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Verbal energy: Going geeky over type fonts

Awareness of type design has gone mainstream.

By Ruth Walker / April 25, 2008



"Like me, America has developed a geeky obsession with fonts, the latest instance of our sophistication about design." So I read in a recent issue of Newsweek. What a relief. I'm glad to know I'm not the only one.

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The Newsweek writer, Jessica Bennett, went on to build her case by noting that a documentary film about the history of one particular type font, Helvetica, played to sellout crowds last year.

Her piece followed on the heels of an article in the January/February issue of The Atlantic Monthly, in which Virginia Postrel had posited, "Basic cultural literacy now demands at least a passing familiarity with typefaces: witness a November episode of Jeopardy that featured the category 'Knowledge of Fonts,' with correct responses including 'What is Helvetica?' and 'What is Bodoni?' "

During my years in Newspaperland, I've always gotten a kick out of listening over the partition wall to the art team and the page designers talking knowledgeably about "Franklin Gothic" and such. But now everybody's into the act, even those without a professional excuse.

This phenomenon is, of course, another byproduct of the digital revolution. A bright middle-schooler writing her essay on "What I Did on Spring Break" has resources literally at her fingertips that would have made a job printer of a generation ago swoon with envy. A new font can be downloaded like a screen saver, often free of charge.

All fonts have pretty much the same 26 letters, give or take a few special characters. The differences among the fonts truly are about style, not substance. They can be quite subtle – like the differences among the navy blues and the shades of charcoal gray in certain kinds of menswear stores.

Heightened font consciousness may be less evident than the awareness of how digital technology has revolutionized other media. After all, more people will post videos of their birthday party on YouTube than will show off on their personal Web pages the Georgia font they used on their latest term paper.

But the roots of this latest printing revolution go back earlier in time than those of digital photography for the masses. Home computer users had a fairly extensive range of choices of typefaces even in the primitive days of Windows 3.1. This was when computers were first beginning to have some aesthetic appeal, and I suspect that's been an underestimated factor in the personal computer revolution. Let's face it, the computers of 15 or 20 years ago, with their monochrome screens, dot-matrix printers, and so on, looked as if they belonged in a Quonset hut.

"The democratization of technology, whether it's graphic design technology or filmmaking technology, is a double-edged sword. It lowers the barriers of entry so a lot of new designers or filmmakers can express themselves. It also completely clutters up the landscape," Gary Hustwit, maker of the above-mentioned film "Helvetica," said in an interview for theatlantic.com.

The traditional view, Michael Bierut explained in the Atlantic, was that typography should not draw attention to itself: "The best typography is completely transparent." But that was before Marshall McLuhan's dictum, "The medium is the message."

Helvetica, the font, became the emblem of late-modernist designers who favored a clean, rational aesthetic, as contrasted with those who preferred a more emotional, expressive style.

This tension between reason and emotion, between restraint and expression – between classic and romantic, if you will – can now play out on our very own desktops. It's obvious, though, that for every one who gets carried away with the options that come preloaded on a computer, there are a dozen who simply get overwhelmed and stick with Times New Roman or Arial as the typographical equivalent of gray slacks and a blue blazer.

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