Friday, April 04, 2008

What's in a Font?

There has been a lot of interest lately in a subject that used to be the province of bibliophiles and printers--fonts. Steven Heller's piece in the New York Times discusses the Gotham typeface which is used as the unifying visual theme of Barack Obama's tightly disciplined campaign. Heller interviewed Brian Collins, an expert on branding, on the role of the font in the Obama campaign. According to Collins, the Obama campaign has "used a single-minded visual strategy to deliver their campaign's message with greater consistency and, as a result, greater collective impact. The use of typography is the linchpin to the program." Collins makes an interesting point--"type is language made visible. Senator Obama has been noted for his eloquence, so it's not surprising that someone so rhetorically gifted would understand how strong typography is and how it helps brings his words--and his campaign's message--to life."

Jessica Bennett makes similar arguments in her Newsweek article, "Just Go to Helvetica." She says that the "Obama 'brand' the best crafted of any politician's in history." Bennett also points out that "America has developed a geeky obsession with fonts, the latest instance of our sophistication about design." I thought this was perhaps an overstatement until I found myself in a conversation with colleagues this morning; we were discussing our favorite fonts, why we liked them, how certain fonts convey convey gravitas or seriousness of purpose, while other fonds convey frivolousness and make the user seem like an intellectual lightweight. I require my students to submit their papers in Times New Roman because I find it easy to read; I use it almost exclusively for my written work. Hence my surprise when Brian Collins in the Times interview said that in his opinion, a word put in Times New Roman is "self-important," while the same word in Gotham "feels just right." Collins's remark has led to question whether what I am trying to communicate may be undercut by my loyalty to the venerable Times New Roman.


Meg said...

Very interesting, Marie!

As one who can be a font snob, the worst judgment I'd ever make against a Times New Roman user is that the person must not be interested in fonts! Now if you used Comic Sans, on the other hand, that would be a whole different story.

FWIW, my default font at the moment is Georgia. Similar to TNR, but something about it feels more open. I guess that makes it happier too.

Unknown said...

Ah, typefaces for the masses. As a DTPer from the old days when not everyone could afford a computer, I tend to be quite the typeface snob, and misused typefaces tend to drive me around the bend.

Times New Roman, Verdana, Georgia, and Courier probably top the list as they were all designed for specific purposes and now are just bandied about willy-nilly like.

TNR was initially designed for justified multi-columnar text, like in a newspaper. Verdana and Georgia were specifically designed for on-screen reading, like the Web and emails (and almost no one codes a webpage to use these, much less set their email to use either). Courier is just a antiquated, monospaced holdover from the typewriter days and I quail whenever I see it.

It's nice seeing people paying attention to type once again, and perhaps it will filter down to the masses. Maybe Garamond, Bookman, Helevetica, Palatino, Optima, and other beautifully designed typefaces will sone be among us once again.