Friday, May 25, 2007

Fonts for the Memories

[What? It's been a week already?]

Slate had a pair of interesting (at least as far as these things go) articles on typeface* geekery today (here and here). The world of reading aesthetics is, not surprisingly, full of prejudice. For those people who can't go five minutes without thrusting endless rows of the things before their watery, myopic eyes, the presentation of words on the page or the screen matters a lot, and preferences worm their way in to the brain to imprint themselves somewhere just below the level of conscious thought.

For reading, I'm still all about the Times typeface, or one of the dozen usual variants of it. I'm not super particular about it, so long as it's something decently seriffed, stately, fully justified, and proportionally spaced, like in all of those half-remembered novels from my childhood--it's what respectable prose writing should look like, way more serious than the urgently penned capitals of my innumerable dogeared comics, or the vast and random array of ironically emphasized styles of MAD magazine. The aspect ratio might change a little in the book printing, the spacing, the boldness, but it was always something tall and gabled, a font bespeaking decency, old money, dignity.

In those unheralded formative years of mine, after Led Zeppelin's peak roughly, and before Nirvana's, sans serif typefaces had a certain unsavory meaning. They connoted a dated gosh-wow sci-fi feel, dusty and cobwebbed under the banality of actual post-Cold War modernity. They were the guilty pleasures of my parents' day, almost of my grandparents'. I'm grateful for the article's dissection of Arial as a streamlined, zippy-but-dumb Helvetica. Helvetica is the ubiquitous roadsign typeface, with a couple of curves and tails offering the reminder of the old-school sophisitication that must be sacrificed in the name of clarity. Arial, by contrast, needs to have a rocketship underneath it. (Not that there's anything wrong with rocketships.)

I suppose this opinion is thanks in part to my young computer experiences, such as they were. I remember those ugly all-caps early computer displays--a string of pidgin English, delivered in a shout, and followed by a block of a cursor blinking inanely at the end. I always peeked at those early gray boxes in fascination, but the promise of doing cool shit with those mysterious boxes tended to dissolve in five boring minutes of effort. If the programming bug ever bit me in those days (or ever), I'd probably be rich now. I wanted to believe, but I didn't have the patience to become a convert.

Not that I ever got that far from the church though, even while I was a stranger to its deeper mysteries. I learned to type on one of these beasts, bought by my parents out of some sense of obligation to the times. Those Tandys were early advertisers of office utility (and the fact that the Radio Shack brand didn't have an underground network of pirated and swapped games had a lot to do with my parents' purchase). A lie, that. That machine had an evil and primitive word processing program that was already obsolete at the time of purchase. It could produce lower case though, and I remember the dot matrix recalcitrantly whirring out a barely legible mixed typeface for my school reports, some Arial bastard with Roman Is. My poor mother attempted to crank out a number of book manuscripts with that turd, perforated wheel guides carefully torn off, sheets separated and then lovingly packaged. (I transcribed one from its hard copy three years ago for her for Christmas, and keep meaning to follow through with the others). Mom never submitted in Courier (which I admit is a lot easier to scan by eye), but then she also never quite got anything published.

In college, there was, of course, more writing. As an engineering student, I don't think I imprinted quite as strongly as a liberal arts sort might have, and anyway there wasn't any word-wrangling platform ubiquitous enough at the time to lock in my aesthetic. (I got my degree in '94, as Bill Gates was still perfecting his stranglehold on office software tools.) There was a huge network of public workstations (unix-based I think), blessedly with laser printers. Sometimes I wrote lab reports on a program called Slate, but usually I just used a generic text editor. If I was running really last minute and didn't have time for the haul across campus, I borrowed my roommate's typewriter. There was email on campus (and it was new!), and I engaged in some other text-based nerd-tivities I'd rather not disclose just now. None of it used the tired zip of streamlined letters. They were all stately and decorated at the ends, giving my playtime the illusion of respectability.

A lot of the writers interviewed in the Slate (magazine) article are annoying ("my preference of Courier means I'm better than you"), but I am not without my own pretensions. All of my accepted manuscripts have been for academic publications (not as great as it sounds, but pride baby, gotta have it). My graduate advisor insisted that everything be written in Times font for those (usually, I shudder to say, as he suggested words and phrases from behind my shoulder), because that's what the journals expected. I consider Microsoft's version of Times New Roman to be the graduation point of my writing efforts. I mean, I was (am) a second-rate scientist, but I could totally write circles around that guy.

Maybe it would have ended there, but the internets were coming about at that time too, slamming me with that space-agey Helvetica ripoff again. Every online publication seems to use it, and it's grown on me, I admit (I mean, look around). It's tough to read anything for very long on a CRT, and simpler and bolder typefaces help ease the eyestrain immensely. I've gotten somewhat ecumenical in my tastes: Arial (or similar) for on-line reading or for presenting data, Times for prose, Courier to tempt that Damocles sword of the rejection slip. Different fonts for different haunts. I've never been a purist anyway.


*Note to self: remember this site


twiffer said...

i never really gave fonts much thought. for myself, i do have a special affection for courier new, but that's because if i wrote a paper in arial, then changed the font to courier new, POOF! i would magically turn a three page essay into the requisite five. i suppose this is why some professors go by word count, but mine never seemed to get wise to the trick.

comic sans though, is an abomination. that font needs to be stopped. sure, it would require massive deprogramming of most HR departments, but for the sake of our nation, it must be done.

Keifus said...

Massive deprogramming of HR departments? You make that sound like a bad thing!

hipparchia said...

so now slate is following me around the blogosphere?

there are a fair number of professional artists, writes, and designers in my family, so i've always been kind of nutty about fonts myself. yes, indeedy, i'm one of those people who avidly reads that obscure paragraph on that obscure page in the book: this book was set in... [short history and description of typeface].

iwdqf: i would qualify
llxfove: llama-fox love

hipparchia said...

crucifiction: first word my eyeball landed on at that link. i kid you not.

Keifus said...

[would the offspring be a lummox?]

I kind of appreciated the SLate articles (for once), which kind of pointed out an internal conversation that I didn't realize I was having.

Also, I'm terribly sick of blogger and it's fixed-size windows.

hipparchia said...

i've always wondered what lummoxes looked like.

lenxhyjk: lohengrin fixed reykjavik

Galatea said...

Greetings Keifus,

I didn’t read the Slate articles…but I enjoyed yours!
My favorite is Times New Roman. A classic looking font that reproduces especially nice when italics are called for. Of course I can’t live without webdings & wingdings LOL. And let’s not forget ‘Insert’ ‘Symbols’ as well. All these choices are all we have when not using a pencil. Oh, I almost forgot COLOR & bold when called for are quite useful. :-) Like you said, “Different fonts for different haunts.”

That link you provided is great! The other day when I was reading, but not commenting in a timely fashion (bad habit of mine) I visited it and bookmarked it. Today it’s not available…I do hope they’re just adding “Common Errors”

~ Galatea

Keifus said...

Yeah, nice italics is another thing too. Italics sans serif just suck.

(I was thinking about bitching about math symbols in MS word, but it'd probably overstate my geek cred.)

Hipp: I see one every morning.