Yet when we choose Calibri over Century, or the designer of an advertisement picks Centaur rather than Franklin Gothic (which are both American and both created at the start of the twentieth century but are very different from each other), what lies behind our choice and what impression do we hope to create? When we choose a typeface, what are we really saying? Who makes these fonts and how do they work? And just why do we need so many? What are we to do with Alligators, Accolade, Amigo, Alpha Charlie, Acid Queen, Arbuckle, Art Gallery, Ashley Crawford, Arnold Böcklin, Andreena, Amorpheus, Angry and Anytime Now? Or Banjoman, Bannikova, Baylac, Binner, Bingo, Blacklight, Blippo or Bubble Bath? (And how lovely does Bubble Bath sound, with its thin floating circles ready to pop and dampen the page?) There are more than 100,000 fonts in the world. But why can't we keep to a half-dozen or so - perhaps familiar faces like Times New Roman, Helvetica, Calibri, Gill Sans, Frutiger or Palatino? Or the classic, Garamond, named after the type designer Claude Garamond, active in Paris in the first half of the sixteenth century, whose highly legible roman type blew away the heavy fustiness of his German predecessors and later, adapted by William Caslon in England, would provide the letters for the American Declaration of Independence.
Typefaces are now 560 years old. So when a Brit called Matthew Carter constructed Verdana and Georgia for the digital age in the 1990s, what could he possibly have been doing to an A and a B that had never been done before? And how did an American friend of his make the typeface Gotham, which eased Barack Obama into the presidency? And what exactly makes a font presidential or American, or British, French, German, Swiss, or Jewish? These are arcane mysteries, and it is the job of this book to get to the heart of them.
But we should first take a walk around Brooklyn and Manhattan, and look about us. We live at a time where we have never had such an engaging choice of fonts from which to design an alluring storefront or sell a product. Despite global branding, the trend is towards originality. Helvetica dominates, selling us cars, clothing and mass transit, but our eyes are still dazzled by diversity as we walk along. One of the silent threats of multinational consumerism - every high street the same, the trend that ushers us into a buzzing chain restaurant with the same font on its awning as one that ushers us into a funeral home - has not yet overtaken New York City. The sign writer's art has all but been replaced by fascias delivered by trucks, and not all are beautiful (often, as with the big pharmacies, the script is fine but it is the illumination that scars us). But the variety remains: the carved Roman grandeur on monumental stone, the flourish of stylish penmanship on the trattoria, the cracking English gothic of the dive bar. We walk around, and the history of type beckons from every angle, here a whisper, there an alarm, until one is so smothered in letters that a headache surely looms. Letters do not have zoning laws, and type has only commerce and taste to guide it. We should be grateful.
And where there is homogeneity, that may be welcome too. Nothing says Woody Allen's New York like the condensed Windsor typeface he employs for his screen credits, particularly when used white on black (and so what if it was originally manufactured at a foundry in Sheffield, England). The solid Gotham typeface so favoured by Obama's campaign team is stealthily threatening to become the principal US homegrown rival to Helvetica, such is its stout reliability (with no evidence of a midterm slide). But in Brooklyn's Cobble Hill neighbourhood, the ability of display type to confer emotion - surely its strongest suit - is nowhere more evident than along the eclectic mix of shops and restaurants on Smith and Court streets, where, beyond the Starbucks font (more on that later), we have a true blend of entrepreneurism and confusion - every conceivable letter in just a few blocks.
Excerpted from Just My Type by Simon Garfield. Copyright (c) 2011 by Simon Garfield. Reprinted by arrangement with Gotham Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA), Inc.
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