Fonts- The Mood Enhancers
In the movie To Kill a Mockingbird, the soft, slow-rolling tones of the narrator's voice takes us back to 1930's Maycomb, AL, where time was slow and "there was nothing to buy and no money to buy it with."
The rough accent of the narrator in Goodfellas places us quickly in the brutal milieu of the mob, where we watch the narrator climb his way up the family business ladder.
The ideal typeface for a book is like the perfect narrator for a film: It draws the audience in and helps set the tone and style. "Every typeface has a personality," says Lisa Clark, a book designer whose work includes notable projects by the Harvard University Press of Godine Publishing.
"If you are doing a book on Lewis Hines' photographs, you might choose a typeface from the '20s or '30s," Clark suggests. "If I were doing poetry, I might choose Berkeley, for instance, because it's elegant and intimate and quiet."
Book publishers often find typeface selection important enough to acknowledge it on back pages. For example, publishers of the books Killing Time by Caleb Carr (Random House, 2000) and the Harry Potter series (Scholastic, 1999 and 2000) note that the books were set in Galliard and Adobe Garamond respectively. The nuances of typefaces are subtle, and, in different context and combinations, typefaces offer different messages. Still, in general, many designers would agree, for example, that:
Galliard Roman, designed in 1978 by Matthew Carter, with its chiseled look, curving serifs and balanced proportions, is classic and elegant.
The sans-serif Helvetica Regular, designed in the 1950s by Max Meidinger, offers a clean simplicity that makes it suitable for a wide range of products.
The no-nonsense serif Times Roman, which first appeared in 1932 and was designed under the direction of Stanley Morison for London's The Times, is balanced and has few striking features. It is often labeled bland, but it is serviceable for a wide range of subject matter, nonetheless.
Bernhard Modern, created in 1929 by Lucien Bernhard, with its thick stems, small x-height and markedly tapering cross strokes, suggests drama.
Benquiat Book, designed in 1977 for the International Typeface Corp. by Edward Benquiat, has quirky curves, pointy serifs and thick strokes that suggest playfulness.
A typeface begins as a work of art. A designer draws the ABCs, numbers and symbols commonly used in typesetting. From mathematical determinations of aspects such as letter height, stem width, degree of slant and curvaceousness emerge the typefaces' inherent grace, elegance, plainness or funkiness. "Every single hair-splitting change that you make to a font changes the mood of that font. Every curvature, every detail, counts," Clark explains.
The most expressive and extravagantly designed faces are often used as attention-getting devices on book covers, but not always, remarks Victor Curran, publishing services manager, Academic Press. Some-times, he adds, book publishers favor consistency to novelty. For example, the producers of books by Tom Clancy, Danielle Steele and Clive Cussler count on catching the buyer's eye with recognizable design styles that include the prominent title display. This "logo" approach is often repeated inside the book, as well. Typeface selection for chapter headings and subheads can help establish an identity for a book or a series, Clark adds.
For book interiors, designers generally look for typefaces with legible, predictable features that lead the eye along, Clark mentions. Among serif typefaces often used for book guts are the classically styled Bembo (a Monotype trademark), ITC Berkeley Book, Adobe Garamond (larger sizes are sometimes favored because of its small x-height), janson (Linotype; available from Adobe), Minion (Adobe) and Sabon (Linotype-Hell), most of which, with the exception of Minion and Sabon, were first designed within 200 years of the printing press invention, though some have been updated since.
Like any work of art, typefaces are often born as a response to their time and to the available technologies for producing type. When Gutenberg first cast molds for metal letters in the 1450s, his typeface imitated the current "typeface" of the time- manuscript lettering. Soon after, designers, including Nicholas Jenson and Aldus Manutius, designed cleaner, more open faces suited to the press, with capitals formed in a Roman, chiseled style.
In the late 1800s, the era of mass-production inspired a cultural counter trend toward recapturing the beauty of days gone by, called the Arts and Crafts movement. During this time, Frederic Goudy cut 122 faces combining beauty and function, including Goudy Old Style. Sans-serif faces, though not unknown, received little attention until 1916, when Edward Johnston developed Johnston's Railway Type for the London Underground.
Various schools of design emerged in the '20s and '30s: Art deco, Futurist, Constructivists and other movements inspired typefaces that reflected the philosophies of the time. The Bauhaus school opened in 1919 Germany and was disbanded by the '30s. But its philosophy of "form follows function" and "less is more" influenced art and design for decades to come. An example of an outgrowth of this philosophy is the swiss designer Max Meidinger's creation of Helvetica in the '50s.
In the 20th century, some designers achieved fame with thoughtful new approaches to typographic creation or prolific contributions. In the late '50s, designer Adrian Frutiger broke new ground by deliberately designing a family of fonts with varying weights and in both serif and sans-serif styles—the Univers family. Beginning in the '60s, Edward Benguiat introduced more than 500 typefaces, including Benguiat Goth, ITC Souvenir and ITC Bookman.
With desktop publishing in the '80s and further digital advances in the '90s came the development of software programs that automate the mechanics of font design, vastly increasing market selections. Designers continue to introduce fonts that use older letterforms as their inspiration. But fonts introduced in the '90s also include many that reflect the digital drive of our times.
Kate Clair, a professor of communications design at Kutztown University, observes that some modern fonts look as if they are collages of precedents. One example she points to is Jonathan Narnbrook's Prototype, which shows letters that seem to be created half from a block letter font and half from an elegantly tapered and curving font. Other fonts have a distinctive modern look, she remarks, including those with slightly jagged edges, as if they've been made of square pixels not quite rounded off.
Ironically, the precision of digital tools allows faces to be designed with an unstudied look. Clark notes that many recently introduced fonts have a graffiti-like look or gritty roughness that yield a life-on-the-street or hip-hop aesthetic. though these aggressive fonts express modern sentiments, they aren't taking over the world.
After a barrage of print matter showcasing a busy, frenetic aesthetic flooded the scene during the '80s and '90s, the pro-verbial pendulum is swinging back in the direction of classic, clean design, Clark suggests.
"In the end," says Clair, designers make type selections based on their own knowledge, their intuitive judgement of the fonts and their aesthetic sensibility as it relates to the intended mood of the piece."
Typefaces bring a voice to a book, but communication is a two-way street. As with any work of art, Clair points out, the perfect matching of typeface to content will most delight the educated reader who appreciates such nuances.
Rose Blessing is president of Definition, a freelance writing, communications and project management company. For more information on typefaces, check out: A Typographic Workbook by Kate Clair, John Wiley & Sons, 1999; Encyclopedia Britannica online, www.britannica.com (search "history of type") and typoGRAPHIC, www.typographic.rsub.com.