of faces and fonts

I gave a paper yesterday at Geneva University where I did a postdoc on Shakespeare in seventeenth-century Germany. I spoke about the history of punctuation, how people invented signs such as the semi-colon and of course my brackets in the fifteenth century, what the prescriptions and descriptions of use were, followed by some literary explorations. That’s all stuff I had worked on before. But in the course of preparing this paper, I became interested in typography. 

The more I read, the more I started to doubt that I know what typography is (the arrangement of words on paper? Space? Decorations, signatures, typeface, size of text, extra-linguistic signs like punctuation? All of it, I guess, and more.). But what I did realize was that it’s devicive and able to ruffle quite a few feathers. There are some people out there who get very very upset about how far up  or down a descender or ascender is allowed to go. And although I don’t count myself amongst these, I do see their point: there’s no such thing as innocent typography.

Take Comic Sans. Unfortunately, my interface won’t allow me to change the typeface, but we all know them. Those cute curly Donald Duck shapes. There’s something about Comic which makes us not really buy into what the sentence says. Maybe it’s the literal connection to comics, and the name. But maybe there’s also something about the shape of the letters themselves that our brain stumbles over and distrusts. Too curvy? Too goofy somehow? But anyway, if you still think Comic Sans is perfectly fine to carry the most world-changing news, you’re in good company. The physics nerds at CERN regularly use it for ground-breaking discoveries like the announcement of the Higgs bosun. More here.

If you want to evoke seriousness and credibility, though, you’d fare better with Baskerville, as described in this NY Times public experiment. 

There’s an infinite number of stuff out there on typefaces. The famous typographer (and self-confessed obsessed madman) Erik Spiekermann, for example, has a go at poor old Helvetica, attacking its uniformity which may be good for Swiss bankers (it’s inextricably linked to the rise of corporateness), but is not, apparently, very beautiful.

Or take Futura and its clean airy capitals, how it’s been used by NASA in the 1960s when it was setting trends for, exactly, the future.

Typefaces, I guess, comes with the double bind of cultural associations and natural visual implications: does it have serifs as in Courier New, making it that bit harder to read? What’s the spacing between the letters, condensed as in Calibri, or uniform like Arial? The (unanswerable?) question is, of course, do we invent a certain typeface to fit a cultural programme, or does a new typeface arrive and gets hijacked, as it were, by uses and ideologies. Or both at the same time? Are typefaces born out of a certain zeitgeist, while feeding back into the same?

I have to say, I do like my Garamond, and I am always delighted to read a text using it, too. It’s so easy on the eye, but perhaps that’s just because it looks Renaissance-y to me, so is cosy and familiar.

In any case, the early centuries after the invention of the printing press witness a similar struggle of typeface, notably between the native blackletter and the ancient roman. As in the debates today, it was all about legibility, but also about associations to supposed medieval vernaculars printed in the former, and the new fancy urban humanist thought in the latter. Eventually, but only after a very long while of blackletter resistance, roman won. We’ve been living in new roman times, more or less, for two hundred years now. Ad fontes.

Which nicely circles back to my title: fonts and faces, faces and fonts. No, they’re not the same. A typeface is the general kind, as it were. Like Lucinda, Georgia, and Co. And fonts, they are the different kinds of the same typeface. Like children who all look different yet share the essential gene pool of parents. Such as ‘Gentium Book Basic’ of ‘Gentium’ in general. Or ‘Bahnschrift Semi Bold Semi Conden.’ Or this: ‘Charles Rennie Mackintosh Allan Glen’. The longest font name to date. Apparently.

Here is a great video for the difference between typeface and font. There are also lots of TED talks on typography, some of them given by bright young women. Typography is for everyone, it seems!

[last updated 30 August 2022]

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