Introduction: Love Letters
On 12 June 2005, a fifty-year-old man stood up in front of a crowd of students at Stanford University and spoke of his campus days at a 'lesser institution' — Reed College in Portland, Oregon. 'Throughout the campus,' he remembered, 'every poster, every label on every drawer, was beautifully hand calligraphed. Because I had dropped out and didn't have to take the normal classes, I decided to take a calligraphy class to learn how to do this. I learned about serif and sans serif typefaces, about varying the amount of space between different letter combinations, about what makes great typography great. It was beautiful, historical, artistically subtle in a way that science can't capture, and I found it fascinating.'
At the time, the student, who would later drop out of college, believed that nothing he had learned would find a practical application in his life. But things changed. Ten years after his college experience, that man, by the name of Steve Jobs, designed his first Macintosh computer, a machine that came with something unprecedented — a wide choice of fonts. As well as including familiar types such as Times New Roman and Helvetica, Jobs introduced several new designs, and had evidently taken some care in their appearance and naming. They were named after cities he loved, such as Chicago and Toronto. He wanted each of them to be as distinct and beautiful as the calligraphy he had encountered a decade earlier, and at least two of the fonts — Venice and Los Angeles — had a handwritten look to them.
It was the beginning of something — a seismic shift in our everyday relationship with letters and with type. An innovation that, within another decade or so, would place the word 'font' — previously a piece of technical language limited to the design and printing trade — in the vocabulary of every computer user.
You can't easily find Jobs's original typefaces these days, which may be just as well: they are coarsely pixelated and cumbersome to manipulate. But the ability to change fonts at all seemed like technology from another planet. Before the Macintosh of 1984, primitive computers offered up one dull typeface, and good luck trying to italicize it. But now there was a choice of alphabets that did their best to re-create something we were used to from the real world. Chief among them was Chicago, which Apple used for all its menus and dialogs on screen, right through to the early iPods. But you could also opt for old black letters that resembled the work of Chaucerian scribes (London), clean Swiss letters that reflected corporate modernism (Geneva), or tall and airy letters that could have graced the menus of ocean liners (New York). There was even San Francisco, a font that looked as if it had been torn from newspapers — useful for tedious school projects and ransom notes.
IBM and Microsoft would soon do their best to follow Apple's lead, while domestic printers (a novel concept at the time) began to be marketed not only on their speed but for the variety of their fonts. These days the concept of 'desktop publishing' conjures up a world of dodgy party invitations and soggy community magazines, but it marked a glorious freedom from the tyranny of
professional typesetters and the frustrations of rubbing a sheet of Letraset. A personal change of typeface really said something: a creative move towards expressiveness, a liberating playfulness with words.
And today we can imagine no simpler everyday artistic freedom than that pull-down font menu. Here is the spill of history, the echo of Johannes Gutenberg with every key tap. Here are names we recognize: Helvetica, Times New Roman, Palatino and Gill Sans. Here are the names from folios and flaking manuscripts: Bembo, Baskerville and Caslon. Here are possibilities for flair: Bodoni, Didot and Book Antiqua. And here are the risks of ridicule: Brush Script, Herculanum and Braggadocio. Twenty years ago we hardly knew them, but now we all have favourites. Computers have rendered us all gods of type, a privilege we could never have anticipated in the age of the typewriter.
Yet when we choose Calibri over Century, or the designer of an advertisement picks Centaur rather than Franklin Gothic (which are both American and both created at the start of the twentieth century but are very different from each other), what lies behind our choice and what impression do we hope to create? When we choose a typeface, what are we really saying? Who makes these fonts and how do they work? And just why do we need so many? What are we to do with Alligators, Accolade, Amigo, Alpha Charlie, Acid Queen, Arbuckle, Art Gallery, Ashley Crawford, Arnold Bocklin, Andreena, Amorpheus, Angry and Anytime Now? Or Banjoman, Bannikova, Baylac, Binner, Bingo, Blacklight, Blippo or Bubble Bath? (And how lovely does Bubble Bath sound, with its thin floating circles ready to pop and dampen the page?) There are more than 100,000 fonts in the world. But why can't we keep to a half-dozen or so — perhaps familiar faces like Times New Roman, Helvetica, Calibri, Gill Sans, Frutiger or Palatino? Or the classic, Garamond, named after the type designer Claude Garamond, active in Paris in the first half of the sixteenth century, whose highly legible roman type blew away the heavy fustiness of his German predecessors and later, adapted by William Caslon in England, would provide the letters for the American Declaration of Independence.
