10 Design Career Lessons From Morris Fuller Benton

By on Jan 5, 2021 in Inspiration
10 Design Career Lessons From Morris Fuller Benton

Morris Fuller Benton is a hugely important figure in the history of typography, known for being America's most prolific designer of metal type. His impact on the field is one that cannot be matched by many. He dedicated his work life in the early 1900s to creating a vast number of fonts and typefaces that we all still use to this day, and he advanced the way that typefaces were created and organized to a level that had not really been seen at that time.

Not a lot is known about the person behind the typefaces, and Morris was a bit of an enigma. He almost flew under the radar due to his quiet, humble demeanor, being somewhat under-appreciated by historians. Still, he had an incredible career and when we begin to examine the details that we do know regarding who he was, we see a number of interesting traits and ideas that contributed to an incredible career in typography.

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Morris Fuller Benton Typeface Specimens, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Who Was Morris Fuller Benton?

Morris Fuller Benton (1872–1948) was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He is known for being directly involved in producing 221 typefaces in his career, which made up the majority of typefaces in the catalog of the company that he worked at the American Type Founders company (or ATF).

Morris grew up in a family already involved in the print and type industry. His grandfather was the part-owner of a newspaper company, and his father purchased a type foundry where he was influential in creating many type-making inventions. Growing up in this environment, you could say it was almost inevitable that Morris Fuller Benton began exploring type at a young age, and that is exactly what happened. Morris made use of a printing press at his family home, which he would regularly use as a child. However, as he grew older, he didn’t want to pursue typography as a career. Instead, he set about studying mechanical engineering at college, graduating from Cornell University in 1896.

His engineering skills quickly lead him to a job working as his father's assistant at the American Type Founders, a company which formed as the result of 23 different American type foundries merging into one company, one of these being the type foundry that Morris’s father owned. His father was now the technical director at ATF, and Morris helped him develop his inventions related to type-making.

Morris quickly outgrew his job as an assistant. He got heavily involved in designing and cataloging the typefaces and libraries as he became the chief type designer at ATF. This is where his work as the most prolific type designer of the era really began. His responsibilities ranged from creating new fonts, designing decorative ornaments and borders that could be used alongside the fonts, creating entire type families, and expanding on the library of existing typefaces that were inherited from the original 23 foundries that made up ATF. Benton took it upon himself put in a lot of hard work to standardize type names, weights, sizes, and baselines — something that wasn’t common with metal type at the time, and he was also known for spending an incredible amount of time researching typefaces of old. His obsession was for precision. He seemed to have a real appreciation for font legibility, which is something that the technology available to him through his company, and his father allowed him to address.

Morris Fuller Benton worked for 40 years at his craft and retired from his role at ATF in 1937, aged 65, leaving behind a legacy of incredible type and improvements to the way type was designed and used. For an idea of some of his most common font work, check his list of typefaces on Wikipedia.

What Career Lessons Can We Learn From Morris Fuller Benton?

1. Be Prolific and Be Patient
Morris worked hard and dedicated his work life to his craft, and it shows in the fabulous quality and legacy of his work. Morris didn’t always strike gold with his font creations, but that didn’t matter, a mistake here-and-there cannot take away from his incredible contributions to his chosen field of work and as a result, he earns his place in history. The lesson here is simple, put in the hours to give yourself time to perfect and refine your abilities. When we talk about being prolific, we are not talking about ‘the hustle’ but rather a constant and sustained approach to your body of work that allows you to progress over time without being shy of the work involved.

2. Study & Research
When making a new font, Benton’s first step would always be to do extensive research around existing font libraries and other historical examples. He understood the importance of studying his field and researching materials relevant to his role as chief type designer. Morris actually believed that this research was an essential part of any type designer's job, and he took this part more seriously than most. Even when working on a completely new, modern typeface, he liked to pull inspiration from the wider world of type around him using specimen sheets and books. Morris also studied the wider market to inform what styles of type were either needed or popular at the time. He put all of this knowledge to good use and even recognized the big opportunity in creating more unique attention-grabbing fonts specifically for use in advertising, offering something different to what was mostly typefaces designed to be used in books and newspapers.

