellow” (and if Canada had a Typographer Laureate, McDonald would be a shoo-in for that, too); and his Classic Grotesque designs are now a fully realized fresh take on the realist sans-serif types that McDonald considers “hidden gems.”

McDonald’s typefaces are the culmination of eight years of design research, sketching, drawing, testing, editing, refining, re-drawing, re-testing and re-refining more than 50 typefaces. As a result, this new Classic Grotesque type family has emerged looking fresh and clean and with tremendous range to offer.

The grotesque forerunners

The prototype for all other grotesque (or grotesk) designs was first released in 1896; Berthold’s Akzidenz Grotesk® design went on to serve as the foundation for sans serif typefaces to follow, including the Venus™ collection of typefaces (a longtime favorite of McDonald’s), the Ideal Grotesk family of fonts, and the Monotype Grotesque® typefaces.

A formal introduction to a formal family

The name says it all. The Classic Grotesque family has all the best attributes of the early grotesque fonts of the 20th century. While not geometric, the design’s slightly constructed nature gives characters a formal appearance. Stroke width variations are modest and, while both the capitals and lowercase letters have a distinct personality, the uppercase letters define most of Classic Grotesque’s persona. The sheared terminals, horizontal bars of the E, F and L, bowl of the J, and curved tail of the Q are just a few of the typeface’s defining characteristics.

A long and fruitful design process

With support from Monotype’s senior designers and the Monotype archives in England, McDonald made the first sketches for the Classic Grotesque family in 2008. Although he was waylaid along the way by some custom design projects, he never lost his passion for this project. As he says, “No single spark ignited my desire to design a new grotesque—it was more like a lifetime of smoldering embers.”

Still, McDonald acknowledges, “Designing Classic Grotesque was more complex than I had anticipated. This was largely because I initially based my design solely on the early Monotype Grotesques. As a result, elements of Arial®—which also has its roots in the 1926 sans-serif typefaces—kept intruding into my design. Then one day I realized that all I had to do was go back to the same typefaces that Monotype had used to develop the Grotesques … I found myself working on a new design inspired by three classic sans serifs: Venus, Ideal Grotesk and Monotype Grotesque. I also discovered that this was what I had wanted to do all along.

Endless options for putting this sans-serif to use

Classic Grotesque’s range of weights, from a delicate light to commanding extra bold, each with a cursive italic complement, provide for exceptional depth and flexibility.

It’s a particularly ideal option for corporate brands that need to communicate in numerous sizes and formats, but as McDonald says, “I like to think of it as a typeface that has few, if any, bounds. I know that good graphic and interactive designers will use Classic Grotesque in ways that I could never imagine.” 

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