Rob Hardy: 'Just My Type'

November 29, 2010 10:26:00 AM

Rob Hardy - [email protected]


You are looking at it right now, and if it is doing its job, you don't even notice it. It might represent a creation that has taken centuries to come to its current state of perfection, or it might be something that a dedicated specialist worked on for years and brought out a decade ago. It represents artistry directed within a circumscribed realm. I am talking about the font in which these letters are presented. Thirty years ago, fonts were usually the interest of only a select few in the printing world, but now every computer is charged with fonts and everyone gets to be an amateur typographer (technically, the font is a specific set of metal parts, or digital files, that allows reproduction of letters, and a typeface is the design of letters the font allows you to reproduce, but you can see how the words would get used interchangeably).  


Simon Garfield is not a professional typographer; his role is bringing out fine nonfiction about, say, stamp collecting, history or the color mauve. But he has an amateur's enthusiasm for fonts, and communicates it infectiously in "Just My Type: A Book About Fonts" (Profile Books). This is not a collection of type designs, though there are many illustrations. In most cases it won't help you in finding out what font you happen to be looking at (but it will tell you how to do so in surprising ways). It is a book of appreciation for an art that is largely invisible, but is also essential.  


There are many fonts, thousands of them, and plenty are display fonts that call attention to themselves; those are not the main focus in this book. One famous font designer said that the best type existed to communicate an idea; it was not even to be noticed, and certainly not to be admired. This was her way of thinking 80 years ago, and it might seem reactionary now, or overly restrictive. It doesn't happen often, but I have had the experience of opening a book and finding an unusual typeface that was simply too odd or ugly to allow my eyes to spend time on those pages. I would not like to read pages set in any of the fonts in one of Garfield's last chapters, "The Worst Fonts in the World." These are not always flashy display fonts, although the one that looks like it is letters torn from different sources with each pasted on like a ransom note (a font helpfully called "Ransom Note") obviously has no use as a reading text. There's also a 2012 Olympic Font that Garfield dislikes ("Let's hope they keep it off the medals.")  


Also included in that list is Papyrus, which caused a stir when it was used extensively in the film "Avatar." It wasn't a good stir. "Avatar" was hugely expensive and technically complicated, but the filmmakers used Papyrus, a font designed in 1983 and which comes free with every Mac or PC. The letter set "suggests what it might be like to use a quill on Egyptian plant-like material." Not only does it suggest Egypt instead of Pandora, but according to Garfield, while the font isn't bad in itself, it "is so clich├ęd and overused that its prominent selection for a genre-busting movie seems perverse." People who pay attention to fonts didn't like this aspect of the movie, and there are indeed lots of people paying attention to fonts. There was a font war (also known as a "fontroversy") when in 2009 Ikea decided to change its display font from Futura to Verdana. Verdana is a fine font, designed by Matthew Carter who gets many pages here, but it is one of the most widely used fonts in the world (again, it's on every Mac or PC). Futura is a quirky but modern-looking font, designed in Germany by Paul Renner in 1924. The change inspired passionate arguments in mere bystanders, "like the passion of sports fans," says Garfield, and the New York Times joked that it was "perhaps the biggest controversy to come out of Sweden." 


The biggest of font wars has had a comic edge to it, and it is the starting point for Garfield's book. Helvetica is possibly the world's most famous font (and even has had a very good documentary film made about it), and has inspired some controversy from its overuse, but the most reviled of fonts is Comic Sans. It's a perfectly good font. It looks something like the letters you see in comic books, smooth, rounded, sans serif, clear. It was designed by Vincent Connare in 1994 after he saw that a Microsoft program that was supposed to be very user-friendly had instructions in Times New Roman, a font that might be considered formal and chilly. He designed Comic Sans for friendliness, but it came too late to replace Times New Roman in the original documents. It was, however, included as a typeface in Windows 95, and it took off. Too much so: you could see it on restaurant menus, on porn sites, and even on the sides of ambulances. This last especially shows how badly a font, even a clear, well designed one, can clash with its message. There has been a "ban Comic Sans" movement ever since. Even the heads of the movement, which is somewhat tongue-in-cheek, admit that Comic Sans looks fine, say, on a candy packet; but they have also seen it on a tombstone and on a doctor's brochure about irritable bowel syndrome.  


If you see a font and you wonder which one it is, you can take steps to identify it. Lots of people like to do this. It is especially useful to examine the lower case g. (The other character that reveals a lot is the ampersand, which, maybe since it is not a letter or a punctuation mark, appears in exuberant eccentricity even in some calm fonts.) That g has a lot of variable points; it might have a lower hook or it might have a loop, it might have a straight line on the right, or the upper loop might have an ear that rises or droops, and this doesn't even get into whether the upper loop is a circle, a long or wide ellipse or has uniform width. Take a look at the g letters shown here, or in your regular reading matter, and you will be amazed at how variable a selection of even only a few can be. If you have your g, you can look it up in font books, but there are so many fonts now that no book comes close to showing them all. There's an application for the iPhone which allows you to take a picture of the letter in question, upload it somewhere, and then get suggestions of possible matches. Or you can go to a type forum and ask there, because there are lots of people devoted to hunting down this sort of thing. And they take it so seriously that, as on many Internet forums, they get rather snarky about disagreements.  


If you want another example of type being taken seriously, consider the case of the aforementioned Paul Renner, who designed Futura; he is one of many designers profiled here. The Nazis at the time were pushing the gothic fonts as being the only ones that could properly transmit German national purity. A slogan at the time, in dark gothic letters, of course, said, "Feel German, think German, speak German, be German, even in your script." When Renner gave a lecture about the history of fonts, and the Nazis thought he was too sympathetic toward Roman letters, he was arrested. Surprisingly, the Nazis changed their minds about gothic letters because their conquered lands found the script confusing and didn't have enough of a supply of the type to print from anyway; it was also easier to inscribe Roman letters upon the new architecture of Albert Speer. 


If you don't pay attention to fonts (and most of them do their work best by not calling attention to themselves), Garfield's entertaining book might get you started. There are chapters about the difficult matter of copyrighting a font, because if you design a good font it is easy to copy it, and there isn't much that can be done about font piracy. Font designers work for love, not money. There's a chapter on "The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy white dog" and other phrases that show all the letters, or particular words that display a lot of the letters most important to font design. There's plenty of history starting with Gu

Rob Hardy is a local psychiatrist who reviews books for a hobby. His e-mail address is [email protected]