3. Refine & Improve
Not every font that Morris Fuller Benton created was designed from scratch. He would often take existing typefaces, refine them, and then flesh them out into a complete extended family. While this wasn’t a completely new idea, Benton certainly perfected and pioneered the practice. Elevating the original font into something above and beyond what was there to begin with, making them easier to work with and more precise at the same time.

4. Be Willing to Adapt
After heading to college to study mechanical engineering, Benton wasn’t exactly looking like he was destined to become one of the world's most important type designers. He purposely chose to avoid being part of the family business and instead learn something else that interested him. But when the opportunity presented itself, he wasn’t too proud to take it. He was able to put his mechanical engineering education to good use in the type industry, helping his father invent and improve the type-making machines in the foundry. From there, he was willing to adapt to the role of font designer, and as we know, he didn’t go into it half-hearted: he was able to give it his all. Even though it wasn’t the career path he envisioned, he found a route that worked for him, and he made the most of it.

5. Work Smarter
Morris put his mechanical engineering education to good use during his time as a type designer. He worked with his father and the company to create new machines to help make his process quicker, cheaper, and more accurate. One such machine allowed Morris to design and create fonts single-handedly operating a machine that replaced a process that would normally require two or more people to be involved in. He saw a way to make his life as a type designer easier and he took it, which undoubtedly helped him streamline and speed up his process of creating the huge library of fonts that he did.

6. Find a Healthy Obsession
Okay, so an obsession can be quite a negative thing, but I would argue that it is entirely possible to have a healthy obsession for something in a positive and constructive way. Morris’ obsession was for precision: he strived to have a way of making fonts that was more consistent and more precise than what he was currently working with. This obsession with precision undoubtedly improved his typefaces' quality and gave his company a competitive edge. Caring about the details, caring about font legibility, and obsessing over the ways to improve it certainly had a net positive impact on his work and the business.

7. Be Loyal
Morris Fuller Benton spent 40 years at the same company and was, without doubt, their most prolific worker. Still, it’s important to remember that he joined the company as an assistant and then earned his way towards a successful career. Now I’m not suggesting that we should all strive to copy this, but there is something to admire about his loyalty. Taking a career that will reward your loyalty and has a clear path for you to rise from a humble beginning might be useful for some people to strive for.

8. Be Humble
It seems that Benton was not one to take praise well. A 1936 interview described him as "one of the most difficult men to interview I have ever talked to...try to pin some honor on him, or give him credit for some achievement, and he will modestly sidestep with the remark that ‘Lady Luck helped me a lot there!’ — And while I think it’s better to learn to accept credit and compliments towards your work, there is something endearing about this modest and humble reply from a man who quite clearly produced a lot of incredible work. Maybe we could all learn to be a little more like Morris from time to time when it comes to our work and our ego.

9. Find Creative Outlets
Although his entire career was spent designing and creating typefaces, Morris still liked to stay creative in his free time too. He had a real passion for photography and his home even featured his own personal darkroom. It’s important for us all to have other creative outlets and hobbies as a way to refresh your creative mind and perhaps even expand it.

10. Get Organized
Aside from creating fonts, Morris is probably best known for standardizing, expanding, and cataloging huge collections of type. He dedicated a lot of his time and effort towards adding some much-needed order and structure to something that at the time was a messy and broken system. Fixing this system by organizing the typefaces his company inherited from the 23 foundries that merged and then improving upon those fonts gave him and his foundry an edge over others at the time. The lesson here is to simply take the time to make sense of your tasks and better organize them before you get going. For Morris, this had short term benefits but even bigger long term ones.

I hope this has given you some insight into one of the great talents in modern history, a man with an incredible career and body of work to show for his efforts, and a legacy that will last an eternity. I also urge you to further explore and discover the wonderful typefaces that Morris Fuller Benton has worked on with his team if you can, some of which can be found on Wikipedia.


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