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Fonts and Letters, Words and Meaning: What's Your Type?

Fonts and Letters, Words and Meaning: What's Your Type?

Written by Kevin Hodgson
September 24, 2012

Image originally uploaded on 2012-09-15 07:38

(Periodic Table of Fonts from Cam Wilde)

I distinctly remember my high school’s Industrial Arts shop for its antiquated printing press. Looking back, the school print shop seems quaint. But I was completely taken by this massive hand-run machine that required you to choose individual metallic letters (and the letters were backwards!), set them into spaces on a giant machine to create words, make sure the design of the words looked right during test printing, load up the ink as carefully as possible and make your own signs and posters by yanking on the handle. One at a time. Slowly. I don’t ever remember my shop teacher referencing Johannes Gutenberg as the pioneer of the press, and yet, I know now that this was the lesson on how printing changed the world, one document at a time.  I can still smell the ink, and feel the grooves of the letters on my fingers. That’s a physical experience of writing you are unlikely to replicate when you open up a Word document and randomly choose a font for the latest piece of writing.

And most of us don’t even bother with that decision. Whatever the default font type our computer has been programmed to choose, that’s what we use. Which is too bad.

If there is an area that often gets short-thrift in the 21st Century classroom where technology is merging with composition, it is the concept of design. Color, size, mix of media, layout … these are parts of how multimedia documents come together in a coherent way, or don’t. My sixth grade students often get caught up in the flash and pizazz of what they CAN do when it comes to technology and need constant reminders of the WHY of what they do when creating a digital document. (Did you notice my use of CAPITOLS letters to make my point?)

Which brings up the idea of fonts.

We take it for granted that we have many choices, thanks in part of Steve Jobs’ early push for font choices with Apple computers and Microsoft’s bundling of many fonts with Office products. But what do our fonts say about our writing? Is it important? As I was reading Just My Type by Simon Garfield, who brings us deep into the historical and modern issues around font development, I was reminded of those days at the high school printing press and the choices that went into the three kinds of fonts we had. Our teacher let us choose, but I remember him saying that we should never, ever mix our fonts. It was like some reverberation of the Marshal McLuhan’s famous dictum of “The Medium is the Message“, and if the medium (font types) got mixed up, it would wreak havoc on our message.

My students, despite my lessons around design, still can’t help but play with the fonts in their drop-down menu on the computers. Unless I say otherwise, some of them will spend almost half a class period finding the “right font,” although when asked what that means to them, they have trouble articulating what it is they are looking for. Most want to catch the reader’s attention through the color and size and shape of the letters. A lot of them are looking to make their writing individualized, like a piece of art. Unfortunately, readability doesn’t always enter their equation.

Image originally uploaded on 2012-09-16 02:22

Others want to replicate their writing by hand with technology.

Image originally uploaded on 2012-09-16 02:22

Meanwhile, more than a few are seeking to fill out the page with large font and increased spacing between letters and words, knowing they may not have enough writing to meet the assignment but hoping the font will cover their tracks.

Image originally uploaded on 2012-09-16 02:22

And more than a few will experiment with fonts that change words into symbols. Luckily, even these students realize the difficulty of reading text with this kind of font.

Image originally uploaded on 2012-09-16 02:22

The more I dive into the world of fonts, the more I realize just much we take it all for granted that our letters look the way they look, and act the way they do. Thanks to Simon Garfield, and his lively writing in Just My Type, I’ve begun to think more about how the ways our writing looks may play a role in what our words mean. (Note: that use of italics should provide you with some gentle emphasis, albeit different than if I used capital letters to make a point, right? That’s another way to use fonts.)  What do our choices of our fonts say about us? And, just as important, how do we get our students to step back and reflect on what font choices do to their writing?

What’s your type?

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