A question of character

Here’s one for the pub quiz. What do the Paris transport authority, France’s national railway company and heavyweight daily newspaper Le Monde have in common? A colourful history of strikes, is it? A fondness for Delphic announcements, perhaps? Overpaid executives?

The correct answer, of course, is that they all have tailor-made typefaces with which to convey their messages to the world. Le Monde’s is Le Monde Journal, designed in the 1990s and once described as “a Times New Roman for the 21st century”; the panneaux at Paris métro stations and bus stops are done in Parisine (which sounds slightly like something you’d buy in a bottle, perhaps weedkiller); and the signage across the SNCF network is in Achemine (cold medicine?), which replaced old stalwart Univers in 2008.

Le Monde Journal and Parisine are just two of the many creations of 56-year-old designer Jean François Porchez, and his other clients include France Télécom, Peugeot and Beyoncé: from x-height to A-list, you might say. Porchez himself is far from a household name in the style of his haute couture counterparts, but among people who care about fonts he’s a sort of typographic Jean Paul Gaultier, and when he’s not dreaming up new designs or tweaking old ones, he’s holding conferences at universities and workshops in Paris. In 2015, France’s culture ministry gave him the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres for his services to – ah, yes – letters.

Porchez is a modern champion of the French typographic arts, but only one in a line that goes back hundreds of years. In 1804, Napoleon’s government published the Code Civil, a landmark text that replaced a knotty mess of regional laws and autonomous courts with a coherent national framework, written not in lawyerly jargon but in a clear style intelligible to the common man. It was made all the more digestible by a new typeface. Didot, named after the imperial printworks director who designed it, was an instant byword for clarity and elegance, and so influential that it became, as Didone, a category of its own. Before Firmin Didot there was Claude Garamond, who produced letters that – with refinements – still make one of the most popular serif typefaces in use today, and before Garamond there was Jacques Sabon, whose signature typeface was reworked by Porchez in 2002.

Two centuries after Napoleon, the needs of French officialdom have swelled to match those of the corporate giants, and the talk is of visual identity and brand management. The First Empire had Didot, the Fifth Republic has logos; and since 2020, it also has Marianne, a custom typeface for all things état that had one of its first outings on the attestation de déplacement, the mandatory excursion form introduced in the first Covid lockdown. ‘Inspired by’ the French classics, Marianne is a clean sans serif typeface from specialist branding agency 4uatre, and it aims to bring coherence and legibility to a complicated world. That design philosophy would have been thoroughly familiar to the emperor’s printer in chief – plus ça change – but it’s hard not to think he’d have balked at the agency’s name: surely a typo?

Places to visit


Le Malesherbois, Loiret — Opened in 2018, this printing museum claims to be the largest in Europe, and its proximity to Paris makes it suitable for a day trip. It’s home to 150-odd presses and other inky kit, and there’s a functioning workshop and busy programme of activities. The apt logo makes use of greyscale and the so-called CMYK model used for printing in colour. a-mi.fr


Lyon, Rhône — This well respected flagbearer for printing and the graphic arts has been going for nearly 60 years, and was completely overhauled in 2014. Housed in the gorgeous 15th-century Hôtel de la Couronne, its exhibits include historic printing machines, books, posters and even bus tickets. Workshops for all ages offer a chance to get hands-on, and there are regular thematic exhibitions. www.imprimerie.lyon.fr


Nantes, Loire-Atlantique — Part historic collection, part working academy of printing methods, this lively museum hosts workshops in such techniques as bookbinding, paper-making, linocut and letterpress. Exhibits on permanent display include posters and racks and racks of old type; every year the hefty presses are cranked up to mark the feast day of St John, patron saint of printers. musee-imprimerie.com


Paris — Europe’s oldest science museum is a huge and attractively presented collection of treasures running from jewel-like astrolabes to historic aircraft. Dazzlingly intricate scale models are a speciality, such as a beautiful 18th-century miniature letterpress and 19th-century miniature printer’s workshop. There’s also a full-size Marinoni rotary press – and the museum’s logo is itself a nice bit of typographic design. www.arts-et-metiers.net


A slightly longer version of this article appeared in the June 2021 issue of France magazine (see also my Cuttings page).

For more information about Jean François Porchez and his work, click here; to read about Marianne and the 4uatre agency, click here.