Fonts of Inspiration

A book for the typography nerds we’ve all become.

Spread from The Anatomy of Type

When did we all become amateur typography experts? Perhaps we should credit Steve Jobs, a calligraphy buff who built a bunch of cool typeface options into early Macs. By the time I got to college, any sophomore worth her salt had firm feelings about whether Palatino or Garamond looked better on her Classic II. And any professor worth her salt knew that a term paper printed in 12-point Courier was a desperate attempt to stretch eight thin pages to the required 10.

By 2007, some of us were actually watching a feature-length documentary about a font. We grew adept at spotting Helvetica, the ubiquitous “typeface of capitalism,” on storefronts and billboards. We even took online quizzes that tested our capacity to distinguish its flat-topped t from Arial’s slope-roofed impostor.

In 2008, a typeface won a presidential election. At least, that’s the impression you may have gotten if you read one of the countless stories extolling the virtues of Gotham. Originally commissioned for a GQ redesign, Gotham came to define the Obama campaign’s clean visual signature. The website of Hoefler & Frere-Jones, the foundry that invented Gotham, went momentarily viral after a catty blog post ridiculed the fonts used by rival campaigns. Though, to be fair, I find it hard to deny that the McCain logo seemed better suited to a downscale drugstore cologne.

Nowadays we raise a ruckus when Ikea abruptly switches its corporate identity from a customized version of Futura to Verdana.* We sign petitions proposing an outright ban on Comic Sans. We chuckle at cruel, font-based humor: “Comic Sans walks into a bar and the bartender says, ‘We don’t serve your type here.’ ” We leap to correct those who naively say “font” when the correct term is “typeface.” (No doubt I’ve already done it in this essay, and will do so again. Many apologies.)

If you merely wish to be annoying at cocktail parties, Simon Garfield’s 2011 book Just My Type covers the Ikea incident, the Comic Sans saga, and lots of other fun waypoints in the history of typography. If, however, your aim—like mine—is to blow past jovial dorkery, level up, and ascend to a realm reserved for the truly insufferable pedant … may I recommend a new coffee table hardback from Stephen Coles? The Anatomy of Type offers granularity that would glaze the eyes of a normal, well-adjusted human. I couldn’t get enough of it.

Coles begins with a glossary, and with annotation. He identifies the discrete elements that form a character (or “glyph”): the aperture, terminal, ascender, ear, and so forth. He then classifies typeface groups using a mix of appearance and ancestry—be they rooted in brush strokes, chisel engravings, fountain-pen scribbles, or something more machined and modern. He informs us that when sans-serif typefaces (with no little feet at the tops and bottoms of their letters) first appeared in the mid-1800s, they were labeled “grotesque” because they looked quite bizarre to unaccustomed eyes.

From there, Coles launches into the meat of the book. Each two-page spread is an extremely detailed examination of a typeface. One hundred in all, from Adelle to Whitney. Large-scale images of letters are accompanied by little arrows and captions pointing out their distinctive features. A few paragraphs of commentary reveal Coles’ thoughts about each font’s relative strengths and weaknesses, and ideal uses. Oh, let’s go ahead and flip straight to some favorites.

Author Stephen Coles
Author Stephen Coles

Illustration by Laura Serra.

You’ll discover that Times New Roman was released in 1932 (credit for its design remains in dispute!), created for The Times of London newspaper. We learn that its defining features include long, sharp serifs; very wide upper-case letters; and a comparatively small dot above its i. Coles suggests it is a good choice for a “conventional office-document look” but that Le Monde Journal—commissioned for the French newspaper Le Monde in 1997—is a “fresher alternative.”

What about old friend Helvetica, Miss Typography of 1957 (and pretty much every year after)? Coles theorizes that its universality stems from the fact that its “shapes and widths are unusually uniform.” This homogeneity makes it perfect for big display logos but “not as effective for long passages of text, where dynamic rhythm and unique lettershapes are vital.”

Keep leafing around. Garamond Premier “has a formal personality that might not fit more casual topics.” Baskerville Original has a “debonair swagger.” The cosmetics industry has long employed Optima’s “elegant serenity to label all manner of creams, ointments, and makeup.”

If you are presently staring at an open browser on a computer monitor, you are very likely reading these words in Verdana—a font designed for Microsoft in 1994. Note the squared, not rounded, dot above this i. Be aware that this a is double-story (sheltered beneath that little left-pointing awning) and not single-story (a simple circle with a vertical stroke adjacent to its right edge). Consider whether this monocular g (with that left-pointing swoop beneath its main loop) would look better if it were instead binocular (with a second, smaller loop linking down below).

Says Coles of Verdana:

Its large, broad lowercase letters with slightly flaring terminals, its seriffed ‘I,’ ‘J,’ and ‘j,’ and its loose spacing can appear almost horsey when viewed large or in print. But this typeface was made for the screen. Every design decision makes Verdana the most legible small Text option for the coarse resolutions of all but the most modern displays.

Riffs like this can be mildly bewildering as you first attempt to digest Coles’ strongly voiced opinions. (“Almost horsey”?) But as your knowledge accumulates, and your vocabulary grows, you, too, will begin to appraise these fonts with a critical eye. You will gaze at them alongside Coles, nodding at his insights.

For me, The Anatomy of Type provides a glorious opportunity to taxonimize another everyday visual encounter. I have long sorted starlings from sparrows, cirrostratuses from cumulonimbuses, Cortlands from Granny Smiths from Golden Deliciouses. And now, as I peruse the text of subway ads and pasted-up flyers, I delight in assessing their glyph widths, their stroke weights, their ascender heights. It’s a total gas. Did you know that the invitations to this cocktail party were printed in Melior, one of the few serif typefaces whose superelliptical forms match well with sans-serif fonts? In fact—oh, you need to get another drink? Oh, sure, that’s cool.

Correction, Jan. 7, 2013: This article initially stated that Ikea’s typeface was once Futura. It was actually a customized version of Futura. (Return to the corrected sentence.)

The Anatomy of Type by Stephen Coles. Harper Design.

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