How fonts shape your life
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To be picky, when you pull down that window at the top of Microsoft Word, what you select is not a font, though that is what you may think and that is what it says. It is, rather, a typeface and, as Simon Garfield tells us in his charming and informational "Just My Type," a font is "a complete set of letters of a typeface in one particular size and style," along with punctuation marks, dollar and euro signs and all other "glyphs," and each typeface will typically have many fonts.
But Mr. Garfield, the British author of several other nonfiction works, is not picky. In common parlance we use font and typeface interchangeably; "there are worse sins," he says, and it is one he commits freely.
No, Mr. Garfield prefers that we share his fun in exploring the somewhat geeky realm of typography. Not so geeky, however, since the advent of computers, which have made us more aware of type. Indeed, there is a recent, much-viewed documentary, "Helvetica," about the global dominance of that sans-serif font among the more than 100,000 fonts in the world.
For the uninitiated, serifs are the little toes or doohickeys on the ends of the strokes of some letters or characters; such a font is called a serif font. Plainer ones not so adorned are sans-serif fonts.
The author goes into that and other technical details of fonts such as the "bowls" and other characteristics of letters, the controversy over legibility vs. readability, and the history of type founding and printing since Gutenberg. The painstaking (and not terribly lucrative) task of creating a font of 600-plus glyphs or elements can take up to three years.
But the "modest purpose of" his book is to celebrate our newly expanded awareness of letters and to show how type confers emotion and what exactly makes a font presidential (Gotham, used by Barack Obama) or American (Franklin Gothic) or German (versions of Fraktur) or any nationality.
And then there are the people behind the fonts. People like Eric Gill, whose pursuits extended beyond typography to incest and bestiality. He created Gill Sans, a font that, though "curiously sexless," propagated itself everywhere in the early to middle decades of the past century. In 1990 the American type designer Barry Deck, apparently more bemused than outraged by Gill's sexual proclivities, paid tribute to him with a font called Canicopulus for Gill's preference for dogs.
Mr. Garfield speaks of typefaces as almost living, breathing agents of change in the world. Sometimes his enthusiasm drives him over into the kind of slippery, imprecise jargon of art criticism, which says little but sounds informed.
Mostly, however he has fun, truly informed fun. He explains why Comic Sans font should be shunned by every thinking person, "Hamburgerfont" is a term used to display the virtues of a font, Brush Script and Papyrus are among the Worst Fonts in the World, and Calibri the most widely used (hint: Microsoft).
Finally, because the crediting of a font is a disappearing feature of books and other publications, it should be mentioned that "Just My Type" is printed in Sabon, developed in Germany in the 1960s and named for a 16th-century type founder in Frankfurt, Jacques Sabon.
First Published October 30, 2011 12:00 am