Confessions of a font judge

TYPE is getting popular, or maybe too popular? This was the subtext of a discussion at Cooper Union, January 12, among this year’s TDC type design judges. (The annual Type Directors Club competition has three parts: typography, fonts and animated titles. Results will be exhibited this summer and published in the 32nd annual later in the year.) I was the least competent judge, at least in terms of the knowledge and practice of type design. I mean, my one attempt at designing a font myself, on Fontographer 1.0, was such as disaster that I have never tried it again.

I was happy to make way for the others on the jury, such as Matthew Carter, who I’ll embarrass by describing as the greatest type designer of our time (but he is). Or Paul Shaw, a living national treasure who designs types, writes books and blogs ( and leads wonderful walking tours of cities all over the world, looking at street signs and building inscriptions.

And then there was Erik Spiekermann, the founder of FontShop and FontFont who has a gazillion followers on Twitter and without whom the nation of Germany would probably never get anything designed. The jury was lead by the extraordinary Maxim Zhukov, the Russian-born typographer and teacher, for many years the go-to guy for fonts at the United Nations, who speaks more languages than you can count on two hands, and has a singular, comprehensive global view of type.

Carter suggested the topic at “Judges’ Night” (which I gather is an annual event) in an e-mail message:

There has recently been an increased interest in type design as part of popular culture and as something to be considered critically on a par with other forms of industrial design. Perhaps this began with the success of the Helvetica movie.  Other manifestations have been the acquisition and exhibition of fonts by MoMA, Simon Garfield’s ‘Just my type’ and its reviews, and awards to type designers in arenas other than type-design contests.

Attention to type design by non-specialists who would once have considered it too arcane to tackle brings some risk of errors in the treatment. Do we accept these errors as a price to pay for a welcome and wider appreciation, or do we castigate them and insist on a better-informed coverage of our work and its history? Discuss.

Then Zhukov responded in an interesting way.

It is my observation that “fonts” are quickly becoming the butt of many jokes, a common conversation item—not only among type people.

The examples attached come from the books by Michael Moore (Stupid White Men . . . and Other Sorry Excuses for the State of the Nation! New York: HarperCollins, 2001) and David Remnick (Fierce Pajamas: An Anthology of Humor Writing from the New Yorker. New York: Random House Digital, Inc., 2002).

Profanation is the price of popularity. The French don’t call popularisation vulgarisation [cq] for nothing.

The Michael Moore book cited by Maxim has a parody of the Alfred Knopf colophon style, “A Note on the Type.” It begins, “The typeface used in this book is Bermuda Demi-Bold. It is a serf style face with a touch of postmodern, postfeminist graphic movement. The Bermuda family of type was invented by Walt Higgins, who is also the creator of the Bermuda shorts . . . .”

The e-mail exchange between the judges went on to retell a number of jokes, along the lines of “I shot the serif.” When we got to Cooper Union for the “Judges Evening” the mood was more serious. My one joke, in reply to Erik’s line that, “you always remember your first kiss,” was cut out of the videotape. I said, “You always remember your first Kis.” (Okay, it was worth cutting.)

TDC Salon: The Judges Night 2012
from Type Directors Club on Vimeo.

Zhukov, opening the conversation, came off more Tory than in our e-mail exchange. He described the tension between high and low in type, between “the learned profession” and “personal communication—think blogging, SMS-ing, and tweeting,” saying this was not necessarily good.

I took exception. All my life I’ve been hearing about the distinction between high brow and low: the critics’ ignorance of rock and roll, magazines’ dismissal of TV as an art form, and the news media’s blindness to popular culture. The old guard never gets it. Going back to the videotape, Maxim was much more thoughtful than I was, and I’m not sure I made my point that the high-low barrier has been pulled down like the Berlin Wall. While others saw a gulf between regular users of fonts and the paid professionals, I think it is more of a continuum. The software and the operating systems have improved screen typography measurably over the years. Just compare the fonts on your iPhone to the bitmapped Chicago on an early Mac. I mean, even Microscoft Word has exception kerning, and custom fonts, like Cambria.

At the tip top we can find typography that is as good as it has ever been, but the low is not nearly as low, as, say, the typesetting on a third-world customs form in the 1960s. Erik decried the disappearance of handwriting as a commonly mastered skill. But my grandmother would have said that disappeared by 1918. The typewriter killed it. And today I am grateful to read a little e-mail Arial in place of some of my friends’ handwriting.

Zhukov quoted an Emil Ruder decree, “The good designer must reject the mixing of writing and printing.” Which is like saying that laymen should not mix with the clergy. Ironically, there is another historical pole in the history of typography which would give precedence to handwriting. A hundred years ago Edward Johnston and D. B. Updike placed Renaissance calligraphic letterforms (the Carolingian minuscule) at the summit of typographical culture. They dismissed or ignored the contemporary sign-painting-inspired commercial typefaces, those vigorous moderns, slabs and grots.

Now, we’ve entered the era of what Aaron Burns called, “typographic communications.” In the 1980s he predicted that everyone would soon be setting their own type, and began an effort, with Hermann Zapf, to give them the tools to do it well. (They called their software, “Pages.”) Of course Zapf was horrified to see Palatino printed on a Laserwriter in 1987, but that didn’t stop Palatino from becoming one of the most popular fonts in the Western world. And I wonder what he would think of the Palatino on the iPad. 

Indeed, when the TDC judges went over to a Pratt Institute building that weekend to look at the type design submissions, we saw a variety of designs, representing a wide range of styles from informal cursives to fresh takes on classic Romans. Nothing knocked us dead. But there were no howlers, either.  We agreed that the bottom has been raised a great deal. There is better type design education (at Reading, RISD and now Cooper), and better training of junior designers at dozens of foundries (following the example of David Berlow and the Font Bureau). This is encouraging, but we were left wistful and unsatisfied.

There are two issues for type design and typography going forward. The first, while there are higher Lows, we do have to watch out for the unwashed hordes who are taking up smartphones and whatever is at hand to do their own “typographic communication.” We need programs like Burns envisioned—that do more than just set lines of type, but actually help people with composition and layout. MS Word, for example, still starts with a default page that has a half-inch margin on both sides and type that is too small. We see the same thing on the web—columns so wide, they’re illegible.

Second, we’ve got to strive for higher Highs. As we’ve seen in magazine and web site design, if the bottom is be raised, the best design has to be more than accurate, clean and professional. It has to hit it out of the park.

Maybe next year we’ll see a new typeface design that is roots-radically inspired, breaks new ground, rising above the bourgeois clutter, causing the judges to gasp with delight, and the reading public (the users) to say something more than, “Awesome.”