There’s a New Serif in Town: Encounters with Typography

They have spines, arms, legs, ears, eyes, shoulders, hairlines, waistlines—even crotches. They live in families and vary in color, ranging from light to dark. They have widows and orphans, and sometimes live on the margin or next to gutters. They’ve got societal ascenders and descenders.

I started thinking about typography in Professor Speyers’s Communication Design classes at Calvin College.

“Try changing the font.” Professor Speyers would say. Simple enough—but there are hundreds of them! I click the drop-down menu and change the font. I try another, and another, and another, until I find a font that fits.

“Now boost the tracking.”

“What’s that?”

“It’s the spacing between the letters.”

“Oh.” I boost the tracking.

“Increase the leading a bit.” (What he said rhymed with “sledding.”) “It’s not quite legible.”

I hover over the toolbar in Adobe InDesign, a page layout application. A friendly yellow tooltip pops up, showing me “line-spacing” Is line-spacing the same as leading? The icon surely seems to indicate so: three parallel horizontal bars with a vertical double-ended arrow to their left.

Oops. Too much leading. Why do they call it leading anyway? Google—my typographer’s dictionary—tells me how typesetters used to put thin strips of lead between lines of text. The strips of lead were shallower than the letterforms, so the ink would not transfer to the paper.  Interesting.

“Try a drop cap,” says my professor. At least I’ve heard of that before.

“That’s like when you make the first letter bigger and…” Don’t try to explain it out loud, I tell myself.

“Yep. Now exchange that ‘and’ for an ampersand…”

It’s surprising how much typography is like humans.

The populace of Typographia refers to their queen as “Your Majuscule.” (A majuscule is a capital letter.) She is a highly ornate capital Q, of course. She wears quite a long swash—an extended, flourishing tail. Her closest advisers are small capitals. The queen’s subjects are divided into two classes: upper case and lower case. Unfortunately, all children in Typographia are considered lower case.

But not every character in Typographia is quite as magisterial as Her Majuscule. Most letterforms live relatively quiet lives like the rest of us. For instance, ever since lower case “a” was able to stand, his mother would line him up against the door frame and measure his x-height in picas. Since his last birthday, he has grown one pica and three points (that’s a fourth of a pica—there are twelve points in a pica). When little “a” gets older, he’ll grow a bar and legs like his father, capital “A.”

In their teen years, letterforms may become romantically involved. You’ll often find two letter “f’s” frolicking on a cliff together. When they get close, their arcs connect. Humans usually call this “holding hands.”

In Typographia, the law is called the baseline. Some characters get out of line by breaking the x-height ordinance or dipping below the baseline. But the town serifs put them in their place, with their pointy asterisk badges as a symbol of their authority. Lower case “g” is particularly mischievous. He has a notorious descender, which scoops below the baseline, digging up dirt on his fellow citizens. The serifs keep an especially close eye on the sans-serifs, who like the sans-culottes of the French Revolution, go rogue, refusing to wear their finishing strokes.

Typographia is not without its social climbers. The lower case “b” starts young, too, flaunting his flashy ascender like a peacock. But he’ll mature into a nice, handsome, capital “B” someday, when he reaches his cap height.

The nomenclature of typography says something about the art’s deep connection to humanity. As civilization has flourished, so has the vocabulary of the typographer. Here are just a fraction of the words one has to know to speak and think like a typographer: serif, sans-serif, kerning, leading, ligature, bold, italic, underline, ascender, descender, barb, beak, bowl, column, margin, counter, cross bar, em, en, eye, fillet, finial, flag, hairline, link stroke, leg, shoulder, stroke, swash, tail, tilde, majuscule, minuscule, pica, pint, vertex, waist line, widow.

Typography is ubiquitous. Consider one of the most notorious fonts ever created: Helvetica. Helvetica is a typeface straight from 1950s Switzerland, designed by Max Miedinger and Eduard Hoffmann, with its perfect angles and straight edges, like the jagged peaks of the Alps. Maybe you did not know that it had a name, but you’ve seen it—it’s everywhere. You’ll find it in the American Airlines logo, Target advertisements, even Microsoft’s logo. The Internal Revenue Service uses it for your tax forms. Helvetica even has a 2007 documentary in its namesake, directed by Gary Hustwit.

Sometimes Helvetica is hard to spot, because graphic designers like to hide the fact that they are using the same font as someone else. Usually it’s slightly modified so it does not look like it’s Helvetica, as is the case with Microsoft’s logo, which is Helvetica with a chip taken out of the “o” and “s”—a clever visual pun, since Microsoft sells operating systems—OSes.

Helvetica seems to be one of those fonts that designers either hate or love. On the one hand, some designers argue that Helvetica is too cold and clinical, that it does not convey much emotion or meaning.  On the other hand, some designers argue that Helvetica is pure simplicity, the designer’s dream—a typeface as neutral as its mother country was in the Second World War. To these designers, the simplicity allows them to incorporate the typeface into a multitude of designs, even with alterations—not many typefaces have that quality.

