Reverting to Type
1. The Politics of Helvetica
“Anyone who used a computer in the late twentieth-century,” writes Edward Mendelson on the 2007 documentary Helvetica in the New York Review of Books blog, “remembers Helvetica as one of the three typefaces available in almost any word-processing program and on almost any printer. The other two were Times Roman, based on the type designed by Victor Lardent for the Times of London in the 1930s, and Courier, based on the type designed by Howard Kettler for IBM typewriters in the 1950s. Helvetica was also designed in the 1950s … produced by two designers working together to create a neutral typeface, neither of whom (as the son of one of them says in the film) was capable of designing a typeface by himself. Still, Helvetica is so anonymous and impersonal that the thought of two human beings conceiving it over a drawing board seems faintly obscene.”
Mendelson goes on to discuss the possibly fascist - or at least proto-fascist - origins of sans-serif typefaces: “Starting in the 1920s, many European designers convinced themselves that sans-serif types were rational and modern, while serif types were bourgeois throwbacks like lace antimacassars.” Serif typefaces have little decorative addenda at the tip of each line in a letter (such as in this website’s headings), whereas sans-serif typefaces are unadorned (such as the typeface you are reading right now).
2. More Typographic Arcana
What’s the difference between a typeface and a font? According to a new documentary, a typeface is a typographic family while a font is a specific member of that family.
If you already knew the answer, congratulations, you qualify as a typography obsessive. As such, you won’t need us to tell you that the shape of a letter is no accident of history: typography is an obscure object of desire for many designers. And it’s the subject of a seven-minute PBS Arts/Off-Book documentary simply called Typography. The documentary investigates typefaces as tools, as markers of identity, as readable texture, and as data.
“Typefaces aren’t merely about forms, they’re about design systems. They have to do with the way things relate to one another,” says custom typeface designer Jonathan Hoefler. Paula Scher, a graphic designer who to a great extent has based her designs of record covers and posters on playful experimentation with type, explains her interest with typefaces as a joy: “It’s the joy of what happens with colour and form and information.”
3. Ten Essential Books on Typography
Over at Brain Pickings, one of our favourite websites, Maria Popova has curated a list of books to immerse you in the world of typeface - proof that we have now officially entered the domain of obsession. Even if you don’t count yourself among the officially obsessed, it’s worth visiting the page for the lavish photographs.