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Previously in Web Citations:

Be-In Digital

In some quarters, the spirit of Haight-Ashbury is still kicking. Should we care?

Guiding Light

Outside the Islamic world, the Net can serve as eyes and ears to the faithful.

What Side Are You On?

Order and chaos, right and wrong, good and evil. True believers know what the U.S. v. Microsoft case is really about.

Head for the Hills

Are you prepared for Y2K and impending global chaos? Find help on the Web (while you still can).

Unified Mouse Theory

Welcome to the wonderful world of Disney.

Beta-testing the Bible

Not just another digital-age prophecy.

Break on Through

Portal, n. 1. A door, gate, or entrance; esp: a grand or imposing one.

Digital Sunlight, Digital Shadows

Using the Web to shine light on campaign financing is supposed to make elections more honest. If only.

A Little Help From My ... Friends?

Hey, it worked with Linux. Enlisting the aid of countless strangers is a strategy that's catching on.

For more, see the complete Web Citations Index.
The Law and Spirit of the Letter
January 27, 1999

Evolution of the letter Lots of people love reading and writing, but who cares deeply about the art of typography -- that is, the design, creation, and selection of fonts and letterforms? A certain John Graham, for one. "To explain a ligature," Graham laments in a message posted on typoGRAPHIC, "is to come off sounding like an extremist. Oh, well. My favorite types are Baskerville, Janson, Caslon, the Futuras. I hate with a passion Bookman, Souvenir and Zapf Chancery. And please, let's reconsider the italic 'g' in Galliard. Also, why doesn't Palatino just retire to Palm Springs and lay out by the pool!"

Graham is not alone in his love (and hate) for letterforms, as typoGRAPHIC -- which is designed to illustrate "the depth and import of type" -- amply demonstrates. This is an elegant, interactive site devoted to "the middlespace between image and spoken word" -- a realm, ignored by most casual readers, where what is important are such things as "bowls" (arcs created in the curves of letters), "counters" (spaces enclosed by individual letters), "kerning" (the space between any pair of letters), "leading" (the space between lines of text), "serifs" (short strokes added to the beginning or end of the main strokes of letters), and "x-height" (the height of unextended lowercase letters, such as "a" and "c" but not "b").

Unusual font
"Hands" (above), and evolution of "A" (top), from typoGRAPHIC

Should the typographic medium also be the message? Is legibility just a matter of convention? Is typography a fine art? Will computer technology dramatically alter the way we design and read? typoGRAPHIC doesn't pretend to have the answers to such questions, but it does force its visitors to think about them, particularly in its experimental and interactive Anatomy and Studies areas. The site also offers a useful glossary of typographical terminology, an informative timeline, and a striking gallery of classic and avant-garde typefaces.

"Good letters are rare," the influential typographer Jan Tschichold wrote in 1952. "Most of the letters we see about us are ugly, inadequate, or erratic." Perhaps this was true more than four decades ago, when Tschichold made waves by proposing a radical "New Typography" that used no serifs, but the advent of word-processing software and desktop publishing has meant that almost anybody with a personal computer has access to a bewildering variety of high-quality fonts, and can precisely manipulate, among other things, the size, shape, color, and spacing of letters and words. Will our letterforms change radically as a result? Doubtful. If, however, Palatino does decide to retire to Palm Springs, it may very well have plenty of company.

--Toby Lester

Join the conversation in the Technology & Digital Culture conference of Post & Riposte.

More on Technology and Digital Culture in Atlantic Unbound and The Atlantic Monthly.

Toby Lester is the executive editor of Atlantic Unbound.

Copyright © 1999 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
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