Listen to the shape of that

A whole bunch of people recommended that I listen to the BBC radio serialisation of Just My Type" - a book about fonts by Simon Garfield. which was broadcast a couple of weeks ago.
Written by Simon Rockman, member blogger


A whole bunch of people recommended that I listen to the BBC radio serialisation of Just My Type" - a book about fonts by Simon Garfield. which was broadcast a couple of weeks ago.

Before you follow the link I’ll tell you that it’s no longer available to Listen to Again. I’ll also tell you that this is no bad thing. I bought the book on the Kindle and gave up in disgust. Despite having bitmaps showing the fonts it’s a book which relies on showing you the fonts it is talking about. Putting it on the radio is worse than having it on the Kindle. The only good thing about the BBC serialisation is that my father bought the old-fashioned paper copy and I’ll borrow that.

Typography is an art which has been debased by technology. You are reading this on the web so I don't have much control over what it looks like. There are eighteen core web fonts and with the exception of websites which use Embedded OpenType or a similar technology there is little control over what you see.

For journalists brought up on print this matters. Time was when if you cut someone in Clerkenwell they bled printers ink, not blood. Today it would be HTML.

What really hurt typography was liberalisation. When the Mac really got to grips with desktop publishing in the mid 1980s the ability to have as many fonts as you like on a page without spending a fortune on Letraset saw everything from school sports day programmes to lost cat notices on lamposts mixing Jokerman with English Gothic.

Soon we learnt the rule of no more than three fonts to a page and the liberalisation all seemed a bit like an LSD trip in the 60s. Fonts might be great but they can be a little bit dangerous.

As this new puritanical understanding chimed with the birth of the web it didn't seem to matter that the choice was limited. In the spirit of less being more mobile phones take this to the extreme with just one font.

Games programmers have long decried the lack of small fonts because a phone system font is too big for a high score table and takes up too much room on the screen. This mattered more when screens were 96 x 60 pixels but is less important now.

And even the games designers didn't get it. Fonts are not about getting as many characters as you can on the screen. Nor, as mobile phone manufacturers seem to think are they about legibility, cost and memory footprint.

A font does the same job for text as a soundtrack does for a film. It sits in your subconscious, giving an impression of what is to come and then supporting the action. To think of a phone font in terms of legibility is like thinking of a film score only in terms of volume. If either the score or the font become too noticeable they have failed in their job, but their absence would be missed.

A font also helps portray brand. Mobile phone manufacturers might like you to be stuck with their system font because it keeps you in the world of their brand. Networks are not smart enough to have started to dictate fonts to handset manufacturers, and even in the case of 3 which owns INQ there is no requirement for the phones to have the corporate font.

But to a service that appears on the phone there should be an emphasis on your being in the world of that service. If it's a Pizza Express menu the description of an American Hot would be in the font you'd see on the paper menu.

For my sites Senior Market Mobile and Fuss free Phones I've used web fonts and Sebastian Lester's Soho Gothic, this means that although the two sites are hosted on opposite sides of the Atlantic and are completely independent of one another they carry the same feel, and are distanced from other sites on the same subject.

There is a race, albeit a very slow one, to save the importance of fonts. The standards for better support on the web are being ratified. Mobile phone manufacturers are slowly learning about fonts – the Blackberry Bold 9000 has a choice of 13 – and might cotton on to the importance of rendering engines, but none of this will happen if the teams which make the decisions are too young. If they come from the web generation they will only know about typography as things they studied at college along with hot metal and Caxton. Their real world will have been debased by the technology and they won't know what they have been missing.

Simon Rockman

Simon blogs about phones for seniors at Fuss free Phones

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