David Madore's WebLog: The beauty of fonts

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(Thursday) · First Quarter

The beauty of fonts

I've mentioned my difficulties with Web fonts on this 'blog already. But fonts aren't only a cause of computer problems, they are also, in my opinion, an unjustly disregarded form of art. Well, perhaps not so unjustly: after all, the most successful font is maybe that which goes the most unnoticed. “Unobtrusive”, that's it: the font's role is to stay in the background, to appear unremarkable and banal (whereas it is, in fact, the work of years of craft in design). But once you start paying attention to them, since they are everywhere, fonts will jump to the eye and the whole printed world will seem different.

My favorite ones, I've already said this several times, are Optima and Univers; if you look at their samples, they will probably seem utterly uninteresting, sans serif fonts like any other ones. But Optima is actually the masterpiece, the result of years of patient work, by one of the great masters of the craft, Hermann Zapf (also the designer of Palatino and [Zapf] Chancery); and Univers made his author, Adrian Frutiger (whose Swiss birth is quite apparent in the font itself, some will point out), justly famous. I also have a certain fondness for Gill Sans and Perpetua, which both are by Eric Gill and reveal the same (rather pronounced, and ever so slightly “amateurish”) style, one without and one with serifs. But certainly the most successful fonts ever are Stanley Morison's Times and (another Swiss font!) Max Miedinger's Helvetica: assuredly the most inconspicuous of typefaces. (If you've heard the name “Arial” and wonder why I don't mention it, please read this article on Arial versus Helvetica to learn more about this fraud.)

It is unfortunate to see the way some people misuse fonts. The most annoying thing, in my eye, is when some misguided designer chooses a highly “stylish” face, thinking it can do only good, and falls miserably short; now if the most inconspicuous fonts are the most successful, choosing one which has flare is dangerous. One font that is very often abused is Arnold Böcklin (named after the painter), an art nouveau face that one frequently sees on store fronts or signs that attempt to look “old-fashioned” in some ill-defined sense; well, for one thing, this font is often used in all-caps, which is not at all the way it was meant. A shame.

If you find the topic interesting and would like to know more but don't know where to start, I can recommend a very good book: Typographic Specimens: The Great Typefaces by Philip Meggs and Rob Carter (available from Amazon.com). The book chooses 38 fonts among the most significant and successful ones in typography (namely: Akzidenz-Grotesk, American Typewriter, Baskerville, Bembo, Bodoni, Bookman, Caledonia, Caslon, Centaur, Century Schoolbook, Cheltenham, Clarendon, Didot, Folio, Franklin Gothic, Frutiger, Futura, Galliard, Gill Sans, Garamond, Goudy Old Style, Helvetica, Janson, Kabel, News Gothic, Optima, Palatino, Perpetua, Plantin, Sabon, Serifa, Stone Sans, Stone Serif, Stymie, Times New Roman, Trump Mediaeval, Univers and Zapf Book), and, for each one, provides a concise description and a comprehensive sample. This is a very nice place to start learning about fonts in general and how to recognize them: you'll soon notice that nearly every printed document (book, magazine, whatever) uses fonts from the list selected by Meggs and Carter, and it's a great fun to learn to spot the small differences that tell the typefaces apart and recognize the exact font that was used here or there.

My own interest in character faces started some fifteen years ago: a children's magazine (Okapi) that I used to read had an article on the history of the movable type, and included some samples of four remarkable typefaces, namely Didot, Times, Futura and Univers. I was fascinated. The same text was printed four times, but the differences leapt to the eye. And I learned to recognize the obvious and the not-so-obvious features of each of these fonts. (Given the choice they had made, it was a child's play, indeed, to tell them apart.) The magazine was mostly set in Futura, which I rather liked, but I decided I liked Univers even better. Even the names fascinated me: “Futura”, “Univers”—how evocative (especially for an SF fan)! Many years later, as I passed by the metro station Saint-Jacques, in Paris, I had a flash of recognition: that name is set in the Univers font, I thought—and indeed, it is. (Not such a remarkable feat, really: the capital ‘Q’ of Univers is extremely characteristic.)

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