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.

When The Journal shrank its pages in 2007, it adopted another font, called Exchange, developed by Hoefler and Frere-Jones for article text. Exchange lets the paper get more on the page while improving legibility. The font works, Frere-Jones explains, by “taking the unique feature of [each] letter—its essence, the thing that makes it this letter and not something else—and turning it up as loud as it can go.” The exaggerations are obvious at larger sizes, but invisible to readers of Journal articles.

Not all customers looking for new fonts are so technically demanding or, for that matter, so large or famous. Graphic designers, from solo practi­tioners to large firms, still account for most licenses. Often, they’re simply looking for something new, a signature typeface for a publication or corporate client. Helvetica documents the eternal graphic-design debate between partisans of unobtrusive fonts like Helvetica—the reigning metaphor is a “crystal goblet” that contains the words without calling attention to itself—and those who prefer more distinctive, expressive alternatives.

Professionals believe the right font adds valuable nuance to graphic design. Michael Bierut’s essay on the AT&T and Bell Telephone logos appears in Bell Gothic, the typeface that Carter’s Bell Centennial replaced in phone books. “That’s like a little bit of visual aromatherapy to set the mood,” says Bierut. And in these days of PDF files and computer printouts, fonts are one of the few graphic elements that designers still control. “Often you can’t pick the paper or the ink,” says Bierut. “The one universal thing is the typeface.”

At the basic consumer level, the profusion of fonts appeals to a culture that celebrates expressive individualism. Who wants old-fashioned wedding invitations—“Mr. and Mrs. John Smith request the honor of your presence” embossed in black on ivory paper—when you can have paper and ink that match your color scheme, and language you’ve written yourself in a font that looks romantic? (Of course, your wedding invitations could look embarrassingly dated at your 25th anniversary, or hideously tacky right away.) Mere exposure to the proliferation of fonts creates demand. Once you know you can get a special typeface for $20 or so, you’re more likely to want to look for just the right one. Fonts, in this sense, are just like shoes or bathroom faucets. They proliferate because different people have different tastes and identities, and because both creators and users value novelty for its own sake.

With enough patience and up-to-date software, type designers can give their creations just about any look, including the idiosyncrasies of lead type or the individuality of hand lettering. As a Hollywood prop designer, Andrew Leman has often created type that looks old-fashioned, mimicking 19th-century newspapers and 1930s telegrams. He has turned some of these partial character sets into fully developed fonts, and four years ago he scored a surprise hit: a font called Satisfaction modeled on hand lettering from 1930s cigarette ads. (The smokes promised “satisfaction.”) Its looping curves have shown up in ads for Las Vegas shows, on doughnut boxes in Denver, on a point-of-purchase display for Post-It notes at Staples, and in countless suburban moms’ lovingly crafted scrapbooks.

Satisfaction’s success came, in large measure, from a new business model created by Unlike traditional foundries, MyFonts doesn’t act like a publisher, picking the fonts it thinks will do well and paying a royalty to designers. Instead, it takes every font that meets basic technical and legal criteria. Designers set their own license terms and their own prices, and MyFonts gets a 35 percent cut of sales. To promote new fonts, the site features a What’s New list of fonts added or updated in the past 21 days. The ones that sell best go on a second list, called Starlets, limited to fonts no more than 50 days old.

Graphic designers are always on the lookout for something new, if only to spark their thinking, so novelty sells. “Believe it or not, there are lots of people who just come and buy lots of Starlets,” says John Collins, head of MyFonts and vice president and chief technology officer at its parent company, Bitstream. The automated system keeps overhead low and gives new fonts a shot at the big time. Collins boasts that half the site’s 50 best sellers aren’t classics like Helvetica but “relatively new fonts that have just come on the scene and have struck a chord in buyers.” Satisfaction made the Starlets list in November 2003 and has been a best seller ever since. In its first four years, Satisfaction sold 7,000 copies at $12 a pop, including about 150 licenses last October. “These are not platinum-record numbers,” says Collins. “This is a niche business.”

That’s how it’s always been. But by lowering design, production, and distribution costs, the digital age has made many, many more niches economically viable, to the delight of type lovers. Leman now has an easy way to share his love of “slightly crumbly” type with the “gently used feel of old metal,” including vintage-style fonts that sell many fewer copies than Satisfaction. As for Satisfaction, says the part-time type designer, “that font pays my rent.”

Presented by

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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