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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?

What’s Your Type

Image originally uploaded on 2012-09-16 02:45

So, what type are you?

If you are up for a little online psychoanalysis, try out Pentagram’s What Type Are You? quiz, in which you are asked a series of questions about your temperment, and then the questioner (a faceless entity who gets impatient with you as you choose) walks you through four main questions. You are asked, are you:

  • Rational or Emotional?
  • Understated or Assertive?
  • Traditional or Progressive?
  • Relaxed or Disciplined?

Then, using those choices, the site determines which font represents you. Sure, it’s a gimic, but it is fascinating to see how emotions connect to font choices, and it raises the larger questions of how fonts impact the words we write and the text we read.

By the way, my font is Bifur. I’m not sure this is the font I would use for most of my writing but it does have a certain … look.

Image originally uploaded on 2012-09-16 02:51

Font Fights

As you might expect in this day and age, lots of folks are making videos … about fonts. Here are a few mentioned by Simon Garfield in Just My Type (plus a few more) that are worth a few minutes of your time.



Creating Fonts

The days of setting type by hand are long gone (for most of us) and more and more tools are emerging that allows people to create and use their own font. The technology might make it easier but the artistic elements that go into creating something unique still requires thought and careful attention.

A number of online sites now offer the possibility of font construction and publishing.

Image originally uploaded on 2012-09-16 03:11

Fontstruct is a site that seems the least complicated to use, and offers up a lot of flexibility around font design and construction. It uses the basic “brick building” in grids concept and “feels” a bit like MS Paint.

Image originally uploaded on 2012-09-16 03:15

Fontforge is another free tool, but it does seem more complicated for someone just starting out with font design. It’s a downloadable program.

Image originally uploaded on 2012-09-16 03:19

And Fontifier is another favorite of some folks because it can turn your own handwriting into typeset font.

Of course, the larger conversation around being able to create your own font is what that does to the meaning when our world is teeming with different letters and styles. Traditionalists in the font world decry this shift, calling it chaos, while others see it as another liberating role for technology, opening up the staid doors of typesetting and design to everyone.

As for me, as long my students understand why they choose what they choose when they pick a font for their writing, then I figure a lesson has been learned and they are more apt to pay attention to the way politicians and advertisers use words and image to convey messages.

And then there is the Emoticon

The emoticon — those little combinations of keystrokes to indicate an emotion — is sort of like the half-cousin to font typeset when it comes to type representing ideas, or in this case, emotion. The advent of technology, particularly the popularity of text messaging and the need for speed when sending a message in the shortest amount of letters, has raised the profile of the emoticon immensely.

There are references to emoticons in publishing as far back in the 1880’s, including this file in Puck magazine in 1881, but it is mostly recognized that the first person to really use the smiley face and digital emoticon in an online space is Scott Fahlman, a research professor at Carnegie Mellon University, who introduced it in in a thread of text between other researchers in 1982.

As Fahlman writes in his own history of the moment:

“Given the nature of the community, a good many of the posts were humorous (or attempted humor).  The problem was that if someone made a sarcastic remark, a few readers would fail to get the joke, and each of them would post a lengthy diatribe in  response.  That would stir up more people with more responses, and soon the original thread of the discussion was buried.  In at least one case, a humorous remark was interpreted by someone as a serious safety warning.

This problem caused some of us to suggest (only half seriously) that maybe it would be a good idea to explicitly mark posts that were not to be taken seriously.   After all, when using text-based online communication, we lack the body language or tone-of-voice cues that convey this information when we talk in person or on the phone.  Various “joke markers”  were suggested, and in the midst of that discussion it occurred to me that the character sequence 🙂 would be an elegant solution – one that could be handled by the ASCII-based  computer terminals of the day.  So I suggested that.  In the same post, I also suggested the use of  🙁  to indicate that a message was meant to be taken seriously, though that symbol quickly evolved into a marker for displeasure, frustration, or anger.”

And so now we turn to our keyboard to express our emotion, using font as another device to communicate with others reading our words.


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