Thursday, March 29, 2012

I Shot the Serif

Dear readers, you may not know this, but I wasn't always a gift/book seller.

Nay, many moons ago I was but a student, earning my BFA in Digital Media. When I tell people this, I usually get a look that's a combination of interest and confusion: "Oh, that's interesting! So... what is that, exactly?" Basically, I learned a little bit of everything artsy that you can do with computers. Photoshop, of course, and graphic design; but also a bit of animation (2D with Flash, and 3D with Autodesk Maya), print design, virtual reality design, web design and HTML/CSS, and interactive interfaces of various natures. I am now what you may call a geek-of-all-trades.
I also learned how to draw adorable robots.

As a requirement for my major, I had to take three courses of typography. That meant that not only did I have to learn how to animate a convincing walk cycle, but also the nuances of various typefaces. When I heard of this, my response was both dread and incredulity. Three semesters to learn how to make pretty letters? Who even cares about that stuff?

But, over the course of Typography I, II and III, my relationship with type changed from loathing it with all my being to sorta kinda loving it in spite of myself. It's the sort of thing you don't think about until you're forced to. Typography is all around us--in our books, yes; but also our posters, signs, web sites, TV advertisements, iPhones, journal covers... everywhere! And most of us are blissfully unaware of its presence in our lives.

Thinking with Type was required reading for my typography classes, and I keep coming back to it no matter what type-oriented situation in which I may find myself. It was this book that made me start seeing the printed word as a living, breathing being. It has personality (bold or soft, elegant or funky), and fonts even have families like we do.  Letters have arms, spines, shoulders, and ears, as do human beings

Albeit, their body parts look a little different from ours.

The history of typography is equally dynamic, and the origin of many fonts can be (at least, to me) fascinating. Take Comic Sans for example--the font of choice for all pre-teen girls and family-friendly event posters. This highly-ridiculed font was never really supposed to exist. It was designed by an programmer who wanted a particular Microsoft software program (MS Bob, which failed spectacularly) to seem more approachable to younger audiences. The font didn't make it into this ill-fated program, but it was dug up by later programmers and now holds a sacred place in the palace of of every personal computer's Default Fonts folder.

Consider, also, Helvetica: the anti-font. Helvetica (which can be found most famously in the NYC public transit system) is a typefaces so ubiquitous that it is almost invisible. How did this rather plain and unimpressive typeface become the default font for practically everything? Simon Garfield's fairly recent book Just My Type explains this and many other facts and stories about typography that most people just don't know, but in reality are actually pretty cool.

But Mr. Garfield is not the first person to write about our friend the printed word. Designers and typographic theorists (yeah, they exist) have been thinking about typography for decades--nay, centuries, since Gutenberg invented the printing press. In 1955, Beatrice Warde asserted in her famous essay "The Crystal Goblet, or Printing Should Be Invisible" that all typographers should aspire to create their own Helvetica. Print should not be loud or call attention to itself; instead, it should be as a clear crystal goblet, only displaying the message of the words.

Warde's words are considered sacred by many traditional typographers. But in the present day, typography has taken on a different role in our society. Gone are the days when typography was as simple as creating an elegant layout for a book. In this day and age of pop-ups and tweets and instant everything, type has to catch people's eye, else it be ignored.

Take Quotable Cards, for instance. The cards made by this company (and its magnets and mugs) are hugely popular here at Booksmith. But there are no pictures, no pretty artwork here; what makes these products so popular is simply the typography. Yes, the quotations are important, but no one would buy a magnet or mug with Ghandi's "Be the Change" quotation set in 12-point Times New Roman. It's the designer's choice in typography that really make these images great. Not only the typeface itself, but the color, layout, kerning (space in between the letters), leading (space between lines of type), and a multitude of other factors that make up just a few words on a square white or black background. This typography is not invisible, it is loud and proud. Instead of just displaying the words on the page, it is enhancing them: it is the ornate throne for the king, the flashy case for your iPod, the cute print on your purse. In a world where image is everything, Quotable Cards has gotten the hint and caught up with the times.

Many designers of greeting cards and book covers have gotten the hint, too. Notice how many book covers out there are composed of simply typographic imagery. Take this Zadie Smith book cover: there are no images to hint at the subject of the book, but the typography (clean, thin, uniform lines, no serifs but swirls extending from the letters) can already give you a hint of its theme and mood. I, personally, have never read this book and don't know anything about it. But something about the typography makes me want to do so, even without a picture to entice me.

The next time you're in Booksmith, or anywhere at all, take a look at the words around you. How does typography impact how you see things? If something was set in a different font, would the meaning itself change? When you start actually seeing the printed word as its own living art form, your perception of the words they convey might just change.

1 comment:

Natasha said...