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The Word

Don’t hate me because I’m Comic Sans

What words say may depend on what they look like

UNLESS YOU’RE A font nerd, you probably didn’t know that the words you’re reading right now are in Miller Globe Text, developed by the typeface designer Matthew Carter especially for The Boston Globe. That’s if you’re reading in print — online, you might be reading in Georgia or Verdana, both also Carter typefaces. (For nitpickers: Typeface is the word used for the full range of letters in a design, while font refers to one size or style — but the two terms are often used interchangeably.)

There’s no reason that you should notice the typeface of this newspaper. Type for newspapers — and books, business letters, and so on — is designed to be transparent, displaying the words and paragraphs clearly and without distracting from their meaning. Beatrice Warde, publicity manager for the British Monotype Corp. in the 1920s and 1930s, titled a talk she gave to British typographers “The Crystal Goblet, or Printing Should Be Invisible.”

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What is invisible, however, is not always unfelt. And in these days of personal computing, typefaces are of interest not just to professional printers, but to every poor Microsoft Word user trying to make his résumé “unique.” (A word to the wise: don’t.) If type were really just a dumb pipe for language, why would we have a choice of more than 100,000 different typefaces?

In fact, type does affect how we feel about the words we read. Where our spoken language relies on tone of voice and gesture to convey emotion, written words pick up emotional baggage via type. After all, if we didn’t instinctively understand that type conveys more than just words, we wouldn’t feel that all caps equals SHOUTING, and we’d think nothing of using comic-book biff bang pow! fonts on wedding invitations.

Simon Garfield’s new book about fonts, “Just My Type,” is packed with lively anecdotes and histories of type, typesetting, and typographers, but above all, it returns again and again to type’s somewhat mysterious connotative properties. Helvetica, a typeface so famous it was recently the subject of a documentary film, brings feelings of “impartiality, neutrality, and freshness . . . manages to convey honesty and invite trust,” and “even in corporate use . . . maintains a friendly homeliness.” Modern typefaces, such as Bodoni, “say CLASS,” which is why they’re used in fashion magazines. “There are some types that read as if everything written in them is honest, or at least fair,” writes Garfield; Gotham, the typeface used in President Obama’s campaign materials, has, since his election, “inherited loaded associations with victory and honest success.”

Not all typefaces have such positive associations. One fascinating example is Comic Sans, a font that type designer Vincent Connare invented in 1994 to give a friendly feel to the help text of a Microsoft program. To the forgiving Garfield, Comic Sans conveys a certain “warmth,” but it is widely reviled, and has even spawned a semi-serious “Ban Comic Sans” campaign. (The movement’s organizers, Holly and David Combs, say that using Comic Sans in the wrong place is like “showing up for a black tie event in a clown costume.”)

Comic Sans is not a “bad” font — the letters are well-formed and fit together nicely — but it suffers from being what typographer Mark Simonson called a “novice magnet.” It was so different from the fonts available previously that it grabbed people’s attention — and became a typographic cliché through overuse, indelibly associated with amateur graphic design. (Type snobbery, like all other snobbery, depends on exclusivity.)

Given the passionate feelings type evokes, it’s helpful that “Just My Type” introduces a whole lexicon of delicious specialist jargon with which to discuss it. Fonts have weight (a measure of how light or bold they are); they’re created by punchcutting (carving a letter in reverse onto a short steel rod); the punch is then hammered into the softer metal matrix, a mold to cast the type. Capitals can be swash, with elaborate loops and tails. Letters have feet and tips, plus counters (enclosed or semi-enclosed areas, as in the letter o), bowls (the curved part of a b), ears (the tag hanging off a g), and stems. Garfield also locates a YouTube video in which a quick brown fox does, in fact, jump over a more-or-less lazy dog, bringing to life the famous display phrase that shows all the important letters in a typeface.

But at the heart of the book lies a gap: Why do different fonts have such different emotional effects? There’s been surprisingly little research about how type conveys emotion. What’s the mechanism? Is it consistent between different demographic groups? Over time? Across cultures? It’s not clear. Most research — as with research into ESP — is concerned with proving that the effect exists at all (definitely yes, unlike ESP), or whether consumers’ intuitions about “suitable” fonts for different products are consistent (yes, mostly).

It might be that the emotional weight of typography is just one of those things, like pornography, that you know only when you see it. Rules for matching type to text can get you in the right general area; but finding the final fit, the perfect “visual representation of the tone of voice” (as typographer Jonathan Barnbrook put it) is like feeling around with a key for the keyhole in a dimly lit hall. As Matthew Carter himself pointed out, “heavy bold gothic types are serious, gloomy, and sad, while light, flouncy, ornate ones resembling human script are optimistic and joyous.” But, he acknowledges, “it is easier to say what works than why.”

Erin McKean is a lexicographer and founder of Wordnik.com. E-mail her at erin@wordnik.com.
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