Wednesday, 11 November 2009

Fonts: The Best of Times (New Roman)...

At a wedding last summer, the conversation at my table took an unexpected but rather marvellous turn when someone brought up the subject of fonts. Everyone, it transpired, had a favourite font. When someone declared their favourite to be Verdana, I felt compelled to interject on behalf of Verdana’s more attractive cousin, Trebuchet – the font of this blog – only to hear a scream from down the table: ‘Oh my GOD! I LOVE Trebuchet!’ By the end of the lunch, I had promised to email a few Trebuchet-curious friends a sample of the font of glory so that they could put it to daily use and spread the good word.

The word font comes, believe it or not, from the same roots as fondue – the ultimate 1970s dinner-party fare – because type was formerly made of molten metal. Something I didn’t actually know until today is the difference between a font and a typeface. While typeface refers to the name of the lettering style – Times New Roman, Courier, Lucida, anything we would normally call a font – font is far more specific: 10-point Arial is technically a different font to 12-point Arial, even though they are the same typeface. If you really wanted to let your hair down, you could go for a different font entirely: 12-point Arial Italic Bold. Put that in your email and smoke it.

As you will perhaps remember from school IT lessons in about 1992, the whole point of typing anything on one of those new-fangled ‘computers’ was to use as many typefaces as possible. I used to write all my essays in an illegible italic typeface that seems to have died out, with main headings in Algerian and sub-headings in Brush Script, and with a healthy dose of Zapf Dingbats all down the margins. As long as I didn’t resort to the ‘dweeb’ of fonts, Times New Roman, I was a typesetting pioneer. (Unfortunately, a recent Facebook ‘What Font Are You?’ survey told me that I am Times New Roman, also cleverly intuiting that I am ‘a no-nonsense taskmaster … over the age of 60’ who has ‘always been good at math’.)

Times New Roman was first used in the Times newspaper in 1932, and was specially commissioned after the paper’s previous typeface – Times Old Roman (seriously) – was accused of being typographically uncool. It is perhaps ironic (will check with A. Morissette) that, in 1994, Times New Roman’s own uncoolness spurred a certain Vincent Connare to design the worst typeface ever invented: Comic Sans. He was designing some kid-friendly software for Microsoft and came across a cartoon dog with a speech bubble that contained text in Times New Roman. Realising it looked a bit crap, he started designing a new typeface based on traditional comic-book speech bubbles, literally drawing the letters on-screen using his mouse. The rest, as they say, is ghastly.

The typeface was originally called Comic Book but Connare didn’t think that sounded very typefacey, so he changed it to Comic Sans, since the typeface is a sans-serif one, i.e. it doesn’t have flourishy bits at the end of each stroke. Inexplicably, though, the capital I of Comic Sans is avec serif. Nowadays, with anti-Comic Sans hate groups springing up around the world, even Vincent Connare has admitted that his most famous creation is truly appalling. ‘If you love it,’ he once said, ‘you don’t know much about typography. If you hate it, you really don’t know much about typography, either, and you should get another hobby.’

Interestingly (are you still there?), the same man invented the font of glory, Trebuchet. He named it after the missile-launching device of medieval battle fame, because he ‘thought that would be a great name for a font that launches words across the internet’… Oh dear.

My new favourite font goes by the marvellous name Mrs Eaves. Mrs Eaves! It was designed by Zuzana Licko in 1996, and is based on the elegant older font Baskerville, which was designed in 1757 by typesetter and papier-mâché expert (thems were strange times) John Baskerville. Mrs Eaves is named after Sarah Eaves, who was Baskerville’s housekeeper. When she and her five children were abandoned by Mr Eaves, she and Baskerville got it on, working together and eventually marrying when the estranged husband died. Wikipedia describes her as ‘a forgotten heroine of typesetting’.

Mrs Eaves wouldn’t have used Arial in her essays, that’s for sure.


  1. People who like fonts also like Wordle:

    Go play with it...


  2. thouroughly enjoyed that! I'm all over Calibri at the moment, probably because it looks unthreatening and rather babyish - which on marketing powerpoint slides full of the most ridiculous marketing jargon is most definitely a good thing. Bound to grow tired of it soon though, I'm a bit of a font ho. how do you feel about arial? I have mixed feelings...

  3. Calibri is pretty, I agree. I saw another nice one while I was writing the blog, called Andalus. Arial - meh. It's all narrow and was never any use for university essays because it in fact made everything take up LESS space than normal - and the whole point was to make your essay appear longer, n'est-ce pas? I used to use Lucida Sans Unicode. Ah, fonts - marvellous things!

  4. I used to have font catalogues to play with when I was a little boy. Rather than - say - colouring books.

    I don't mind Times New Roman at all. It's just been the victim of such horrific abuse, that's all. Poor Times.


    Interesting article about font-nerdiness. The best thing about it is it uses the phrase 'typographic dress' in reference to a wine label. I must try to use that in conversation.

    JonnyB, I think all children should be made to play with font catalogues instead of toys. Comic Sans could be eliminated within a generation!

  6. welp... Sans is great in Undertale...