Font Matters

by Megan Volpert

22 November 2016

Simon Loxley's Type Is Beautiful will have you realizing that you haven't fully lived until you've stared into the depths of Louis John Pouchee’s 18 Lines No. 2.
 
cover art

Type is Beautiful

Simon Loxley

(Bodleian Library, University of Oxford)
US: Oct 2016

How many words do you see in a single day? Consider: text messages and emails, links and headlines, photo captions, social media feeds, the scrolling text at the margins of television programs, food packaging labels, billboards and signage seen on your commute to work, everything on the job from actual paperwork to the vending machine, license plates and your GPS traffic navigation to get home, the list of shows in your DVR and the blurbs for items in your Netflix queue, that book by the bedside table and the one on top of the toilet tank, the stories you read to your kid at bedtime. The 860 words in this article.

Do you live in the land of 12-point Times New Roman? Your classic TNR was designed by two Brits in 1932. They dubbed it “Times” because it was made for a newspaper, The Times. It was released commercially one year later, and until 2007, TNR was the default font for everyone’s default word processing program, Microsoft Word. Stanley Morison, one of the two men who designed this type, was raised by a single mom and briefly went to prison for his conscientious objection to serving in the First Word War. In 2004, it became the official style for U.S. State Department documents and it is still widely used in newspapers today.

Elsewhere its lack of grace can become apparent. But it never had pretentions to be anything other than a denizen of Fleet Street, and subsequently Wapping, and it is a testament to its sound, unfussy design, its authority and sheer presence on the page, that since the arrival of the personal computer so many have felt that for a multitude of purposes it simply looked and felt ‘right’ (174).

Such is Simon Loxley’s assessment of the type in the excellent new compendium Type is Beautiful: The Story of Fifty Remarkable Fonts. Considering how many words per day the average person consumes, it would be utterly naïve to dismiss typographical style as irrelevant. Font matters! 

I first became interested in fonts when watching Gary Hustwit’s 2007 documentary Helvetica. The film is 80-minutes of deep dive into global graphic culture and philosophies of design. There are so many ways to consider a font and Loxley’s book leaps delightfully amongst them all: competitive marketing, technological innovation, principles of visual rhetoric, the nature of white space, global communication, aesthetic philosophy, and so on.

Whether you are already happily embracing your status as a font junky or you had no idea until just now that this is a thing about which you might find it somewhat worthwhile to care, Loxley’s book will be of interest. Each chapter is dedicated to one font and can be read in fewer than ten minutes. The chapters are in chronological order so as to give some sense of historical context and development to typography, but each chapter is enough of a self-contained story that you can flip around in the book or skip over fonts that seem comparatively uninteresting to you. He’s not attempting to present an evaluation of the 50 “best” fonts, but shows command of a broader range of ideas. Loxley chooses these 50 fonts for a wide variety of reasons that ultimately all lend them some significant weight in the history of typography.

See what I did there? “Significant weight” is a font pun. “Weight” is the property of a font that sets how thick or thin a letter appears. In other words: Loxley chooses fonts that are bold. “Bold”, get it? Type is Beautiful is a valuable read in part because it showcases a vocabulary of design that most people don’t carry in their personal lexicons, and from this new set of nouns and adjectives for describing typefaces we can ultimately learn how to talk about the art of lettering that circulates all around us every day. For ignorance of fonts is not bliss. If you’re only ingesting Times New Roman all day, you’re missing out on something.

Louis John Pouchee

Louis John Pouchee

There were many fonts in this book of which I had never heard, but Loxley provides beautifully detailed samples of each. I must’ve spent five whole minutes staring into the depths of Louis John Pouchee’s 18 Lines No. 2. It’s covered in tiny flowers!

Some of the selections are obvious: Gutenberg’s Bible type, Fat Face Italic, Typewriter faces, Stencil. Others are on a mission: Braille, Chinese Advertiser characters, Futura. Still others are those we currently encounter daily: London Underground, Cooper Black, Comic Sans. Then there’re the very moody occasionals: Data 70, Bloody Hell, Cloister Black. Not all the fonts will fascinate every reader, but each analysis is precise enough to be both amusing and enlightening.

Loxley’s writing is clear but colorful, erudite and always quite engaging. Type is Beautiful is a must-have for any serious design student, but also for any casual lover of words. To borrow from architect Louis Sullivan, form follows function. If you love to read, you ought to really consider what species of font you’re consuming.

Simon Loxley's Anatomy of Type

Simon Loxley’s Anatomy of Type

Type is Beautiful

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