Fonts and Faces

by John Holbo on September 2, 2008

On the strength of my mighty “Back to the Futura” post, I got an offer from the Prospect Magazine to review Font. The Sourcebook [amazon]. And so I have. Alas, it is not available to non-subscribers, but you could always run to your local news vendor and clamor for it. Or subscribe. Writing the piece was an amusing sort of pin-the-tail challenge because I wasn’t quite sure what the editor wanted. So I just did my usual la-de-da look-at-me Holbo-style thing. Which, of course, was very sensibly stripped away. No, really. It was for the best. (When you write brief journalism about language in that style, you end up sounding like William Safir.)

The review got entitled “Building A Better Futura”, so I’m maxed-out on Futura-future puns for the rest of the month. I concluded the review by squeezing in a quick note on my ongoing would-Obama’s-poster-have-been-illegal researches. (Executive summary: the Nazis were crazy.) Now I’ll just sweep together a few other bits and scraps that ended up on the cutting room floor.

Do you ever find yourself in an awkward situation, like so? You say, in the innocence of love: ‘Garamond is my favorite font.’ Or something like that. And some typographiclier-than-thou person cuts you down: ‘Garamond is not a font. It’s a face.’ Well, it’s happened to me twice, I’ll have you know. And it’s a most unfair situation. Because, as books with titles like Font. The Sourcebook just go to show, ‘font’ is expanding to the point where this sort of usage should be just fine. Font purports to tell ‘the story of type’, among other things, so obviously you ought to be able to use it to refer to a single typeface. In case you don’t know: ‘typeface’ is supposed to be the term for any characteristic, alphabetic look (glyphic look, if you want to be picky, because you’ve also got punctuation and numerals & ampersands and such.) Fonts were those pieces of lead from the foundry.

Fun fact! I have a book on my shelf, The Techniques of Advertising Production (1940), by Thomas Blaine Stanley. It’s got two long chapters, one on ‘recognizing type’, the other about the the nitty-gritty of actual typesetting and production. And the word ‘font’ occurs exactly once. So ‘font’ has come up from almost zero to linguistic dominance in a little more than half a century:

In its simplest form, type consists of separate pieces of metal bearing raised letters, to be assembled into words and lines by hand. Because many advertisements use short copy and varied layouts, a good deal of advertising typography is still hand-set in “foundry” type – that is, type cast in “fonts” of individual letters, and placed for use in two shallow boxes with different-sized compartments, called cases … However, modern production calls so urgently for speed that for certain kinds of work typesetting by machine has largely replaced composition by hand. (p. 144)

Of course, with computers, technology reverses course. Rather than making it be that no one has to handle little bits of lead, suddenly everyone is futzing with fonts all the time (for good and ill). In a ‘ready to hand’ sense, everyone does have a favorite ‘font’. So you might say: ‘typeface’ migrates up the production line. Only type designers really think hard about ‘faces’ these days. Everyone else – even most graphic designers – futzes with fonts. Because futzing with fonts is just what thinking about faces has become. (Does this ‘b’ make my ‘but’ look fat? Try it on for height and weight.)

In my review I wanted to talk about some fun typography books from Princeton Architectural Press. But no room, no room, so I’ll do it here. (Full disclosure: Princeton AP sends me review copies. But, oddly, not of any of their books that I have turned out to like. But I like a lot of their books.)

Right. One of the funny things about a book like Font is that it substantially covers the same ground as a book like Letter For Letter (which I posted about before.) That is, the story of fonts is the story of type is the story of the alphabet is the story of the human hand. Perhaps you dimly recall that ‘hand’ is the manual term for font (the artist previously known as ‘typeface’.) The history of writing is, to make a long story short, a line of handsome dents (‘type’ originally meant dent) and beautiful scratches (calli-graphy). And, in principle, digital technology frees us. There is no earthly reason why the stuff on your computer screen, or from your laser printer, needs to imitate the products of obsolete denting or scratching tools and techniques. Yes, it needs to be legible. There are real functional demands. But in the ordinary run of cases ‘form follows function’ is just not sensible typographic advice. It’s like asking what sort of furniture ghosts would find most comfortable. Type has become so abstract – pure Type, almost in Plato’s sense. And yet these ghosts are bound to hang around, mystically bound to the things they should have left behind. This is the minor paradox of type: the function of an A is to look like an A. Which means, in effect, looking like it was made by some sort of denting or scratching tool. So the only way for form to follow function is by embracing forms that are functionally outmoded – that is, ornament. Well, that’s the smarty-pants thesis of my review.

Type has turned into fonts, because fonts are basically a petting zoo/museum of the nicest stratches and dents our species has seen fit to communicate by means of.

