Stephen Banham explains why font design is at a ...">Stephen Banham explains why font design is at a ..." />Stephen Banham explains why font design is at a ...">

Children of the kern

Two fonts walk into a bar. The bartender says “Hey, you’d better leave. We don’t serve your type around here!” Boom-boom.

I don’t for a minute think you found that joke funny but it does suggest a little more than just a nerdy sense of humour. It’s a joke about something that people for the main part don’t even think about—typography.

As someone concerned about such things professionally, the fact that the public doesn’t ‘get’ type used to bother me a great deal. But then I began to realise that we don’t laugh at jokes about quantity surveying or neurophysics either. The simple fact of the matter is that most people don’t know much about type because they really don’t need to. Let’s face it, the ability to properly kern 144-point Clarendon is not usually a necessity in contemporary life.

Letterbox fonts (top: Bisque, middle: Berber, bottom: Kevlar Slab)

But if we put aside the technical aspects of the craft, the better way of engaging the public about type is how it affects them—the role of type in their everyday lives. So how do we do this? We do it by plugging it into a social, cultural and historical context. Even politics is connected with the way letters appear and function. This way, typography is seen as a valid cultural expression, just another part of their designed environment. It’s putting the humanist back into type.

For something so supposedly dry, typography can elicit passionate responses. On the odd occasion typography has been discussed on Australian talkback radio the switchboard has lit up with listeners proclaiming their favourite font or expressing their complaint about ones they don’t like. Everybody has something to say about fonts. And this should be encouraging to graphic designers, typographers and type designers for two reasons.

First, that even on a superficial level, people do actually take in the often quietly differentiated tones of typographic voice; and second, that we have a job ahead of us dispelling some commonly-held myths to overcome—serif type is “more legible”, a sans is by default “more modern”; that size is the only factor in legibility; that BrushScript has a future; and so on.

And what could be more passionate than an extensive and vigorous international campaign. Over the past decade there have been global campaigns against Comic Sans (for the absurd inappropriateness of its usage), Helvetica (for its political and cultural baggage) and even against Rotis (this one I’m still to work out). And speaking of campaigns, we just have to look at the commotion made in the mainstream media of the respective typefaces used for the US presidential candidates—the conservative but classic Optima for John McCain, a curiously conservative Baskerville for Hillary Clinton and the urbane and contemporary sans Gotham for Barack Obama. Again, more public recognition of the power of type, the power of the differing tones each typeface offers and what it says about each person and, perhaps more importantly, their politics.

In fact, it’s been said that several significant events in human history have spun precariously on a pivotal typographic point. These include the ambiguity of the ballot papers during the 2004 US presidential campaign (which inevitably led to a Bush victory by a very narrow margin). Even more dramatically, the unclear technical information during the launch of the ill-fated Challenger shuttle voyage is said to have contributed to its demise. So, strangely enough, typography can, in particular situations, mean the difference between life and death.

It’s an incredibly active and healthy time for typography. But more important than the unprecedented quantity of typefaces being produced is their quality. With advanced OpenType software we’re seeing the evolution of complex and extensive families of text faces, not just for print but also increasingly for screen reading. Powering this are ever-growing opportunities for postgraduate study into typography and type design, out of which valuable research and publishing has emerged. So it’s smiles all round.

Spread from Utopia Oblique (to be published in 2009)

The challenge no longer lies in the design of typefaces, but their use. More specifically, convincing a broader community (including clients) as to the importance of their contribution. A metaphor I often use when discussing things typographic is to think of each typeface being an individual voice in a massive choir. Each voice produces its own note, pitch and volume. So as the song (content) changes, different voices are employed to express the appropriate message—to yell, whisper and everything in between.

So plentiful are these messages in contemporary life that this ‘typographic singing’ becomes an ambience. Type is simply a part of our lives. And that’s about all the public really need acknowledge. And, who knows, one day when more is understood about type, they might even laugh at that joke.