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.)