Culture  The art of typography

How letters can have a cultural impact, for better or for worse

By the time you have finished reading this newspaper, you will have seen at least a dozen different typefaces, more if our Compendium! editor is in a good mood. Fonts are everywhere, capable of manipulating our response to the message they convey. Consider the same sentence in two different fonts. “Will you marry me?” (subtext when in Helvetica: I am normal and serious and dependable) becomes “Will you marry me?” (subtext when in Comic Sans: Let’s elope and live in a theme park, don’t forget your clown shoes!). Type design is a language unto itself, and has implications far beyond aesthetics. Marshall McLuhan had it right: “The medium is the message.”

The appearance of text has never been neutral. Different handwriting has existed since the birth of the written word, and it was not long after Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press in 1439 that font styles began to diversify further. Fast-forward to the mid- 1980s and desktop publishing gives us the font menu. Now even the most basic word processing software has hundreds of varieties and styles of text to choose from. This ubiquity has led typographers to coin the phrase “Type is everywhere.” I’m not very good at estimations but I’d say that in your lifetime you’ll probably see tens of billions of typed letters. It’s important, then, that the right typeface is used, and woe betide anyone who should misuse one.

A telling example of this is the story of Comic Sans. To some it is just a friendly, round-edged, and harmless typeface, yet to others the proliferation of Comic Sans is worse than the spread of bedbugs. Indeed it is seen as an epidemic in some circles (read designers). Recently, the internet campaign “Ban Comic Sans Movement” has been very vocal on the subject. Created in 2003, this group has the explicit aim of “putting the Sans in Comic Sans.” Their manifesto states, “We believe in the sanctity of typography and that the traditions and established standards of this craft should be upheld throughout all time. From Gutenberg’s letterpress to the digital age, type in all forms is sacred and indispensable.”

To the movement’s members – and there are many of them – Comic Sans is both unacceptably childlike and too often used inappropriately. One of the founders of the movement, Holly Combs, said, “Using the typeface Comic Sans is like turning up to a black-tie event in a clown costume.”

The much maligned font was even included in Time magazine’s “50 Worst Inventions” list. Poor thing. I think people are perhaps getting overly worked up about this jaunty, informal typeface. Mike Lacher recently posted an impassioned and timely defence of Comic Sans on which called for a much-needed sense of fun in the community of typeface enthusiasts. His first-person monologue retorts, “You think I’m a malformed, pathetic excuse for a font. Well think again, nerdhole, because I’m Comic Sans, and I’m the best thing to vhappen to typography since Johannes fucking Gutenberg.” Though the typeface is often used wildly inappropriately (I’ve even seen Comic Sans inscriptions on gravestones) I believe it has its place in the world, perhaps if only for its sometimes incongruous absurdity.

Next on this quick tour of the type world we move from the almost universally reviled to the overwhelmingly adored. Helvetica, designed in 1957 by Max Miedinger with Eduard Hoffmann, is the paragon of international Swiss modernism. The aim was clarity, with no serifs or distracting decorative elements, just mathematically perfect characters. Essentially it’s everything Comic Sans is not and is used worldwide from companies like American Apparel and Apple to NASA and the U.S. government.

The emblematic status of Helvetica was recently confirmed by an independent documentary film about the Swiss typeface directed by Gary Hustwit. Simply entitled Helvetica, it centres on the history of the typeface, interspersed with interviews from various designers and a soundtrack by Fourtet, Battles, and Caribou amongst others. The film was released in 2007 in selected cinemas in New York, London, and San Francisco and has since become widely acclaimed. In the context of all this acclaim I find Helvetica powerfully underwhelming. For one thing it looks just the same as Arial: incongruous to the point of invisibility. American typeface designer Jonathan Hoefler reiterated this: “Helvetica is hard to evaluate. It’s like being asked what you think about white paint. It’s just… it’s just there.” This is by no means a bad thing; a good text font should be unassuming and facilitate ease of reading, as opposed to the attention-grabbing properties of, say, a headline font.

Ultimately, different designs serve different purposes and I don’t think this culture of so-called good and bad fonts creates an especially useful discourse. When the inventor of Comic Sans, Vincent Connare, was asked why it has become so popular, he replied rather succinctly, “Because it’s sometimes better than others, that’s why.” Comic Sans was as perfectly designed for its purpose (joviality et cetera) as Helvetica was for its purpose (clear legibility). And anyway, as Lacher’s Comic Sans persona states, “You think I’m pedestrian and tacky? Guess the fuck what, Picasso. We don’t all have seventy-three weights of stick-up-my-ass Helvetica sitting on our seventeen-inch MacBook Pros.”