Wednesday, January 7, 2009

On Fonts

Last night Georgia Public Television aired a film from an Emmy Award winning series, Independent Lens, on typography in general and the Helvetica font in particular. I have never given much thought to typography until recently, and found the subject fascinating. Helvetica, it seems, was developed in the late 1950's by Max Meidinger and Eduard Hoffman for the Haas Type Foundry in Munchenstein, Switzerland. Now, a relatively short time later, we come across it every day in highway signs, corporate logos (J C Penney, for one), and advertisement signage. On the way to work this morning, I caught myself pondering a STOP sign...Helvetica, the interstate exit signs...Helvetica, the EnMark Station...Helvetica. This ubiquitous type is all around us; but, who in the general public has ever heard of it? This film was particularly coincidental for me because, for the first time in my reading life, I was having a "font problem." I am reading The Book Thief (more about that when I finish). I don't know anything about publishing and have never spent much time considering the typeface used in a book. Nevertheless, I found myself becoming increasingly annoyed by the font used in the chapter headings and page numbers in The Book Thief.

In the 1960s and 70s my dad had his real estate offices in our house. His office smelled of leather, and oak, and ink and typwriter ribbon. Sometimes, he let me help him type out offers and contracts on his old, black Royal - multiple carbons on onion skin. The typewriter had round black buttons with white letters; each button was attached to an arm which had small die-cast letters (a capital and a lower case) perched on the end like a small hammer. When the button was pounded, the arm would fly up, strike the die against an inked spool of ribbon, and the image would appear on the page. (Typing was fun back then.) Every now and then, the letters became clogged with ink and dust so that the "o's" and the "b's" and the "p's" became fuzzy black spotches on the page rather than open, clean type. That's when my dad would pull out an old, dry brush - much like a toothbrush - and ask me to de-clog the typeface. Back to my annoyance, however. The page numbers in The Book Thief are printed with a font that resembles an old, clogged, Royal typewriter. I don't know whether to fault the publisher or the editor or someone else who made the decision about type face usage. The story unfolds in Germany in the early 1940s, so perhaps it was felt that the type face for the page numbers added an "atmospheric" quality to the overall look of the book. In reality, the numbers are nearly impossible to read, the use of the type makes no sense, and is actually a distraction. Perhaps, when I finish the book, I will see how the page numbers are somehow tied into the overall story, although I rather doubt it. I wish I didn't dwell so much on the small annoyances of life. My nature makes it difficult for me to just "let it go." I might write to the publisher and ask "Why?" Oh dear. At this point, however, I am truly appreciating Helvetica.

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