Saturday, March 13, 2010

Fonts Don't Matter

If you're a graphic designer, a typographer, or an amateur font enthusiast, this might piss you off. That's okay. Channel that anger towards flawless kerning.

I've seen people vomit because the Papyrus font was used for subtitles in Avatar, or get a boner every time a poster is in Helvetica. These people, they know they're talking about fonts, right?1

Here is a guide to simplify the judging of fonts:

Click for larger version, to print and hang on your wall.

A font's job is to display words. So sure, that means being neutral and getting out of the words' way; cutesy curls and flourishes are excess. But it also means that as long as you can read the words, excess stylistic touches don't matter at all. Just breathe.

Now that I'm done being provocative (and should it really be possible to be provocative about fonts?), let me back off a bit. Professionals working with displaying words put a lot of thought and effort into making and using nice fonts, as they should. I, too, like to surround myself with beautiful things, and some fonts are more beautiful than others. What I really mean to say is: to the average person (like me), we have only the tiniest subconscious aesthetic reaction to any given font. It barely matters.

What does matter is clear communication. It doesn't matter what font you're using if you still haven't figured out how to use quotation marks, what an apostrophe does, or how double negatives work. A bad font doesn't sink a well-written message. Bad writing, however, makes the most gorgeous font into gibberish. Focus effort on what matters first.


1 E.g., here is an article that bitterly analyzes the personality of users of different fonts and celebrities that would probably use them. Here is a typo-ridden tirade against certain fonts. This is an entire blog devoted to banning Comic Sans.


Blondie said...

oh Phronk. Oh dear, dear Phronk.

I like fonts, and I just deleted a sentence that said "we can no longer be friends."

Dyl said...

Hear hear!

Phronk said...

At least you deleted it. :)

Hey I like fonts. I also like nice plates, but I don't pretend it matters when it comes to how the food tastes.

(Ooh that's a good analogy; I should've used that in the post)

P.S. Thank you for the properly used quotation marks.

donald said...

I'm forwarding this post to the dozen or so technical recruiters I know, my bride being one of them. Font designers actually command a pretty hefty salary.

Can you read it? Yes? Use it.
Can you read it? No? pick another one.

Forest City Fashionista said...

As I spend a lot of time looking at people's websites and blogs, this is the type of post I would have put on my blog, except that it would look weird on a street style photo blog (I try not to use my blog as a showcase for my rants, which I can do in person). BTW, the analogy about the nice plates and not affecting the taste of the food is Genius..really.

Picard102 said...

Except that typefaces convey meaning, like any other graphic does.

Phronk said...

Dyl / Donald / FCF: Glad I'm not alone in this!

John: Aesthetics and tone I can buy, but meaning? Can you give an example of text that changes meaning substantially depending on the font used?

Tatiana said...

Whoa. I only wish that I had the motivation and energy and mental acuity to care about the small things in life. I've clearly been missing out.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
shine said...

So what you're saying don't really care about fonts?

Lauren said...

I must respectfully, yet wholeheartedly, DISAGREE with you, Monsieur Phraunke.

I get boners over Helvetica. Comic Sans (used in the wrong way) makes my skin crawl... like, along with the scabies.

I get font paralysis when I'm designing. I'll download hundreds and eff around with them for hours. Typography is an art, my friend!!! And not just kinetic typography either...

I actually wrote a paper on the importance of typography and font-freak culture last semester.

btw - have you seen this?

I am going to send the typophiles after you, blaspheming he-demon!


Phronk said...

Shine: Right. And nobody else should either, since my opinion is all that matters.


Mademoiselle Lauren: Font Conference is amazing. And yeah, I don't disagree with you. Fonts are an art. But more like obscure abstract art in a private gallery than the art you find in Winners. That is, the general public doesn't give a crap.

I got some ironic font paralysis just making that little chart for this post. So I get it. I just don't think it's worth going apeshit over, especially when more important things (good writing) often go ignored in favour of a pretty design.

Dead Robot said...

Tsk. Coming from a straight guy I'd expect nothing less.

Does it work? No. Duct Tape the fucker.

Does it work? Yes. Get beer.

Fonts are the sprinkles on our ice cream. "That's fine" meet "Fucking Awesome".

I do agree with you that structure is very important -see the development of Aliens3 as it went from awesome to FTW. Without good communication your point is lost.

But a bad font will ruin a great sentence.

nik harron said...

Oh Phronk... there's one point that you may want to consider: in a visually literate culture such as ours how a message displayed also carries information which depending on the skill of the designer either reinforces or detracts from the content of the words.

there are idiomatic meanings attached to different familes of fonts. the history of a font's usage often will instill another layer of meaning on to the words.

i notice that you dismiss this line of thinking by saying the font choice only changes the aesthetics and tone, but tone changes the meaning of words. It's analogous to saying "nice job" with either a sincere or sarcastic tone.

personally, i think most people would have a hard time taking an annual report seriously if it was set in comic sans - unless of course, it was for a non-profit sanctuary for endangered clowns, or was intended to be read only by teachers.


Kyle Meyer said...

"You can say I love you in Helvetica, and you can say it with Helvetica Extra Light if you want to be really fancy, or you can say it with Extra Bold if it's really intensive and passionate, and it might can also say I hate you."

The weight and typeface give the words a different meaning, they're all a readable sans-serif, but the typeface itself conveys meaning and tone.

Saying that typefaces and fonts don't matter is like saying the type of glass you put in a window doesn't matter as long as you can see through it. Forget the fact that certain glass insulates better, other types of glass shatter in different ways when broken, some are bullet proof.

Ignorance is bliss for the non-designer.

Anonymous said...

You do realize this is the equivalent of someone who's never opened a science textbook saying that there's no such thing as atoms, right?

"But those are 'real'!" you say.

Exactly, and very smart people called "scientists" get paid a lot of money to know a lot more about them than you or I do.

I apologize if my snarkyness seems unwarranted, but I want you to appreciate the fact that you are promoting ignorance toward something you don't understand, which has very real consequences for those who do. I believe it's reasonable that they find that somewhat offensive.

That's not to say that there aren't instances where a typeface can be of less importance to the big picture, but they are never irrelevant.

Phronk said...

My own background and the fact that people are paid to know about something have no impact on whether it is real or not.

Even a non-scientist can judge the end result of a process that is claimed to affect him or her. If a scientist says "water heated to 50 degree C will boil", then I heat water to 50 C and it doesn't boil, I don't have to know the whole history of science to know that the scientist went wrong somewhere.

Similarly, if fonts have "very real consequences" and massive emotional impacts, those should be observable. I've mostly seen people just claiming that it's true because it's true, without any concrete evidence. That is all I'm asking for here; some reason to believe it's true other than you saying it's true.

Again, I am not claiming fonts are completely irrelevant. Just not generally massively consequential, and secondary to many other concerns about words.