I once dabbled in designing my own font, based on my handwriting. On a blank white sheet of paper I wrote out with a fine, black ink pen all the characters and symbols I could possibly think of that would be needed to create a complete font. I scanned the sheet into Adobe Illustrator and converted the letterforms into vectors. Vector graphics are shapeable and scalable, based on mathematical formulas—all above my head, but this is how most typography is done these days. I downloaded a program called FontForge and began importing my vectorized fonts into the program. FontForge would allow me to export my creation as a usable font on my system.

Let’s just say I got as far as the letter “B.” I didn’t even get to perfecting the kerning—the spacing between individual characters—of my font. I wasn’t starting from scratch; I had cheated a bit and scanned in my handwriting as a template. But my template didn’t have much structure. There was no easy way for me to match the x-heights or cap heights of all my characters, because in the world of typography, every point and pica counts.

I realize I will never be like the famous type designers Claude Garamond, William Caslon, John Baskerville, Aldus Manutius, Frederic Goudy, or Johannes Gutenberg. These guys have fonts named for them; they are the movers and shakers of graphic design history. Garamond is even given credit in the colophon of my Harry Potter books: “the text was set in 12-point Adobe Garamond, a typeface based on the sixteenth-century designs of Claude Garamond, redrawn by Robert Slimbach in 1989.” Regardless of the fact that the typeface was computerized, Garamond’s design made it into the twenty-first century. I’d say something that has endured five or more centuries has some pretty timeless qualities.

It was hard enough drawing letterforms with vectors and bezier curves in Adobe Illustrator. I was weak and gave up. I ended up using—and application on the Internet—to generate a font from my handwriting, instead. The “founding fathers” of typography used chisels, wooden blocks, and molten metals.

Of course, I was never really aiming to be like these guys in the first place. My font wasn’t going to be timeless; it was just an exploration. A fun experiment. Maybe when I learn more about the tools I’ll pick it up again. For now, I’m okay with admiring the work of excellent typographers and gleaning all that I can from the sidelines.

Just as driving has rules, typography has rules. What if stop signs were written in script? STOP. Stop. Which one would you obey? Maybe you would obey both, but the script version doesn’t really say STOP typographically. The strong, bold bars of the letters S-T-O-P are part of the graphic language. When combined with the red octagon the stop sign really means what it says. In other words, the point is typefaces have their own meaning, own message.

I’ve also learned not to cheat in my designs. If a particular font that I like does not include a bold or italic typeface, I could use my design application to force this change by manipulating its anchor points. But this is a big no-no in the typographic community. Fonts belong to families. Typographers never force a font to look bold or italic by stretching or squishing—they carefully design separate bold and italic versions of the font.

I’m not a typographic genius, but bad typography makes me cringe. We’ve all seen the passive-aggressive notes posted in the office kitchen or copy room in all their ugly, over-used font grandeur. Comic Sans here. Papyrus there. (The secretary at my church will not stop using Papyrus in our church bulletin, and it drives me crazy.) And we’ve all seen the note that is IN CAPS LOCK BECAUSE IT’S SUPER IMPORTANT. We’ve gotten emails from co-workers and friends who jazz up their emails with five different fonts and colors. MySpace made everyone think they were top-of-the-line designers, but most pages went awry. And we’ve seen web pages that use at least fifty different fonts, in different colors no less, and some of the text flashing.

Amateurs. But maybe I shouldn’t be so harsh. I haven’t created a MySpace page, but I know the allure of fonts like Comic Sans. “Wow! It looks like I’m writing like a cartoon!” I used it for my seventh grade short stories. But once I started learning about good typography, I realized that Comic Sans is not an awful font in and of itself, but the context usually dictates otherwise. Maybe there’s a place for kitsch typography, but it’s certainly not the typography of the masters.

Behind the temptation to go off-the-wall with Comic Sans (which I like to pick on) is a greater principle, a more primitive instinct. We as humans somehow have an intuitive desire to enhance our text, to add qualities to complement its meaning or to give it a visually pleasing style. This is the typographers job, but to do it well. A typographer hones the skill of artfully choosing a typeface based on its purpose, function, and time.

Students may groan when their professors require them to type up their papers in Microsoft Word, and set the font to Times New Roman, size twelve, double-spaced. Teachers may or may not realize that they are actually giving their students a lesson in good typographic sense. Times New Roman looks professional and the double-spacing—leading—increases readability, and has the added function of leaving space for comments. It’s a basic, low-level form of typography, but it gets at the heart of typography: formatting for effective communication. It’s about more than just choosing your favorite font for every document, email, resume, or website that you may create.

Typography is an art that is being rediscovered and renewed. It has made the digital transition. John Boardley blogs about typography on his website I Love Typography, which, according to the author “aims to make the subject more accessible, to bring the study of typography to the masses.” Like John Boardley, my encounters with typography haves only drew me in closer. It has only made me eager to learn more about type design, to bask in its complexity.