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Font of Wisdom

© 2000 Lawrence I. Charters

Washington Apple Pi Journal, March/April 2000, pp. 21-23, reprint information

Macintosh computers have been with us for a long time, but most people still don't know how to use them properly. Not just a few, mind you, but: most.

As proof, just look at almost anything written by Mac users over the past decade and a half. Given that the Macintosh almost single handed (neat trick for a limbless computer) revolutionized the world of typesetting, it is shocking to see how many letters, memos, reports, and other bits and pieces of text produced on such marvelous machines look like they were produced on: typewriters.

While this aberration is most pronounced in and around Washington, DC (where "innovation" often means getting rid of the new and going back to the old), this blight is present almost everywhere. Hardly a day goes by without a church flyer or some other organization brochure falling out of the mail, printed in several different sizes of Courier, a monospaced font invented for the IBM Selectric typewriter (in 1961). Or entire letters written in Chicago, a font designed (in 1983) specifically for the Mac's menus, and nothing else.

So, as an intellectual exercise, let us consider a brand-new shopping mall that wants to promote its stable of upscale stores for the discriminating shopper. Here is how the federal government would list the stores, using Courier, of course:

While there is nothing wrong with such a list, it tends to look sterile and colorless. Another problem with Courier (and all other monospaced fonts) is that it is harder to read: the eye has to travel the same distance for thin letters, such as j, as for wide ones, such as w. This makes it more tiring to read things written in Courier, as the eyes must travel farther and work harder.

Listing the stores in Palatino, a popular serif font, adds an almost instant elegance:

Palatino, by the way, is the font used for body text in the Washington Apple Pi Journal. If you take a look through your home, you'll soon discover that virtually every book, magazine, and newspaper uses a serif type for body text. Government reports, of course, usually use Courier, since they are apparently supposed to be hard to read.

Some people take the idea of "elegance" a bit too far, and use calligraphic fonts to "add style." Calligraphic fonts are definitely elegant, subtly suggesting days of yore when all text was written by hand using quills:

Before you write something in a calligraphic font (in this case Nuptial Script), there are a few things to keep in mind. First, writing with quills is hard on geese. Second, calligraphic fonts are hard to read. While it might be fine for a once-in-a-lifetime event, like a marriage, for lesser purposes it is exasperating. Roughly once a week, a letter or a flyer arrives in the mail written entirely in calligraphic fonts (note: usually more than one). These are quickly dispatched to the recycle bin, unread.

This does not, of course, mean that everything should be written in Palatino and other serif fonts. Traffic signs, for example, are always written in sans-serif fonts: they have simple messages, and want to make their point quickly and emphatically. In our upscale mall, the mall directory would be a good place to have a sans-serif font, such as Optima:

Optima, and other sans-serif fonts, should not be overused. Some Web sites, for example, use sans-serif fonts for everything because it looks different. Unfortunately, it doesn't look different if overused; it is the contrast with serif type that makes it look different.

An important point to consider: while very small children might read letter-by-letter, literate readers read by the shapes of words. Serif fonts, such as Times (the most popular font in the world), Palatino, and Garamond (all Apple advertising is done in Garamond), are easier to read in small sizes. The serifs at the end of strokes make the letters more distinctive, giving the words more of a shape. Using proper capitalization also gives the words more shape.

To illustrate this, consider the worst abuse of typography in the 20th century: the Surgeon General's warning on packs of cigarettes. Ordered to put the warning on all cigarette packages, the tobacco companies decided to comply in such a way as make the warning all but unreadable. The warning was reproduced in a san-serif font, all upper-case, with a heavy border and unnecessary lines thrown in, thwarting any attempt to "read by shape:"

Insurance contracts, credit card applications and other forms use a similar tactic, making sure to obscure the parts they really don't want you to read by writing them in tiny, sans-serif type, all in upper case letters. "Combat typography" must be a required course in marketing programs.

But our upscale shopping mall doesn't want to drive customers away. Instead, we want to invite them in to spend money, and one of the least expensive ways to do this is through good use of typography. Good places for distinctive typography are the signs above the store entrances:

Good typography, of course, shouldn't be limited to mall directories or store entrances. While the body text of brochures, leaflets, flyers, business letters and such should aim for effortless clarity, the name of the business -- reproduced on those same items, plus business cards, bumper stickers, coffee mugs and other common corporate paraphernalia -- should exhibit some creativity.

Keep in mind, too, that most of the printed world is still black and white. A recent flyer, announcing the retirement of a coworker, was printed in six different colors, with six different sizes of type. Six different colors and sizes of Courier.

Wouldn't it have been easier to read (and photocopied much better) to write it in a careful mix of serif and sans-serif fonts?

Further reading

Almost every issue of the Washington Apple Pi Journal lists the programs, hardware and fonts used to construct the Journal, usually on page 3. Flip back a few pages and take a look. Then see if you can figure out why we made these choices. Then tell us; we crave reassurance.

An introduction to fonts was published in the Journal during the 1900s, "Fonts: An Overview," Washington Apple Pi Journal, pp. 29-32, May/June 1999. This covers such topics as the differences between serif, sans-serif, calligraphic and other kinds of fonts.

If you are a new Macintosh user, or a veteran Macintosh user, or you have never, ever used a Macintosh, take a look at Robin Williams' The Little Mac Book. Now in its sixth edition, this is the best computer book yet written: it presents a mass of technical information in a non-technical, non-threatening fashion, with subtle, splendid illustrations. There is an entire chapter devoted to fonts that, quite frankly, doesn't touch on any of the topics covered here. But she does tell you how your Mac uses fonts, as well as thousands of other useful things.

Most personal computer users don't really understand how to even type on a modern computer, much less a Macintosh. Common punctuation, tabs, margins and other essentials baffle them (and it shows). Robin Williams addressed these concerns in her first book, The Macintosh is not a typewriter, an excellent, slender volume just as valuable today as it was a decade ago.

If you've mastered the lessons of these books, you are ready for some heavy-duty typography, which Robin Williams covers in two more books, How to Boss Your Fonts Around, 2nd ed., and The Non-Designer's Type Book. The first discusses font management on the Macintosh: what fonts are, how they work, how they are stored. The second discusses typography as an aesthetic as well as an applied art form, with outstanding examples of how to look sharp using nothing more than tasteful typography (and talent).

You might ask: haven't other people written books about fonts and typography? Certainly. They just aren't as good.

Robin Williams, The Little Mac Book, 6th ed., Peachpit Press, 1999, 445 pages, $19.95

Robin Williams, The Mac is not a typewriter, Peachpit Press, 1990, 72 pages, $9.95

Robin Williams, The Non-Designer's Type Book, Peachpit Press, 1998, 239 pages, $24.95

Robin Williams, How to Boss Your Fonts Around, 2nd ed., Peachpit Press, 1998, 188 pages, $16.95

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Revised March 16, 2000 Lawrence I. Charters
Washington Apple Pi
URL: http://www.wap.org/journal/