Culture And Commerce January/February 2008

Playing to Type

A revolution in typeface design has led to everything from more-legible newspapers and cell-phone displays to extra-tacky wedding invitations.
DISTORTED WHEN MAGNIFIED, The Wall Street Journal’s Retina typeface was designed to keep ink from blurring the tiny agate type of stock tables.

Given its subject, Michael Bierut’s Seventy-Nine Short Essays on Design, published last May by Princeton Architectural Press, is remarkably plain. It has no pictures. It isn’t oversized. It doesn’t even have a dust jacket.

Also see:

Video: Fine Print

Graphic designer Michael Bierut comments on the development and uses of typography.

Interview: What's in a Font?
Virginia Postrel talks with Gary Hustwit—director of Helvetica—about filmmaking, creativity, and the expressive implications of one of the world's most popular typefaces.

Yet the book is a graphic extravaganza. Each of the 79 essays is set in a different typeface, ranging in age from Bembo, designed in 1495, to Flama, created in 2006. This profusion of typefaces would have been inconceivable when Bierut, 50, was starting out as a graphic designer. “I’m not sure in 1982 I could have come up with 79 different text fonts,” he says.

Nowadays, even nonprofessionals take an abundance of typefaces for granted. My computer includes about 100 English-language fonts, many of them families encompassing multiple weights—Baskerville in bold, bold italic, italic, regular, semibold, and semibold italic, for instance—and all available instantly. Basic cultural literacy now demands at least a passing familiarity with typefaces: witness a November episode of Jeopardy that featured the category “Knowledge of Fonts,” with correct responses including “What is Helvetica?” and “What is Bodoni?” A thoroughly entertaining (really) documentary called Helvetica, tracing the rise and fall and rise of the 20th century’s most ubiquitous typeface, played to sold-out crowds on the film-festival circuit last year.

WATCH AN EXCERPT from the documentary film Helvetica

The profusion of fonts is one more product of the digital revolution. Beginning in the mid-’80s and accelerating in the 1990s, type design weathered the sort of radical, technology-driven transformation that other creative industries, including music, publishing, and movies, now face. Old business models and intermediaries disappeared seemingly overnight. Software replaced industrial processes. Tangible products—metal, film, computer disks—dissolved into bits and bytes sold over the Internet. Prices plummeted. Consumers started buying directly. From their kitchen tables, independent designers could undertake experiments that had once required bet- the-company investments. “Having an idea for a typeface used to be like having an idea for a new-model car,” says Bierut. Now the distance between idea and execution, designer and user, has contracted.

Though still a tiny number—maybe a couple hundred worldwide—more people than ever are making a living designing type. Many others, mostly graphic designers, have turned type design into a profitable sideline. And more people than ever are buying fonts. Tens of thousands of fonts already exist, and more are created every day. The question is why.

For designers, the rigidity of an alphabet presents a never-ending artistic challenge: How do you do something new and still preserve the letters’ essential forms? “It’s a similar sort of urge that a painter or a sculptor or a musician would have who wants to bring something new into the world,” says Matthew Carter, the dean of U.S.–based typeface designers and, thanks to a teenage internship at a Dutch printing company in 1955, one of today’s few working designers who learned to cut metal type by hand. Carter’s creations include Verdana and Georgia, which he designed for Microsoft, and Bell Centennial, the font used in phone books.

Unlike painting, sculpture, or music, typefaces must be useful to someone. Fortunately for designers, the digital age has produced new problems to solve—developing typefaces that work on mobile phones, for one—and enabled better solutions to old problems. In 2001, The Wall Street Journal hired Jonathan Hoefler and Tobias Frere-Jones to create a new typeface for its financial tables. The result, called Retina, uses the microscopic precision of digital design to correct for the blurring that takes place when thin ink hits cheap paper at high speed. Designed for tiny agate type, Retina looks bizarre at larger sizes; Frere-Jones compares it to a fish evolved to survive at extreme ocean depths. The strokes of the lowercase t pinch in at their intersection, making them look more like four blunt arrows than two bars. The triangle in the uppercase A bulges slightly inward. The dot on the lowercase i is square and wider than the downstroke, and each curves away from the other. Such distortions compensate for ink blobs, making the font more readable than its predecessors. More recently, the designers created a toned-down version of Retina for Journal headlines.

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Virginia Postrel is an Atlantic contributing editor. She is writing a book on glamour and looking for the perfect glamorous, yet readable typeface. More

Contributing editor for The Atlantic and author of The Substance of Style and The Future and Its Enemies. Editor-in-chief of

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