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.

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

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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.

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.”