When putting together a document, whether it’s a resume, PowerPoint presentation, or sign reminding people that all lunches in the fridge will be thrown away on Friday, most people will give only the briefest thought to their font selection. So many just blindly use the default, while others will take a moment to browse before settling for whatever’s familiar.
I find that 'o' 'w' and 'p' are significant letters for me when choosing a font.
— Garret Heinrich (@GarretHeinrich) July 31, 2018
Sadly, much of the public is unaware of the awesome power and epic histories behind fonts like Helvetica, Garamond, Futura, and others. Much more than mere letters, fonts are like your favorite superheroes—legends in their own right that have done so much for us and asked for so little in return. They’ve fled totalitarian regimes, guided us through busy cities, ushered in a new digital age, and even made their way to the moon.
Of course, the font world has its villains too: misunderstood typefaces that, by no fault of their own, have incurred the wrath of legions of graphic designers. The time has come to bring these fonts out of the shadows and honor them for what they really are rather than what we perceive them to be.
When a Font Isn’t a Font
To begin, it is important to note that when talking about fonts, what we’re usually discussing is typefaces. For clarity on this and other lettering insight, Urbo spoke with Maria Gerasimchuk-Djordjevic, an assistant professor of art and design at Missouri State University.
“What most people nowadays consider to be fonts are actually called typefaces,” she says. “Historically, the distinction between typefaces and fonts came from working with metal type—typeface referred to the actual design of the letterforms, while the term font was meant to describe a specific size within that typeface.”
From the earliest days of Gutenberg, designed typefaces have controlled the look of the letters we read. However, the way we refer to typefaces as a function of a computer’s word processor is what brought us to the terminology used today.
“Once personal computers became more accessible, the way we store information about a specific information is called a font file, and when Word became a default in many offices all over the world, it mistakenly replaced typeface with font.”
So while the typeface is the overarching design, it is the font that gets implemented on the page. And because so much writing happens on computers, the takeover of the term font is generally accepted and used interchangeably with typeface.
Because of desktop publishing, we have instant access to seemingly limitless font files, many of which are based on famous typefaces. Some of these are centuries old, and others have only been around for a short time but already have impressive histories.
Futura’s Great Escape
Few fonts have found themselves in the midst of as much geopolitical turmoil as Futura. The story of Futura begins with Paul Renner, a German native and fan of the functional components of the modernist movement that emerged in the 1920s. In 1927, Renner created Futura—an unapologetically modern typeface that was both simple and striking. Its sleek form also made it easy to read, and thus, highly functional.
Renner’s Futura was a direct reaction to Germany’s very traditional Fraktur typeface, which was exceedingly ornate and busy, Juan Pablo Madrid, the design director at digital marketing agency Online Optimism, tells Urbo.
“He wanted to get away from what traditional German type was doing,” Madrid adds.
Unfortunately for Renner, there was a rising political force in Germany at that time that was interested in enthusiastically promoting all things traditionally German: the National Socialist German Workers’ Party led by Adolf Hitler.
“[Hitler and the Nazis] wanted to make everything purely German and nationalistic,” says Madrid. So Renner’s forward-looking font was not widely accepted. It also didn’t help that Renner was an outspoken critic of the Nazis; in 1933, Renner was removed from his teaching position and labeled an intellectual subversive.
However, as can happen to any unprincipled totalitarian regime, the Nazis made an abrupt about-face when things weren’t working out as planned. They reversed their position on modern typefaces like Futura once they started annexing other nations.
“As time went on,” Madrid says, “the Nazis weren’t very consistent with their thoughts and started thinking that Fraktur fonts had a Jewish influence.” Once the whole country was at war, the difficult-to-read Fraktur font became a liability for Germany, and the country officially banned the typeface in 1941—though the Nazi letterhead still contained the traditional German, but suddenly “Jewish,” font.
It was too late for Futura to be an exclusively German typeface in 1941, however. According to Madrid, by that time, it had entered the global market.
Appropriately enough, the future was bright for Futura, as it became widely used on signage, U.S. military maps, and film posters. The typeface received the ultimate honor when it was chosen by NASA to appear on a plaque the Apollo 11 mission left on the surface of the moon.
“The font achieved its futuristic intentions,” Madrid says.
See You in Helvetica
Like Futura and its origin country of Germany, the ubiquitous sans-serif typeface Helvetica is firmly rooted in its native Switzerland.
“The typeface itself carries the name of the Swiss region which was referred to as Helvetia in historical texts,” says Gerasimchuk-Djordjevic. The forebears of the Swiss, the Helvetians were skilled craftsmen, which is fitting because Helvetica is arguably a perfect example of form meeting functionality.
“Helvetica, the typeface, was created in 1957,” says Gerasimchuk-Djordjevic, “and it is an epitome of the Swiss design movement that swept the world with its simultaneous mix of simplicity and precise genius, ushering a new era of graphic design.”
Ever since its creation, Helvetica’s bold yet simple aesthetic has made it a favorite for public signage and attention-hungry brands. In fact, a quick look at the trailer for the documentary Helvetica from director Gary Hutswit shows just how critical a typeface it has become for anyone just trying to make their way through the urban jungle of Manhattan.
Gerasimchuk-Djordjevic shares that the omnipresent typeface has made it somewhat controversial in design circles, however: “[Most designers] have a love-hate relationship with this iconic typeface—they either outgrow it, or it becomes one of their favorite typefaces.”
