Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Fonts that push our buttons

Fonts, of course, are a major deal for publishers. And that's because they're a major deal for just about anyone who's a reader or writer. I swear Kath's favorite part of the production process is choosing a book's display fonts. (Walbaum is the house font for our larger trade paperbacks, so there's no choice there, unless the text requires an additional font.) Before the days of computers, writers didn't have much choice, except during the 1970s, when IBM allowed the typist to change the ball that provided the typeface, and she had a choice in font size (10 or 12) and in font, either "Elite" or Courier. (Elite was similar to Times-Roman and made Courier look flabby and cold by comparison.) Some fonts, as we all know, are laborious to read. Some are just plain ugly. A post at the NYRB blog, The Human Face of Type by Edward Mendleson, discusses these aesthetic and, dare I say, emotional, reactions to fonts, in the wake of his seeing a documentary film titled Helvetica, which he characterizes as 
a sharp comic essay about human folly. Its unspoken and apparently unintended theme is the folly of utopianism, the ancient fantasy that disorder can be tamed, that the disruptive elements of life can be suppressed, and that people can be shaped and trained into behaving as the authorities think they should. The film’s comic hero is an anti-utopian rebel who despises Helvetica for its corporate anonymity. A utopian graphic designer who seems to prefer Helvetica to human beings is its comic butt.
Mendleson confesses he put off seeing the film because of its title. Mendleson detests Helvetica. Fortunately, the film does too!
Helvetica was also designed in the 1950s, but some of the designers interviewed in the film seem almost surprised by the fact that it was made by human hands and not generated parthenogenetically by the simple lines and curves that shape its letter forms. Unlike the greatest type designs, which are always the work of individual artists, with their own unique genius, Helvetica was produced by two designers working together to create a neutral typeface, neither of whom (as the son of one of them says in the film) was capable of designing a typeface by himself. Still, Helvetica is so anonymous and impersonal that the thought of two human beings conceiving it over a drawing board seems faintly obscene.
That "also" in the first sentence above, by the way, refers to Courier. Courier, he notes, was based on the type designed by Howard Kettler for IBM typewriters in the 1950s. Reading that gave me a Eureka! moment. Designed in the 1950s! That explains why it has that inelegant, soulless look, like so many things designed during the first decade of my life. If I had only known that earlier! IBM probably thought it was producing a modern look. Instead, it cursed a couple of generations of editors with chilly typescripts trying to project objectivity.

But I must not end on a note of hysterical accusation. (You see how emotional some of us get about fonts?) In fact, not all fonts designed in the 1950s suffer from that decade's pretensions. Here is Mendleson on Optima:
Optima is the anti-Helvetica. Zapf designed it in the early 1950s, around the same time that Helvetica was taking shape, but he had a completely different and far more profound sense of what a typeface ought to be. Instead of being mathematically perfect and untethered to a particular time or place, Optima embodies a subtle understanding of history. It is nominally a sans-serif, but its lines swell subtly toward their endpoints, with the result that they suggest classical serifs without actually having them. Zapf based the letterforms on carvings he found on Italian renaissance grave stones, and their overall shape and proportions unmistakably derive from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. But their sleek lines suggest the aerodynamic curves of modern technology, and the whole design could only have been invented in the mid-twentieth century.

People who love type have been known to confess to each other in secret—so they can avoid being quoted in Private Eye’s Pseuds’ Corner—that in certain moods they are emotionally moved by Optima. Its echoes of renaissance carvings evoke nostalgia for a lost and unrecoverable past. Its streamlined curves evoke the forward-looking hopes of the machine age. Like other great works of art it prompts intense mixed feelings, a double sense of loss and gain: it simultaneously portrays something that has receded into the abyss of time and something that is still emerging.
The lesson here is: if you have a favorite font, cherish it, if only in private, for the first draft of anything you write is an intimate undertaking. You'll feel better about your writing if you do and have a better sense of when you're getting it right. It takes only a few keystrokes to switch the font of your ms to Times-Roman, Courier, or --goddess forbid--Helvetica and is easier, probably, than changing your clothes.

1 comment:

NancyP said...

"Helvetica" was an interesting movie about a dull font. I thought that I might have been the only one to check out the DVD at the St. Louis City library, but I hope that I am wrong. I have to give the librarian some credit for purchasing this film and placing it out on the general circulation rack, along with the National Geographic specials, Ken Burns documentaries, and Pilates instructional videos.