The Best and Worst Fonts of The Moment
A personal preference by Simon Garfield, author of Just My Type.
This is my favourite everyday writing font. I’ve been using Georgia in almost all my work for five years, and I’ve never got tired of it. I’m also yet to find a task it didn’t like – just the right mixture of clear tradition and informality. Needless to say, it’s a product of the mind of Matthew Carter, the Americanised Brit who seems to have had a hand in so much of the world’s great type over the last few decades.
Actually I could have picked almost anything from the NYC stable of great type designed by Tobias Frere-Jones and Jonathan Hoefler (and their typo pals). Vitesse, Mercury Display and Requiem are also classically great, but Gotham still leads the pack. It hasn’t quite taken over everything like Helvetica, but surely world domination can’t be that far away? It began as a project for GQ, but its fame comes from Obama’s presidential campaign in 08. Will his team still be using it next year? They’d be mad not to – nothing says Modern Authority better.
3. Benguiat Interlock
Like a great pop single, the risk is that it gets played to death. But taken sparingly and in its right context (an iconic album sleeve perhaps), Ed Benguiat’s super-clever overlay of letters is a modern style classic. The type has an energy of its own, and can never be used too big. It’s today’s answer to the Victorian’s Fat Face types, and may survive just as long.
A sans to rule them all, Adrian Frutiger’s timeless type is the cooler person’s Helvetica – petty good for most things and outstanding on signage. Frutiger is Swiss, but his self-named sans type was designed for a French airport in the early 1970s. It works well from a distance and at an angle, and has since overtaken Frutiger’s Univers as the alphabet of choice for international travelling. In the designer’s own phrase is both ‘banal and beautiful’. His Frutiger Serif is great too for other reasons – sharp but friendly, just like the man himself apparently.
Designed by the German refugee Berthold Wolpe in the early 1930s, you may have seen Albertus on a hundred book jackets. Wolpe set the typographic tone at Faber & Faber the way Eric Gill’s Gill Sans did at Penguin, but then Albertus broke out onto London’s streets. Should you find yourself lost in the City or Barbican area, Albertus will guide you to your destination – it’s everywhere, a real bit of choice civic branding. Wolpe began his career sculpting bronze memorial tablets, and on Albertus it shows: the letters are carved and warm, and have a semi-serif to ground them in a noble tradition. Its use always looks current – see Coldplay’s Parachutes album for a prime example – and its grand eloquence always brings a smile to my face.
‘Real men don’t set Souvenir,’ wrote the type scholar Frank Romano in the early 1990s, by which time he had already been performing character assassination on the type for over a decade. At every opportunity in print and online, Romano would have a go. ‘Souvenir is a font fatale…We could send Souvenir to Mars, but there are international treaties on pollution in outer space…remember, friends don’t let friends set Souvenir.’
Romano is not alone; Souvenir seems to infuriate more type designers than practically anything else. It was the Comic Sans of its era, which was the 1970s before punk. It was the face of friendly advertising, and it did indeed appear on Bee Gees albums, not to mention the pages of Farrah Fawcett-era Playboy. Oddly, though, Souvenir was not a seventies face. It was cut in 1914 by the American Type Founders Company, one of the many fonts of Morris Fuller Benton. After a bit of attention it died away, and that would have been that, had it not been revived by ITC half a century later and given a big push in the heyday of photocomposition.
Souvenir has been in the wilderness for two decades, hiding from a design community critical of anything once described as ‘warm and fuzzy’, but bizarrely it is almost hip again, or at least retro-chic in the pages of the design magazines.
4. Gill Sans Light Shadowed
Gill Sans Light Shadowed is the sequel that should never have been made – a font that pleases the taxman and no-one else. It’s hard to believe that this is what Eric Gill had in mind when he first picked up chisel and quill – a type design that would combine the look of both but ultimately end up redolent only of crackly Letraset on a school-magazine.
Gill Sans Light Shadowed is an optical font defined by its black dimensional shadow, the effect the sun would cast over thin raised letters. Like an Escher drawing, it will soon induce headaches, the brain struggling to cope with the perfection and exactitude.
There are a great deal of similar three-dimensional effects on the market, the majority from the late-1920s and 1930s. Like the many fonts designed to resemble old-fashioned typewriters – Courier, American Typewriter, Toxica – the effect amuses for a very limited time, leaving cumbersome words that are difficult to read and lack all emotion.
Avatar cost more to make than any other film in history but it did its best to recoup whatever it spent on computer-generated blue people by using the cheapest and least original font it could find: Papyrus, a font available free on every Mac and PC. They did tweak it a little for the posters, but they used the standard version for credits and the subtitling for the Na’vi conversations. And it was a very conscious move from the top. On the website iheartpapyrus.com you’ll see James Cameron briefing star Sam Worthington in a T-shirt proudly asserting Papyrus 4 Ever!
Cameron’s choice was baffling. Papyrus is not a bad font on its own, but is so cliched and overused that its prominent selection for a genre-busting movie seems perverse. It also seems geographically inappropriate: as everyone who has written a school project over the last decade will tell you, Papyrus is the font you use to spell out the word Egypt.
Designed by Chris Costello and released by Letraset in 1983, the letters have notches and roughness, and give a good account of a chalk or crayon fraying at the edges. The font soon became a favourite of Mediterranean-style restaurants, amusing greeting cards, and amateur productions of Joseph and his Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat. Until it became a cliche, the type said ‘adventurous and exotic’, and marked its user out as a would-be Indiana Jones.
2. NEULAND INLINE
Are you out this evening to see an amateur stage version of a musical involving an animal called Pumbaa and another called Timon, with songs performed by a junior Elton John? Good luck! While you’re there, take a look at the poster. More likely than not it will be in Neuland or Neuland Inline. The Neuland family says Africa in the same way as Papyrus says Egypt, albeit the it’s-all-good safari/spear-dance side of Africa rather than the shanty or Aids side. It is a dense and angular type, suggestive of something Fred Flintstone might chisel into prehistoric rock. The inline version is bristling with energy and a quirkiness of spirit, a bad type predominantly through its overuse rather than its construction.
1. The 2012 Olympic Font
Under a year ago, so it’s time to ask the question: is this the worst new public typeface of the last 100 years?
The London 2012 Olympic font, which is called 2012 Headline and sometimes 2012 Bold, may be even worse than the London 2012 Olympic Logo, but by the time it was released people were so tired of being outraged that the type almost passed by unnoticed. The Logo was the subject of immediate parody (some detected Lisa Simpson having sex, others a swastika).
Like the logo, the uncool font is based on jaggedness and crudeness, not usually considered great attributes. Or maybe it’s an attempt to appear hip and down with the kids – it looks a little like the sort of tagging one might see in 1980s graffiti. It also has a vaguely Greek appearance, or at least the UK interpretation of Greek, the sort of lettering you will find at London kebab shops and restaurants called Dionysus.
The slant to the letters is suddenly interrupted by a very round and upright o, which may be trying to be an Olympic Ring. The font does have a few things going for it: it is instantly identifiable, it is not easily forgettable, and because we’ll be seeing so much of it, it may eventually cease to offend. Let’s hope they keep it off the medals.