While some typefaces, like Futura and Helvetica, burst onto the scene with bold modernity in the chaotic 20th century, other typefaces have survived the erosive forces of time. These timeless fonts tend to fall into the serif category, often recognized from the tactile pages of books, magazines, and newspapers.
“Garamond (16th century) and Baskerville (18th century) are considered to be some of the classic typefaces,” says Gerasimchuk-Djordjevic. “They have been around for a number of centuries and withstood the test of various art movements and book fashions.”
Garamond traces its roots back to French typesetter and bookseller Claude Garamond, who crafted the typeface after a popular Italian script, which was a departure from the more ornate, handwritten typefaces that had been used up to that point.
One serif typeface that anyone who has ever written an essay for English class will find familiar is Times New Roman, a classic-looking font that actually has its roots in a more modern era—1931. Not surprisingly, Times New Roman was the result of a typeface redesign from venerable British daily newspaper The Times.
Gerasimchuk-Djordjevic notes that such classic-looking serif typefaces enjoy a high-status reputation, as you’re more likely to find these fonts in the pages of a distinguished book than slumming it on some subway sign like Helvetica.
“Because of the design of the letterforms, serif typefaces of that period are associated with scholarly achievements,” she says.
Such associations also have given these typefaces a somewhat stuffy, old-fashioned persona, though that might be changing.
“Serifs are making a big comeback, especially in technology,” posits Madrid, his claim bolstered by BuzzFeed’s recent launch of its new BuzzFeed News website. He notes that the serif font borrows from a classic look: “It makes the classic a bit more modern.”
As we’ll soon see, typefaces in the digital space have been both a blessing and a curse for typography enthusiasts.
Say Hello to Digital Typefaces
When discussing the typefaces on our computer screens, it is impossible to not touch upon Steve Jobs. While studying at Reed College, Jobs took a calligraphy class that introduced him to the wide array of typefaces humanity has developed over time.
It is important to note here that, before the original Macintosh computer, most computer type was monospaced, meaning every letter took up the exact same amount of space on a page (think typewriters or movie scripts).
When it came time to build the first Macintosh, Jobs enlisted the help of designer Susan Kare to create many elements of the design interface, including a set of unique fonts. Named after famous global cities like London, New York, and Chicago, the fonts were pixelated variations of well-known typefaces and were completely unique to Apple and the Macintosh. The diversity of fonts as a feature was soon replicated by other computer giants like IBM and Microsoft.
Apple has continued its tradition of creating unique fonts and naming them after cities with its brand new “San Francisco” font, the typeface of choice across all of Apple’s operating systems.
While a number of considerations go into designing a font, the ability to read it remains the top priority. Madrid, speaking to his work in the digital space, says he tells people “to emphasize legibility above everything else.”
The font revolution Jobs brought on has been referred to as the “democratization” of typefaces, allowing every person the freedom to use whatever font they desired. But, like democracy itself, when you give such power to the people, they are bound to make choices you don’t agree with, often turning some otherwise well-meaning fonts into villains.
What the Font
There is perhaps no other font that has been dragged as much as the harmless, squiggly composition of Comic Sans. It is almost universally derided for its childish, uneven form.
When Cavs owner Dan Gilbert tried to make an impassioned case against LeBron James, his petulant letter became an immediate laughingstock for its use of Comic Sans. And if you really want to get into the weeds, product designer and author David Kadavy gave an entire speech entitled “Why You Hate Comic Sans.”
Another font that has earned a special place of scorn among rational font users is Papyrus, the vaguely ancient Egyptian, tribal font that has as much historical accuracy to it as a 4th grade social studies diorama. The font’s prominent usage in some major Hollywood films, and one film in particular, even earned it a pitch-perfect parody trailer on Saturday Night Live.
As much as these fonts have caught flak, some design experts don’t heap hate on the fonts. For them, it’s all about context.
“Comic Sans certainly has poor typographic fundamentals,” says Kadavy, “But the bad reputation of Comic Sans represents something really interesting: It represents that the masses are learning about the subtlety of visual design.”
“I like it now. You can use it ironically,” Madrid admits. “[Comic Sans] has a place in the world.”
Not every design expert is so forgiving, however.
“[Papyrus and Comic Sans are] misused to almost a proverbial degree,” says Gerasimchuk-Djordjevic. She says the font is typically used by people trying to convey a particular message: “They chose one of the ‘less strict’ typefaces—something that seemed fun and quirky.”
A good first date question is "What's your favorite font?"
"Times New Roman"
REALLY red flags:
"Uh, I don't have one?"
— Kara Wagoner (@Karaafaithh) August 2, 2018
When asked to name a font he currently can’t stand, Madrid brings up Lobster—a bold, cursive font that has a professional yet friendly look, causing it to be used ad nauseum. Madrid recalls traveling abroad and seeing a lobster restaurant’s name in the Lobster font—”It was awful.”
Just the fact that Madrid had such a visceral reaction to the Lobster font or could mount a defense of Comic Sans shows that typefaces can spurn emotional responses.
“Try going to a store and [imagining] that all of the products there are set in one typeface,” says Gerasimchuk-Djordjevic. “How would you be able to find anything? Good typography serves well to its product and to its viewer, and as soon as something is not ‘right,’ we notice it.”
Typefaces are ultimately a field of design and an artform. It is almost humbling to think of the impact that typefaces created 20, 90, or 300 years ago still have today. Directing us to the right train. Bringing us the news. Helping us read a book to our kids before bed.
We all know there is power in the written word. And there’s power in the design of those words as well.