THE BLOG

The Font's The Thing

May 29, 2007 | Updated May 25, 2011

Perhaps not since your last college paper deadline, wherein double-spacing and 14-pt font made the difference between a pass and summer school, has font garnered so much attention. With the recent release of the documentary Helvetica, a film about "typography, graphic design and global visual culture," the visual aspect of our writing (literally) is explored beyond the formatting tricks every college student has used to make the grade.

According to its wiki page, Helvetica is among "the most widely used sans-serif typefaces." (Is it really? I'm a Times New Romaner myself.) The gang at Slate has taken the discussion one step further, with a slideshow examining the Helvetica's "cult" and "hegemony" and, taking it one step further, convincing some well-known scribes to reveal their font of choice. Hegemony aside, the clear winner in their "unscientific sample" was Courier - fans include Jonathan Lethem, Luc Sante, and Elisa Zuritsky (the State Department, for its part, is not a fan, having banned the use of Courier in 2004). This opened the question of what a writer's font of choice might tell us about the writer (beyond the compulsive switching of fonts being a common procrastination/page-count booster technique). Based solely on Slate's results, it would seem — as with all things of importance, namely love, sex and possible career choice — people's fontly inclinations date back to childhood ... or at least the early experience of fingers to keys. Courier happens to have been the standard typeface that all typewriters used in the later half of the twentieth century, something the courier-inclined writers all mentioned as being an early influence. To be perfectly honest I have no typewriter memories from which to draw (it's true; just wait, soon there'll be a whole generation of people who've never seen a rotary dial) — however, following this logic, it would seem that my own Times-y tendencies are actually rooted in my Macintosh upbringing. Who can say for sure? Where did all those alleged Helvetica devotees encounter it, then? And at what point does a child learn to care about serifs?

Presumably that's where the documentary comes in — buzz is good, as it was for similarly-brainy, narrow topics like Wordplay and Spellbound. Meanwhile, times may be changing for the Times: Last year Microsoft announced it was replacing the ubiquitous font with something called "Calibri"; apparently it has a "warm, friendly personality"(if it also cooks and has a good sense of humor, we may be sold). Will that make all the difference? Will Times New Roman go the way of that olde-tyme calligraphy? Does anyone have any use for Gothic? We don't know; either way, the upshot, of course, is that God is in the details, and these things matter: After all, if a font was just a font, then Hevetica wouldn't have much of a hegemony — or at least get so many geeky writers so damn excited.