Tuesday, 3 August 2010

Font snobs

“I threw up a little in my mouth when I realized I would have to read that ugly font throughout the film,” says one blogger of 'Papyrus', the font used by James Cameron for the subtitles in Avatar. Thus proving once again that there is no area of life so trivial that someone can’t get very angry about it on the internet. I mean, Papyrus,

Possibly it is, yes. Meanwhile, this is an entire website devoted to the abolition of Comic Sans, a typeface which the wonderfully snarky blogger LMNOP describes as “the AOL of fonts; the very accessibility that made it popular and novel in the 1990s became its downfall. These days, just like an e-mail from an "@ aol.com" address has a distinct lack of credibility, an e-mail written in this font makes the sender seem ridiculous and out of touch.” (She goes on to similarly demolish users of Curlz MT - "Curlz MT is not a font; it's a cry for help" – and Vivaldi – "Because everything you write should look like a wedding invitation").

The trouble with fonts is that once you start looking for them you can’t see anything else. Little wonder, then, that people have started suffering from Font Paralysis, a very 21st century disease whereby writers are unable to start their great novels, poems or CVs because they can’t settle on the ‘right’ font.

...Chapter One. I mean, Chapter One. No that’s too 1950s newspaperman. Perhaps I mean Chapter One. Oh God, will Verdana subtly dilute the carefully-crafted ambience of my potential short story? ...

The Canadian blogger Phronk argues that Font Snobs are buffoons and plonkers. Phronk thinks fonts don’t matter and he’s drawn a clever flow chart to illustrate this. “A font's job is to display words” he insists, correctly. Unfortunately he adds: “So sure, that means being neutral and getting out of the words' way”, which is precisely the point being made by the Ban Comic Sans movement.

Fonts only matter if they’re visible. Like Wimbledon ballboys or manservants, the best ones - Ariel, Times, Georgia – are the ones you don’t notice at all.


  1. Yes, I've met a couple of graphic designers who were 'passionate' about fonts. And the description was actually appropriate for once.

  2. The digital equivalent of calligraphy junkies, fonts a bit of sore subject among we of the Ubuntu tribe, Wiesbaden is a cracker, both the city and the font.
    Do graffiti artists suffer from font rage I hear you all wonder.

  3. Font snobs are bores to be sure, but the real plonker here is Phronk, I suspect. His comments are on a par with someone looking at a Titian and saying "What's the big deal? I could knock that one up. I've seen better on YouTube." Typography is about far more than just fonts. It is about layout, proportion, space, choice of materials and also about time, the time it might take to read a line, a page, a chapter, a whole book, or for that matter a message flashing by on a road on railway track. This is a very subtle and sophisticated art and craft; the number of great typographers per century could be counted on the fingers of one hand, at a guess. A really well-designed page - any any medium including electronic - shows respect for and an understanding of something at the heart of Western culture and its proportions and intent would have been instantly understood by a Greek stonemason or a Roman scribe. For what it's worth, my understanding is that Microsoft's more recent fonts are the result of a great amount of care and investment among the best typographers they could find, something that, these days anyway, few if any British companies could be bothered with. So in this case, Max Res' to the Beast of Redmond.

  4. Yes I found myself coming to that conclusion too, Mark. I started out to poke fun at the Font Snobs and Font Paralysis, but then realised that fonts really are important. They should subtly direct your perception without being noticed.

    At TofE I once posted my admiration for the font used in British motorway signs ('London 110' etc), which are things of great beauty and clarity.

  5. This makes the argument that Helvetica, seen as a breath of fresh air when it first started pushing out all of those curlicues that people dislike, is now so ubiquitous that it stifles creativity and has given our public spaces a bland, conformist look.

  6. Oh, hello plonkers.

    (I don't know what that means).

    Thanks for the mention, Brit. I agree with your assessment that legibility is the main concern with fonts. Most other factors are arbitrary conventions within the culture of designers. That's fine and all, unless they start proposing that the average person actually cares or has meaningful emotional reactions to them.

    Mark: When you say "typography is about more than just fonts," you're getting away from what I was commenting on. I totally agree that layout, space, materials, etc., matter quite a bit, but those are a separate issue than font.

    The comparison with art is interesting. I do think that if you get deep enough into any artistic sub-community, there will be meaningless conventions there as well. Perhaps column enthusiasts will notice that a column doesn't fall exactly in line with the Doric order, but for the average person, slight deviations don't matter at all as long as it's holding the building up.

  7. Fonts are an art form and should be respected as such.
    A good book, 3 Found Fonts http://www.amazon.co.uk/Found-Fonts-Exploration-Jake-Tilson/dp/0907508375/ref=wl_it_dp_o?ie=UTF8&coliid=I3P8ERJFPS48PP&colid=2LQ0LX298K0NZ

  8. De nada, Phronk.

    A plonker is a mild British term of abuse, phallic reference, like 'weiner'.

  9. David, you seem to have acquired a dog, how lovely.

  10. Gosh, a surfeit of fonts of all knowledge and Brit, I really admire your diplomatic skills, mild indeed!