You Know the Type

Feb 5, 2013

In this age of Comic Sans, Times Roman, Arial and other “system” fonts, it’s easy to take type for granted. We’ve all seen documents that use more fonts per  square inch than legibility, let alone aesthetics, can handle, resulting in a garish “font-o-rama.”

What creators of these documents often neglect is a respect for type, and the understanding that good typography equals good communication. Gutenberg had it easy: he had only one font to choose from. Today, we have thousands upon  thousands of  typefaces. It’s an embarrassment of riches, and we’ve all seen embarrassing design.

Type Is Like Clothing

Type often obeys the law of engineering, “form follows function.” That is, a typeface should be appropriate to what the typesetter designed it to do. At the same time, that form needs to be aesthetically pleasing. The basis of good typographic design is balancing the “logistic” requirements of the document with what is pleasing and attractive.

It’s like clothing. What we wear should be appropriate to the weather as well as the context (formal versus casual), but also be attractive—or at the very least inconspicuous. And just as with clothing, some fonts look dated and scream “1970s!”—the typographic equivalent of a plaid leisure suit.

Typefaces, like anything else, go in and out of fashion. While it’s tempting to think that no one really pays close attention to fonts, there is often an unconscious visceral reaction to type, not unlike the unconscious reactions that we have to color combinations, or, indeed, clothing. Understanding how font choice affects the perception and reception of a document is one of the crucial elements to good design, and you should not treat it lightly. Every font tells a story—is it the story you and your client want to tell? Or do you want people to say, “Your mother dresses you funny”?

History of Common Fonts

If we look at the history of typography, typographers designed almost all of the classic fonts for specific purposes. Venetian book printer, Aldus Manutius invented italic type not because he wanted to stress everything, but because it was the best way to fit all of a book’s text in a “pocket edition.”


The British newspaper The Times commissioned the creation of Times Roman after font designer Stanley Morison had criticized the paper for its poor typography.

Bell Gothic

AT&T designed a popular sans serif face, Bell Gothic, in 1938 for its telephone directories. Its goal? Legibility and economy of page space, two vital elements of a good phone book.


Charles de Gaulle International Airport developed Frutiger, another popular sans serif for airport signage. The goal was for travelers to quickly and easily read it from a distance.

Highway Gothic

Closer to home, Highway Gothic, the official font of the U.S. Federal Highway Administration—it’s the typeface used on highway signage—spawned the creation of Interstate, which typographers modified to use at smaller sizes, and perhaps in colors other than white on green.


Some typefaces outlive the technology for which typographers created them. People who have never even seen a typewriter often use Courier, designed for IBM typewriters. It still evokes a “home made” feel, even though few homes actually have typewriters.


Some typefaces catch on and become The Beatles of typefaces. Caslon, a classic face if ever there was one, first appeared in 1734 and was an immediate hit. The founding fathers of the United States even used it for the Declaration of Independence. (Imagine how ineffective that document would have been if it had been set in Comic Sans.) It’s said that playwright George Bernard Shaw insisted that all his plays be set in Caslon.


More Insights to Enjoy:

+ Taking Stock of Images

+ Step into Style Sheets

+ Fonts of Knowledge

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