Typefaces are now 560 years old. So when a Brit called Matthew Carter constructed Verdana and Georgia for the digital age in the 1990s, what could he possibly have been doing to an A and a B that had never been done before? And how did an American friend of his make the typeface, which eased Barack Obama into the presidency? And what exactly makes a font presidential or American, or British, French, German, Swiss, or Jewish? These are arcane mysteries, and it is the job of this book to get to the heart of them.
But we should first take a walk around Brooklyn and Manhattan, and look about us. We live at a time where we have never had such an engaging choice of fonts from which to design an alluring storefront or sell a product. Despite global branding, the trend is towards originality. Helvetica dominates, selling us cars, clothing and mass transit, but our eyes are still dazzled by diversity as we walk along. One of the silent threats of multinational consumerism — every high street the same, the trend that ushers us into a buzzing chain restaurant with the same font on its awning as one that ushers us into a funeral home — has not yet overtaken New York City. The sign writer's art has all but been replaced by fascias delivered by trucks, and not all are beautiful (often, as with the big pharmacies, the script is fine but it is the illumination that scars us). But the variety remains: the carved Roman grandeur on monumental stone, the flourish of stylish penmanship on the trattoria, the cracking English gothic of the dive bar. We walk around, and the history of type beckons from every angle, here a whisper, there an alarm, until one is so smothered in letters that a headache surely looms. Letters do not have zoning laws, and type has only commerce and taste to guide it. We should be grateful.
And where there is homogeneity, that may be welcome too. Nothing says Woody Allen's New York like the condensed Windsor typeface he employs for his screen credits, particularly when used white on black (and so what if it was originally manufactured at a foundry in Sheffield, England). The solid Gotham typeface so favoured by Obama's campaign team is stealthily threatening to become the principal US homegrown rival to Helvetica, such is its stout reliability (with no evidence of a midterm slide). But in Brooklyn's Cobble Hill neighbourhood, the ability of display type to confer emotion — surely its strongest suit — is nowhere more evident than along the eclectic mix of shops and restaurants on Smith and Court streets, where, beyond the Starbucks font (more on that later), we have a true blend of entrepreneurism and confusion — every conceivable letter in just a few blocks. We font fans go window shopping in an entirely different way, stumbling into street furniture as we go. Like maps, fonts do not always tell the truth; they may make us feel warmer towards a product by association, quickening our desires by stirring our memories. At 225 Smith Street we encounter Smith + Butler, a swinging tavern sign in a curious blend of German blackletter and Wild West wanted poster. The sign has all sorts of weirdness going on, including a crescent shape over the i, where normally a dot would go. The letters look as if they have been carved by an apprentice stonemason on his first (and probably last) day. The sign wants us to believe that the store — which sells home furnishings and classic utility clothing leaning towards biker chic — has been in this neighborhood for a while. Its owners speak of how the shop's mood 'reflects the early 1900s corner carriage house, the 1940s butcher shop and the 1960s local pharmacy'. But shopfitters are really setbuilders, and the type on the signs is not actually fifteenth-century Gutenberg or nineteenth-century Wyoming, but something stenciled in 2008, when the place opened.
In Manhattan, we can stroll into the reassuring chaos of the Strand Bookstore on Twelfth Street and Broadway, and find that their popular T-shirts and mugs ('18 Miles of Books') are in Helvetica. But you will find no better example of the diversity of type than by touring the tables and stacks. The text choices favour the digitized traditionals, the Bembos and Baskervilles and Times New Romans, but the jackets display the full roster, the fluid scripts for those intimate heartrending memoirs, the all-lower-case for the comic novels, the no-nonsense bold capitals for the business books, the wimpy scrawls for the children's stuff. Of course you can judge a book by its cover; moreover, we are obliged to.
A walk a couple of miles north to the Museum of Modern Art will be rewarded with a small exhibition devoted to posters and type on the London Underground, a design from the beginning of the twentieth century that was influential in setting a modernist tone throughout Europe. Edward Johnston's Underground font, with its exceptional clarity and magical diamond dot on the i, have helped millions of travelers find their way around the capital. But trying to get close to it during its run at MoMA was a task, such was the interest and so eager were the crowds.
So I think we live in healthy typographical times. Steve Jobs and his digital rivals have brought about a world in which we are all masters of our type, and one in which we are more aware of fonts — their names, their design, their pedigrees — than ever before.
The modest purpose of this book, beyond entertainment and elucidation, is to extend this awareness and to celebrate our relationship with letters. Things we take for granted may disappear without our knowing; things we treasure should not pass without commemoration.
But we should begin with a cautionary tale, a story of what happens when a typeface gets out of control.
Excerpted from Just My Type: a book about fonts by Simon Garfield. Copyright 2011 by Simon Garfield. Excerpted by permission of Gotham Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA), Inc. All rights reserved.