The Default Typeface or the Right One

I recently read a rather fascinating interview on the “I Love Typography” website, with Fergus Wessel, a letter cutter, who spends his time carving carefully crafted letters on to fine stone memorials.

Wessel, who is passionate about typography, says:

An inscription on paper or stone can be a beautiful thing to look at, a work of art. It is not the content, which interests me most, but the shape and rhythm of the lettering.

You would expect that since he spends his time sculpting letters in limestone and slate, he should feel passionate about typography. But if you also feel that typefaces and their usage have little to do with the rest of us, you’d be wrong.

How many times have you received an email or viewed a website written in a typeface that was hard to read or in a font size that was so small even someone with 20/20 eyesight could not see it clearly without zooming in on the text? If you are like most of us, your answer would be “many times” and you would add that it’s often the case that whoever sent you the email or laid out the website was not thinking much about the reader.

You’d be right.

Whatever the concern of the sender or designer, it was not legibility. One of the goals of any document we write (whether or in print, or in stone, for that matter) should be to communicate a message not only through carefully selected and arranged words but with a design that draws the reader into the message with graphics (appropriate) and certainly with type selection and size.

What about you?

Do you think about your typeface and its size when you send an email, write a blog post, lay out an online publication, or do any of the other tasks that we in corporate communications do almost every day? Like most of us, you probably have no idea what typeface or font size you use—or even think about it. You just use the default settings that someone else chose, even though you have countless typefaces and  dozens of sizes on your computer.

The Macintosh SE I bought in 1985—and which stills sits on a shelf in the basement—has about 50 fonts, most likely chosen personally by Steve Jobs (who was always concerned about details). As a teenager, Jobs had an interest in calligraphy and decided to sit in on calligraphy classes at Reed College after he dropped out and just hung out there awhile. Then, when he and Steve Wozniak built their first computer, Jobs turned this interest into an insistence on having a selection of typefaces built into the machine.

Today, my new Mac has 175 or so different fonts. Your computer, whether it’s a Mac or another brand built by someone who knew a good Jobs idea and decided to use it, too, probably has about the same number. And one website, alone, offers 13,000 fonts available for free downloading.

Which ones do you use?

The goal, of course, is not to use a great number of different typefaces. To be honest, many of the ones on my computer would be of use to very few people. Yet, these same typefaces might be just the right ones for a particular website or newsletter. And that’s the objective: to have a lot of typefaces from which to chose, so we can get the right ones when they’re needed.

But first we have to be more aware of typefaces than we are now—not that we should ever develop the same passion expressed by Wessel, who not only has favorite typefaces for different tasks and different kinds of stone on which he’s carving, but also has a favorite letter: the “S.”

When ask about his favorite letter, he says in the interview, which you can read on the… website:

I like the challenge involved in getting the balance between the top and bottom spaces [of the ‘S’] just right. They should look the same to the eye, but if you ever turn an “S” upside-down you’ll see that it looks completely top heavy. The bottom space must always be larger than the top to give the illusion of balance.

Few of us notice that difference. Perhaps if we did, we could communicate even better with our readers than we do now.