An exception that proves the rule is a book like Michael Perry’s Hand Job, a catalogue of type [amazon]. It’s full of brilliant primitivism. Sparky Hadristry’s essay, “All Hail To My Hands” gives nice expression to all this:

The story of modernism (of painting or whatever) goes something like this: new technology (photography) comes along and frees old technology (painting) from its previous obligations to standards, perfection, repsresentation, or what-have-you, and modern painting is created. Once upon a time, graphic designers would’ve been expected to have a decent number of lettering skills even if it were just to work up an initial layout. Then the computer completely removed the need for those skills. By rendering hand lettering obsolete, the computer strips it of its previous obligations and imbues the very act of lettering with a level of meaning that it has not had. Now I use my hands because I want mistakes, quirks, and imperfections – those qualities that give my work warmth. Keep in mind that, at different times in history, that warmth could’ve gotten you fired. Now we view these results as the elemental quality of working by hand. (14)

In short, when type becomes font, those who flee fonts take refuge in tokens – unique individual shapes. (‘A catalogue of token’ might have been a better subtitle for Perry’s anthology, but philosophy of language jokes are not for everyone.)

{ 19 comments }

1

nnyhav 09.02.08 at 3:42 am

2

Righteous Bubba 09.02.08 at 4:07 am

(When you write brief journalism about language in that style, you end up sounding like William Safir.)

William Serif?

3

Righteous Bubba 09.02.08 at 4:15 am

There is no earthly reason why the stuff on your computer screen, or from your laser printer, needs to imitate the products of obsolete denting or scratching tools and techniques.

In Arabic, letters change depending on their position in a word and what they’re next to. There is an extent to which Arabic fonts must imitate the scratching.

4

David Moles 09.02.08 at 4:26 am

Just so you know, there already is a better Futura. So far I’ve managed to avoid spending the necessary four or five hundred dollars, but I doubt I’ll get through my whole life without it.

5

Bloix 09.02.08 at 4:30 am

The original of William Safire’s last name (he was born with the name you gave him unintentionally – William Safir) means “scribe.”

6

Kieran 09.02.08 at 5:01 am

Douglas Adams has a word somewhere for the things you pay extra for in craft work — the rough edges, smudges and broken bits.

7

Robin Kinross 09.02.08 at 8:33 am

In case you don’t know: ‘typeface’ is supposed to be the term for any characteristic, alphabetic look (glyphic look, if you want to be picky, because you’ve also got punctuation and numerals & ampersands and such.) Fonts were those pieces of lead from the foundry.

Your description of ‘typeface’ is sort of, vaguely, roughly on the right lines.

‘Font’ used to have a very precise meaning, which is why typographers of a certain generation find it hard to accept the new expanded usage for the term. It used to refer to the character set (= all the characters, yes punctuation, numerals, as well as letters) of a typeface at any particular size and any particular style (style here means weight, slope, width, etc). So, 12 pt italic Monotype Baskerville was a font. It had a price, and you could buy just that font. In the days of hand-set type, a font came wrapped in brown paper: a nice smallish packet. 18 pt italic Monotype Baskerville was a different font, and it sold for a different price. 18 pt bold Monotype Baskerville was still another font.

By the way, it’s important to specify the name of the manufacturer: Monotype or Linotype or Stempel, etc. Because their Baskvervilles all looked a bit different from each other: they were different designs.

When the material dimension of type finally disappeared – when type became software, from the mid-1980s onwards – then this thoroughly material term ‘font’ lost its strict meaning, and the term became generalized and began to displace the term ‘typeface’.

Here, as in other departments of life, one can learn from a fully historical, materialist analysis!

8

ajay 09.02.08 at 9:51 am

I’ve come across it spelt “fount” – in, among other places, Dorothy Sayers’ “Murder Must Advertise”, where it is used to mean “typeface” in context…

9

Robin Kinross 09.02.08 at 2:51 pm

Yes, ‘fount’ was the UK-British spelling; North Americans have tended to spell it ‘font’. When, in the 1980s, the North American software industry (think Adobe, Apple, Microsoft) gobbled up typography, of course they spelled the word ‘font’.
I think the idea behind this Anglo-American word ‘fount’/'font’ was of flow and flowing: metal was poured into a mould (of a given size) to make a set of characters.
Here is Philip Gaskell (New introduction to bibliography, Oxford University Press, 1972), with a definition of the term:
‘A fount of type was a set of letters and other symbols in which each sort [= character, maybe glyph] was supplied in approximate proportion to its frequency of use, all being of one body-size and design.’ (Read his whole discussion, pp. 33 and following.)
Gaskell was talking about metal type; and he uses the past tense in 1972: his book was set by photocomposition, which was already crumbling the metal type world.
The design on the face of these pieces of type led us to speak about the typeface – the design of a set of characters.
Clearer than this, I don’t think it’s possible to be.

