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The Font of Knowledge

“Wouldn’t it be interesting if there were only one typeface in the world? Designers would really have to think about the idea behind their designs instead of covering it up with fancy typefaces. One, universal typeface would really strip away all the flashy emptiness in design. And, of course, that one typeface would have to be Helvetica.”

Erik Kessels

The best is definitive by definition, but in some cases is an abstract concept. What is the best album ever recorded? You may have a favourite, or be able to compile a list of worthy candidates, but that list would be entirely subjective. What is the best food? It may be possible to conceive of some ideal consumable, perfectly nutritionally balanced yet satisfying every craving and taste bud, at the same time involving no environmental impact and minimal guilt. You might as well try eating Scotch Mist on toast.

But what is the best typeface, and why should you care? I would argue it is important that someone should care.

Just My Type by Simon Garfield makes the case for the latter question quite brilliantly, being a lengthy love letter to type – its form, its history and the culture that surrounds the little letters. BBC Radio 4 selected the book as their book of the week for the week beginning 5th December 2011, and serialised it in an abridged form read by Julian Rhind Tutt. The five programs only cover the first five chapters, and those are just a taster of a subject that has risen to a kind of geeky, obsessive cultural prominence.

I am a graphic designer by profession, and, due to my dogmatic adherence to the rules of type, I have been described by some as a ‘font Nazi.’* There is an unspoken etiquette regarding the use of typefaces. Comic Sans for example – a typeface that receives coverage in the very first episode of the Radio 4 series, which gives you an idea of how much these cartoon characters split opinion – would not be suitable for use on a funeral notice, or wedding invite. It is a jaunty font, that looks like it has been formed by a child with a felt pen. As this slideshow illustrates, out of context it looks vulgar and awkward. Although I shirk at the request to use it by a client, this most loathed of letter forms does have its place.

It comes down to appropriateness of use. Typefaces are more about right and wrong than good and bad, and all the grey areas in between. But, as Dutch artist Erik Kessels proposes in the above quote, if there were only one typeface – an idea, in itself, that I wouldn’t support – it would have to be the Swiss Helvetica.

I am more in favour of standardization rather than uniformity. We can understand the importance of standardizing something like time, as happened in 1840, so one o’clock in London is the same one o’clock in Newcastle or Manchester. But we wouldn’t go to the extent of making it also one o’clock in New York and Tokyo. Standardization benefits us in the case of expectancy: If we buy a Big Mac in a McDonald’s in Los Angeles, we know that, barring regional variations, it’ll be the same as Le Big Mac in Paris.

The great patriarch of sans serif type is unquestionably Akzidenz-Grotesk, and it is its descendants that dominate the practice of type standardisation. It began in the first half of the twentieth century on the transport networks, just as standard time did. The London Underground kicked proceedings off, with Johnston Sans adorning their signs from 1916. The names Jock Kinnear and Margaret Calvert may mean little to the average reader, but their typefaces Motorway and Transport are seen by millions of motorists and pedestrians every day in the UK. They are the typefaces of all UK road signs, specifically designed to be legible from distance with bold spacing, and have been adopted in Hong Kong, Iceland, Italy, Greece, Denmark, Portugal and in the Middle East.

However, Helvetica’s use has now reached such a climax that it is impossible to avoid, unless you’ve lived in a cave for the past few decades. As Just My Type recounts – Episode 3 of the Radio series – New York resident Cyrus Highsmith tried to spend a day without Helvetica. It was harder than you would expect. He couldn’t eat anything that had Helvetica on its packaging, nor use transport that used it – which includes the city’s subway – but that didn’t matter anyway as he struggled to even spend money, as new US bank notes use it, as did his credit cards. Add to that list BMW, Jeep, Kawasaki, Microsoft, CNN, Panasonic, Motorola, Mitsubishi and NASA to name but a few which utilize it extensively, and you’ve got some idea how much its familiar characters inhabit our lives.

So, by extent of use, you could argue that Helvetica is the best typeface. But ultimately preferring Verdana or Univers is as much a choice as is liking certain food, music, cinema, literature or anything else about which it is possible to have an opinion. There are rules – some of them unspoken – but a flexible and practical designer knows that they are more guidelines.

*For clarity, there is a difference between the terms ‘type’ and ‘font’. A typeface is the name for the family group, such as Helvetica or Times New Roman. A font refers to a specific weight and point size of the typeface, for example 12 point Helvetica Black. The distinction comes from the time when the letters were cast in moulded lead alloys for printing. Each set of characters of one typeface grouped in the same weight and size was called a ‘font’. In the digital age, the boundaries are less rigid and even professionals often now use ‘font’ as the less specific term.

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About stuartjamesbox

I'm a 30-something graphic designer, employed by a large newspaper and magazine publisher, but a writer at heart - only one who struggles to find the time or motivation to sit at the keyboard and bash keys in a pleasing order. I'm a progressive, liberal, atheist. I think everyone is entitled to their opinion, but some people are just plain wrong. I love books, films and music, and if you only like one kind of anything you don't like them at all and seriously need to broaden your horizons. I can cook, bake, and play guitar to various degrees. I have an unhealthy obsession with fonts; vintage clothing, especially tweed; cats of any variety, except pointy, skinny ones and ones with flat faces. Follow me on Twitter @ Stuartjamesbox

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