Do fonts matter? That is, do they affect a reader's perception of written material? I'm asking not so much about the extremes (e.g., a large font for headlines), but more about the emotional or psychological impact of the font's design.
Illustration by Slug Signorino
“I despair,” I said to my assistant Fierra.
“This fellow wants to know if fonts have any psychological impact. That’s like asking if it’s possible to convey emotion with music, or whether color can be used to set a mood. Only an American could ask that question. I may tease you Brits about your dishwashing idiosyncrasies, but when it comes to appreciating the niceties of typography we Americans aren’t even in the game.”
“You’re joking,” said Fierra. “Have you never seen a British tabloid? A slatternly mess of screaming headline fonts that can make the weather report seem like pornography. Hardly testimony to the refined taste of the British public.”
“I was thinking more of signage — in the London Underground and on the railways, for example. The thing that epitomizes it for me is those World War II-era posters that became so popular: ‘Keep calm and carry on.’ A classic stiff-upper-lip British sentiment perfectly married to a no-nonsense font. Seeing it, you think: by God, had the Nazis invaded, these people would have fought to the last ditch.”
“They lose something out of context, you know. You don’t get the same impact on a kitchen wall in Pittsburgh.”
“I concede this.”
“You also realize the posters in question weren’t actually used during World War II. They were done up in 1939, in anticipation of some particularly grim test of wartime morale, but never were distributed and went undiscovered until 2000. The enthusiasm for them in the UK is recent and driven by nostalgia. You may think they capture the essence of British pluck. Well, that’s what Britons would like to think, too.
“Finally, since you mention all these things together, I ought to say the typefaces used in the Tube, on the railways, and in the ‘Keep calm’ poster, while bearing a strong resemblance, in fact are three different fonts.”
“I know that perfectly well,” I said, “and it reinforces my point. The Tube font, an updated version of which is still used in Underground signage and on the iconic map, is now known as Johnston, after the man commissioned to design it in 1913. Like the map that came later, it’s a fully realized work of art, among other things featuring tiny diamonds for the dots above lowercase I and J.
“I find that astonishing. In the United States, or at any rate in Chicago, the transit maps of the era were lettered in a workmanlike but hardly inspired all-caps gothic. In the UK, in contrast, the management commissioned its own typeface, the better to distinguish its messages from the commercial clutter. The emotional and psychological impact of a well-designed font was well understood.
“Nor did it stop there. Gill Sans, the font used in British railway signage until the 1960s, was designed by an apprentice to Johnston, and the creator of the ‘Keep calm’ font was clearly aware of both. One senses in all three typefaces a steely Churchillian resolve coupled with a nod to the practical: We shall never surrender. Mind the gap.”
Fierra rolled her eyes. “You’re too hard on Americans. They may have been oblivious to typography years ago, but that’s less true than it used to be. Look at the 2008 presidential campaign. The Obama campaign was praised for using the recently designed font Gotham in its graphics, which was seen as fresh and bold, emblematic of a new generation, in contrast to the dated typefaces of the McCain and Clinton campaigns, which suggested they were mired in the past. I don’t say Gotham was entirely responsible for Obama’s victory. But it reinforced an impression carefully crafted by an organization that, where image was concerned, seldom took a step wrong.”
Little Ed now stirred himself. “I’m not especially observant, but I notice fonts,” he said. “The old typeface used on signs on the interstates, commonly called Highway Gothic, is being phased out in favor of a new one, Clearview. The project was begun years ago without publicity, but the change has been obvious to anyone who looked, and so was the reason for it: Clearview is easier to read.
“I pointed out the improvements to my wife while driving one day: ‘The x-height is taller, the counters within lowercase letters like E are larger, and the lowercase L has a serif to distinguish it from capital I and 1.'”
“I presume she had no idea what you were talking about,” Fierra said.
“Few in the UK would have any notion either, notwithstanding the much greater awareness of typography in the digital age. It has nothing to do with the sensibilities of the British vs. American publics, and everything to do with being a font geek. It’s like having hearing in the range of a dog’s, and about as useful. You’re attuned to details of which most people are barely aware.”
Send questions to Cecil via firstname.lastname@example.org.