10

bab 09.02.08 at 3:03 pm

‘Font’ used to have a very precise meaning … . It used to refer to the character set (= all the characters, yes punctuation, numerals, as well as letters) of a typeface at any particular size and any particular style … .

And, of course, if you’re getting really picky, it’s not “all the characters,” it’s a certain number of each character based on the foundry’s anticipation of the printer’s frequency of use. (And special characters sometimes did not even come with a standard font.)

The Handristry quote is poignant. Many craftspeople bemoan the fact that mastering handskills is no longer necessary to become a successful designer. This seems like a conservative’s limited view to me; democratization of design certainly results in a lot of crap, but it also opens us to imaginations that otherwise may never have had a chance to contribute.

11

richard 09.02.08 at 3:16 pm

I grew up in a design studio (literally) where we talked about typefaces (which we roughed in Letraset). When I got to college it was all computers and fonts, a word I had never encountered before. I just figured it was American.

12

ajay 09.02.08 at 3:55 pm

Yes, ‘fount’ was the UK-British spelling; North Americans have tended to spell it ‘font’. When, in the 1980s, the North American software industry (think Adobe, Apple, Microsoft) gobbled up typography, of course they spelled the word ‘font’.

Yes, I thought it might be something like that. As a proud (or “prod”) speaker of British English, I will start writing “fount” forthwith. (Or even fourthwith.)

13

soru 09.02.08 at 9:42 pm

‘Font’ used to have a very precise meaning … . It used to refer to the character set (= all the characters, yes punctuation, numerals, as well as letters) of a typeface at any particular size and any particular style

Under the hood of computers, it still has that meaning, e.g.:

http://java.sun.com/j2se/1.3/docs/api/java/awt/Font.html
There are three different names that you can get from a Font object. The logical font name is the same as that used by java.awt.Font in JDK 1.1 and earlier releases. The font face name, or just font name for short, is the name of a particular font face, like Helvetica Bold. The family name is the name of the font family that determines the typographic design across several faces, like Helvetica. The font face name is the one that should be used to specify fonts. This name signifies actual fonts in the host system, and does not identify font names with the shape of font characters as the logical font name does.

14

Robin Kinross 09.03.08 at 10:31 am

This ‘under the hood of computers’ description is painstaking, but it doesn’t go the whole way of the old sense of ‘font (‘fount’). The old metal definition of the term refers to a definite size of the character set: 18 pt Helvetica Bold was a different font from 24 pt Helvetica Bold (and in the constrained world of metal type, 19 pt and 21 pt and 23 pt type just didn’t exist; I don’t believe much 22 pt type was made either).
A font of ‘computer type’ can be made to show at any size, including 21.397 pt.
(But what does this size definition actually refer to? We could open that can of worms next.)

15

don't quote me on this 09.03.08 at 2:14 pm

Yes, and let’s talk leading and line spacing, too!

16

deliasmith 09.03.08 at 4:07 pm

BAB@ 10: The Handristry quote is poignant. Many craftspeople bemoan the fact that mastering handskills is no longer necessary to become a successful designer. This seems like a conservative’s limited view to me; democratization of design certainly results in a lot of crap, but it also opens us to imaginations that otherwise may never have had a chance to contribute.

As a publishing professional working in an organisation where authors have the last word on design I’d say that the comma after ‘crap’ should be changed to a full point, and the last 17 words deleted.

In support of my case I cite Comic Sans

17

felix culpa 09.04.08 at 12:39 am

I suppose it might be something every civilized person should know, but with all due respect and admiration for Lord Peter as an emblem of England’s finest (re Sayers), what is it with the Brits and their yews?
Honour, harbour, flavour, and cetera.
As a native-born American (apologies to the other residents of the Americas) living in Canada for forty years, I follow the local custom, taken from British usage: That is, in writing for domestic consumption or in my blog(s). In my comments on blogs, I use American, since it’s largely the native tongue in blogland. Seems appropriate and courteous and non-confrontational. Canajan, eh?

Anyway, I know it’s due to the Norman invasion and all, but is that adequate to explain it?

18

Zack 09.04.08 at 1:41 am

…what is it with the Brits and their yews?
Honour, harbour, flavour, and cetera.

I don’t know how the letters got into the words in the first place, but they were taken out of Am.Eng. in what was, as far as I know, the only successful deliberate spelling reform of that language, ever: Noah Webster dropped them in his 1806 Compendious Dictionary of the English Language and somehow he got everyone to go along with it.

19

bab 09.05.08 at 5:38 pm

deliasmith,

I share your snobbery, believe me (and to let authors have any input on design constitutes publisher malpractice). Nonetheless, I’d rather live in a hyper-DIY cultural world than be relegated to, eg, major-label bands, studio movies, network television, MSM newsgathering, etc.

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