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Looking Past Words: Twitter Movement Helps People Notice Typefaces

#FontSunday brings people interested in typography from across the world together. Chelsea Beck/NPR hide caption

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Chelsea Beck/NPR

#FontSunday brings people interested in typography from across the world together.

Chelsea Beck/NPR

On Saturdays, Jim Stokes searches for typefaces.

And on the floors of parking lots, the displays in antique stores and the dust jackets of his modest 4,000 book science-fiction collection, he finds them.

Then, he waits until Sunday to post them on Twitter.

Stokes, 60, participates in the weekly hashtag #FontSunday, in which Twitter users from around the world post fonts that relate to a specific theme. Every Saturday, the Design Museum in London dictates the theme, and on Sunday from noon to 6 p.m. GMT, the feed begins to flood with letters.

It has become a kind of community for people — "type enthusiasts," as it says on the museum's website — to share their love of an aspect of design that usually goes unnoticed.

But in this case, it seems fonts are BIG.

On a recent Sunday, the theme was #Letraset fonts.

Josephine Chanter, head of communications and external affairs at the museum, says the hashtag and the museum's Twitter account have grown steadily since the hashtag's inception about four years ago.

It began, she says, as an experiment in seeing how audiences would react to a regular, semi-curated program in a digital space. Themes are chosen by either the museum, a partner of the museum or an interested follower who's asked to host. Past themes have been everything from fonts on coffee to fonts on manhole covers.

Now, the Design Museum is currently the second most followed museum in the world on Twitter after the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Chanter says she thinks #FontSunday is a big part of that. For three or four consecutive weeks last month, Chanter says, the event was featured on Twitter Moments.

But this event isn't only for those in the design and creative industries.

"It seems to be a huge range of people who have something lovely or charming that they've seen and want to share it," she says.

The Design Museum's idea is that by posing a theme, anyone can join in simply by snapping a picture from something seen at home or on the Internet.

"You don't need to be a typographic geek to have one of the most retweeted things on #FontSunday," Chanter says.

Creative types

Stokes, who lives in Spring Lake, N.J., is a sales executive in the information technology industry who just enjoys the challenge of looking at things with a different perspective. He's been following the hashtag for about four years, and admits he's not an expert in fonts.

"I don't know the difference between Arial and Sans Serif and Times New Roman as a study," he says.

But what he does know is that the event encourages him to be creative.

He says he often uses the covers of his collected science-fiction books because the art on books from the 1950s and 1960s is artistic and strikingly different from today.

But when his books don't fit the theme, he doesn't give up.

"My wife has often seen me on Sunday morning running around snapping pictures," he says.

And on Sundays, he's interested in seeing what others have to contribute.

"I tend to want to look at the timeline during mass, which is a big no-no," he says, laughing. "But it's a fun thing to do. In my mind it's a very creative and different way of looking at the world."

For 54-year-old Marie Dulin, half the fun is seeing what other people share.

Dulin, who lives in Croton-on-Hudson, N.Y., says she's been following the hashtag for about two years.

She's found some of her favorite people to follow on Twitter through the hashtag. She loves the variety of people who post, she says, from the students to the designers to the people like her, who are not in the industry.

"They're not in the field, but they love design, and they'll add pictures from artifacts that they may have saved, family heirlooms, anything," she says. "So there's so much variety out there. And it's fun."

Even with her work in software development, Dulin says she's become more aware of the role typefaces can play.

"Just seeing other people's email, where they deliberately choose fonts — it just says something about the other person that they understand the written language conveys a certain atmosphere when you read it," she says.

The ability to create reactions

According to Ellen Lupton, the senior curator of contemporary design at the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum in New York City, the choice of typeface is a deliberate one as they can have a large influence.

"Typefaces have this personality and quality that influences everything you read whether it's the headline on an ad or pages of text or small print on your Kindle," she says. "And you may not pay attention to it, but that doesn't mean you're not aware of it."

Typefaces, she says, are like the lighting in a restaurant.

"You may never stop and say 'oh, I really like the lighting in the room,' but it is an omnipresent element that literally bathes your entire experience," she says. "If it's just good and appropriate, you might never take note of it, but it is there, supporting your experience. And it has been designed to do that."

Typefaces are more of a tool too Wayne Ford, a freelance graphic designer and creative director based in London.

For his work, typefaces are meant to reflect the brands of his clients and showcase the content he creates. When someone is reading, he says, the type shouldn't be that important; it should just be visible and not distracting.

But one of the reasons Ford, 51, finds #FontSunday so interesting is because people are taking notice.

"Whilst most of us read things every day, and we have no understanding or knowledge of what typeface that piece of copy might be set in, there are people that are pulling things out and keeping them because they connect with them in some way," he says.

According to Lupton, typography in the west was invented in the early 15th century in Germany by Johannes Gutenberg. It quickly became a technology that spread across Europe, influencing new standards of literacy.

Around 1950, photo-based methods were introduced, resulting in typography becoming more lightweight. Eventually, digital typography became the norm.

Today, Lupton says, many typefaces are created for use on screen and in print, and there are hundreds of thousands of typefaces for every language.

She says people are now more aware of how fonts can be used to personalize what they create.

"More people are interested in changing the look of something or creating their own wedding invitations or, you know, posters for their own rock band," she says. "And so there's a lot of sources of really cheap, even pirated low quality typefaces. But there's also people who will buy like a real typeface and spend money on having a unique typeface they can use in their work."

And many understand how fonts have the ability to create reactions.

"People get upset about Papyrus and Comic Sans," she says. "An alert will go out when these typefaces are used inappropriately. And that's sort of a popular awareness. It wouldn't have existed 20 years ago."

But what is it really about typefaces that have people so interested?

#FontSunday may be so popular, Chanter says, because with all the negativity and silliness on social media, it's a kind, supportive space.

"It's a genuinely, kind of lovely thing for people to be involved in," she says. "There's no trolling on #FontSunday."

But the fonts in #FontSunday have reached their current height in popularity over other aspects of design shared on social media, Chanter says, because there's nothing quite as visual and lacking of boundaries.

"It's funny because we've tried to think of other kind of equivalent projects that we could do," she says. "But there's something about typography that just is so limitless."

Cecilia Mazanec is a Digital News intern.