At the Bow & Arrow Press in the basement of Adams House, the obsolete art of the letterpress thrives. Originally Gutenberg’s invention, the letterpress works by rolling a piece of paper over a raised surface that has an inked negative of the desired text. The Bow & Arrow’s lair is loaded with personal history: the space exhibits artwork from alums long gone, cases of type labeled “Our Faith” that were donated by a monastery, and a pair of KISS figurines that have long resided at the press.
“What people really like in a letterpress nowadays is the emboss, because that shows there was physical type hitting the paper,” says Ted Ollier, the non-resident tutor and conceptual artist who runs the press. “If you were printing invoices back in 1932, the last thing you would want is an emboss on your print. Today, the deeper the emboss, the better.” The difference of a few millimeters in typeface can convey a world of meaning, an engagement with the material that cannot be created by pressing “command P” and waiting for your inkjet to print paper. While a wide range of fonts has become accessible to the computer-literate public, a higher level of practical and aesthetic knowledge continues to rest in the minds of a small circle of connoisseurs.
THE FONT FAD
“What you know today is very new: digital typography,” says Elizabeth Resnick, a Professor of graphic design at Massachusetts College of Art and Design. Thanks to the advent of the personal computer, our modern relationship with fonts is a novel one. Every time we send an email or create a document, a circumscribed array of fonts presents themselves. “Working on the PC really came into play in the very early 80s … For students today, born into an age of personal computers, it was here when you arrived,” she says.
As such, the average person has an understanding of fonts like never before. Evidence of the new cultural relevance of font abounds. The independent feature-length documentary “Helvetica,” centered on the titular typeface, screened worldwide when it was released in 2007. And just last year, Cambridge resident and preeminent typographer Matthew Carter won a MacArthur Grant. Carter has designed over 60 typeface families and over 250 individual fonts during his approximately five decade-long career.
The new appreciation of fonts generates popular narratives about a few fonts in particular. In a light-hearted vein, the internet has bubbled over with vitriolic hate of Comic Sans, evident in the proliferation of websites such as ihatecomicsans.com and comicsanscriminal.com. However, there is a story behind Comic Sans well known to those in graphic design that does not place the blame on the font itself but rather on a criminal overuse of it.
Comic Sans was initially designed for a very specific software program packaged into Microsoft Word that was supposed to be used for comic strips. “[It’s] a weird fluke,” says typographer-cum-lawyer Matthew J. Butterick ’92. “When people say they hate Comic Sans, what they’re saying is that we hate the people in the world who have access to Comic Sans and are not taking a moment to realize that maybe it’s not the best thing to use on the side of an ambulance.” In this case, even non-specialists see the dissonance between the font and its function. Anyone can be a critic.
Our perception of the font universe, however, is almost directly controlled by which fonts Microsoft Word chooses to package in its software. Is this is a cause for aesthetic rebellion? When Yale College requests a customized font–a font that was developed by Carter and is available to only Yale affiliates–it raises the question of whether our broad commitment to Times New Roman ignores the potential of font. For Resnick, it’s a tool that is in our control as it has never been before.
Butterick, who wrote the book “Typography for Lawyers,” a guide for creating “polished and persuasive documents”, was a Visual and Environmental Studies concentrator during his time at Harvard and worked at the Bow & Arrow Press. For Butterick, the reason for knowing the essentials of typography is simple: “Any time writing is important, typography is important.” His appeal to lawyers is not based on a belief that only the legal profession needs typographic intentionality; it is based on the fact that they are self-publishers. “I’m not telling lawyers that typography is the be-all and end-all of their work, but it’s part of the way you present the work and it affects how people absorb it,” Butterick says. “If typography can help you make a point, why wouldn’t you use it?”
This argument is not restricted to lawyers; any person who creates documents is a kind of self-publisher. And as much as Butterick jokes about Times New Roman being a non-choice, it does not mean it lacks a visual impact on our written content. All fonts are have a distinctive visual content, and with that a certain set of consequences. For those who print out word documents, participation in this process is unavoidable; font is never invisible. According to this line of thinking, being deliberate in font choice is a clear practical good.
There is another way of justifying the value of fonts, however, that does not rest on their instrumental value. Jake J. Freyer ’15, a Crimson design comper, has been studying and producing calligraphy since eighth or ninth grade. His academic folders are decorated with the kind of elaborate Blackletter calligraphy that would give my label maker an inferiority complex. “The way type design has developed in the past few hundred years, it’s very interesting, but it’s gone a little bit utilitarian,” Freyer muses. “I really like the old style elegance.” His disdain for a few centuries of fonts really puts in perspective music aficionados’ mourning of the seventies. By elegance, Freyer is referring to the grace of a specific set of serif-inspired typefaces, like Garamond.
The text of this article is written in a typeface with serifs, or short flicks on the end of character strokes and stems. My name above, on the other hand, is written in a sans-serif typeface, which became popular only in the nineteenth century.
I ask Freyer if he could identify fonts on sight for me. The few times he cannot identify a font immediately, he eliminates potential choices and then reflects on the history and function of a few favorites. “Caslon Pro goes back to the 1700s. William Caslon was a British typographer for the king,” Freyer recalls, while I stifle my surprise at hearing Caslon is an actual person. Freyer’s deep interest in ancient typographic figures suggests the possibility of aesthetic creativity, even historical reverence, in a form whose primary use is now in a static set of choices standardized across computers everywhere.