Using typefaces to typecast human beings

Simon Garfield’s fascinating book on fonts takes us from the humanist imperative behind the creation of mass typefaces right through to today’s use of fonts to manipulate our minds.

Nathalie Rothschild

Topics Books

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‘[M]ost people weren’t interested. These days it’s almost the other way round. Everybody wants to design a bloody typeface.’

Erik Spiekermann, a self-confessed typomaniac whose fonts are part of the branding of several key German institutions such as the Deutsche Bahn national railway and the Berlin Philharmonic, is talking about the ubiquity of font designers in Simon Garfield’s new book Just My Type.

The new trendiness of fonts looks like a case of revenge of the nerds. For what, if not a strong propensity for geekishness, could inspire someone like designer Mark Simonson to set up a scoring system on his website for the use of type in film? Here, Chocolat, which starred Juliette Binoche and was set in a 1950s village in France, does very badly on account of a scene where a sign is set in a typeface (ITC Benguiat) created in the 1970s. A cruise brochure in the Steve Martin film Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid, set in the 1940s, apparently uses Blippo, a font created in the 1970s. And so on.

But these days, it’s not just obsessive, bespectacled geeks who care about typefaces. Even pop bands give knowing nods to fonts. A song by Towa Tei, featuring Kylie Minogue, is titled ‘German Bold Italic’, while Boston band the Grace Period has recorded a song called ‘Boring Arial Layout’. Some lucky men of cool letters have even ended up making a lot of money in recent years, like lettering artist Charles Front, who designed the elastic-like letters for The Beatles’ Rubber Soul album cover in 1965. Back then, Front was only paid 25 guineas (£26.25), but 43 years later he auctioned off the original artwork at Bonhams for £9,600.

Fonts are now part of popular cultural consciousness, a trend which Garfield may well help solidify with his book – a funny, accessible, yet thorough account of the history, impact and meaning of fonts. Of course it was Steve Jobs, as Garfield explains, who helped turn ‘font’ from a technical term within the design and printing trade into an everyday word in every computer user’s vocabulary.

Jobs’ big innovation was to include a drop-down menu with a wide choice of fonts on his very first Macintosh computer. It included already familiar fonts, like Times New Roman and Helvetica (which was the subject of a popular documentary in 2007), and also new designs like Chicago (which was also used on the early iPods).

Today, every Mac and PC user has the power to create ransom notes without having to cut out individual letters from newspapers, or to write love notes in swirling, handwriting-like lettering, or simply to produce neat, legible documents with varying font sizes for school or work presentations.

So while every other graphic design student may want to ‘design a bloody typeface’, do we really need another one? After the creation of Helvetica, can any other font change the face of cities in quite such a sweeping way as that revolutionising font did? From the iconic New York subway signage and international high-street labels like Gap, Urban Outfitters and American Apparel, to household name brands like Lufthansa, Nestlé and Oral B… since the late 1950s Helvetica has been popping up everywhere.

The answer to this question comes most emphatically in Garfield’s closing chapter: ‘After 560 years of moveable type, why is our job not yet done? Why is the world still full of serious people trying to find great names for different new alphabets? The answer lies in another question. In 1986 the influential graphic design review The Penrose Annual asked exactly the same things: “Aren’t we done yet? Why do we need all these new fonts such as…Helvetica?”’

‘The answer, then and now’, Garfield continues, ‘is the same. Because the world and its contents are continually changing. We need to express ourselves in new ways.’

Indeed, in the late fifteenth century, not long after Johannes Gutenberg cast his first reusable letters and heralded the dawn of mass printing, the necessity of expanding printing technologies was questioned by conservatives who wanted to preserve the status quo. At the time, there was a veritable explosion in type-founding and printing technology, and apparently an intensified thirst for knowledge and information. The powerful and wealthy could no longer claim literature and reading as the preserve of the elite.

Variations in type were an important part of the competitive press and publishing industry that sprung up across Europe at the time, with different fonts created for the different kinds of literature that emerged: ‘The bestsellers were no longer just religious, they were the opposite – lustful texts by Virgil and Ovid.’ Not everyone approved: ‘Even those who had previously advocated the printed dissemination of wisdom complained of dumbing down’, says Garfield, and of printing falling ‘into the hands of unlettered men’. Where would we be today if the fifteenth-century typesetters had given in to such snobbery?

History has shown that, for better or worse, different times call for different fonts. During the Industrial Revolution, for instance, typesetters discarded the delicacy of fonts from earlier eras in favour of thickset letters almost dripping with ink. As Garfield recounts, these letters proudly reflected the grimy, rugged, bombastic conditions of the Victorian era.

Traditionally, then, font design has been wound up with ideas – not just with aesthetics and legibility, but with politics and contemporary sensibilities. This was reflected in German typographer Paul Renner’s decision to render his Futura font ‘the typeface of our time’ when he designed it in the 1920s. Yet its popularity endured beyond Renner’s generation. It was used by IKEA, which faced a PR disaster when it switched to Verdana in 2009. And perhaps it was no coincidence that the Apollo 11 crew chose to leave behind a plaque on the moon inscribed in Futura capitals.

Still today, we can tell a lot about contemporary sensibilities by looking at what font-designers get up to. For instance, a recent invention is Ecofont, which is number eight on Garfield’s list of The Worst Fonts in the World. This is a programme that adds holes to a font and it was designed, explains Garfield, ‘to save ink, money and eventually the planet, but heaven save us from worthy fonts’.

And in the lava lamp-adorned San Francisco offices of PSY/OPS, Rodrigo Xavier Cavazos (or RXC) can be found designing types as ‘behaviour modification tools’. This approach is a far cry from that of designers like Adrian Frutiger, who created Univers and Frutiger, the latter now nearly as unavoidable as Helvetica. Despite his immense success, he seems to have had a far more self-effacing view of designers as working in the service of people. At a type conference in 1990, he explained that ‘if you remember the shape of your spoon at lunch, it has to be the wrong shape… The spoon and the letters are tools; one to take food from the bowl, the other to take information off the page… When it is good design, the reader has to feel comfortable because the letter is both banal and beautiful.’

In more recent times, pop psychologists have been developing various pseudo-scientific theories about what our font choice says about our personalities and how fonts can be used to market products and ideas to the masses. These wannabe mind-manipulators win the attention of marketing executives and policymakers keen to find out what types we are and how to change us in to the kinds of types they’d like us to be. So it’s worth picking up Garfield’s book to remind ourselves of the humanist and progressive impulses of typesetters of the past, as well as of some of the inspiring work that is still being done by designers who are concerned with meaning, aesthetics and usefuleness, rather than with messing with our minds.

Perhaps we do get the types we deserve. But today we certainly could do with better than fonts designed by the kind of poncy people who surround themselves with lava lamps and turn their own names into abbreviations.

Nathalie Rothschild is commissioning editor of spiked.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Books


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