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article imageFont of all wisdom: DIY fonts are now an industry

By Paul Wallis     Jun 29, 2008 in Technology
Some may not know this, but most computer fonts are pretty old. Many of them date from pre war years. Nearly all of them can be found on a basic Letraset sheet from the early 60s, which is where I saw most of them before.
Helvetica used to be standard, decades ago. Times New Roman, that disjointed looking thing, is a default, but not a preference. Arial and Courier have had moments of popularity.
Now, the hordes of the noticeably less than gruntled are rising. There are open source and commercial font makers and software.
One of the drivers here is lack of identity. Anything which looks too ordinary can be ignored, and usually is. You get the impression the person just isn’t trying too hard with their logo, or sign.
The New York Times:
Before the personal computer, most people were oblivious to fonts. Some may have recognized Courier and Elite on the I.B.M. Selectric typewriter ball. Then word processing programs offered a hundred or more fonts, from Arial to Wingdings. More were offered in software packages and on the Internet. Now, many people can recognize fonts by name. Indeed, a documentary about typography and one of the most familiar typefaces, “Helvetica,” played to sellout crowds at film festivals.
People like Mr. Gjerde ( NYT’s case study on use of custom fonts) are realizing that the thousands of fonts available on the Internet are not enough anymore. They can build custom fonts in which the letters are not perfect duplicates of one another. They can mix in other fonts and produce something that is uniquely suited for the job.
There’s a bit of tattoo parlor psychology in this. What looks difficult and painful must be difficult and painful, so what's different and current must be great. There are user displays of the fonts, commentaries about the damn grid system which snarls up good use of curved lines, and ways of using the font from the Declaration of Independence as your default.
On the other side of the equation, non-standard fonts are fundamentally a good idea. All a font really has to do is be legible. It doesn’t have to be dull. Arguably, one way of keeping readers awake is to change fonts regularly.
The New York Times article contains a lot of interesting links. One of them is to Fontstruct, which is a slightly naïve-garish, but interesting site which has some definitely interested, not to say obsessive, users.
The custom fonts are showing up in some interesting places, including a Harry Potter prop, resurrections of an old Cablegram font, and World War 2 re-enactments.
Do fonts affect the mind? They may affect grades:
Fonts can shape reality in intangible ways, as Phil Renaud, a graphic designer from Phoenix, discovered when he studied the relationship between his grades and the fonts he used for his college papers. Papers set in Georgia, a less common font with serifs, generally received A’s while those rendered in Times Roman averaged B’s.
After all, handwriting analyses have been around forever. Why not font analyses?
Does using Blacketter make you wear more German castles?
Well, it does with me.
Why does Copperplate on a computer look nothing like calligraphy Copperplate?
Who asked for Wing Dings, anyway?
I use Trebuchet, because my battering rams are at the dry cleaners. Does that make me a lecher, or just fussy? Or both?
Actually, I’ve been trying to design a font for ages now, based on blackberries, and another one on roses. Do you have any idea how hard it is to draw hybrid tea roses consistently, freehand? I’m seriously thinking of switching to Bourbon Roses or Dog Roses instead.
But really… “Affect the mind”?
Who can afford a mind?
Particularly with all these roses starting up class actions…
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