Friday, January 27, 2012

A Fontaholic's Dilemma

More than 20 years ago, when I became immersed in marketing collateral design, I began an appreciation for fonts. Today, I confess I am somewhat of a fontaholic, obsessing about the use of fonts to the point of being distracted even while reading a restaurant menu. Sometimes, I can't choose my meal if there is a poor use of font and menu design.

I think back to the days before digital printing, when printing presses used dies. According to The History of Printing (, Johannes Gutenberg perfected the technology of movable type in 1458 to help printing press realize its full potential. Movable type – letters of the alphabet, numerals, and punctuation marks constructed of durable metal – could be assembled into a page of text, then disassembled and re-used to create a new page of text.

The article goes on to say that early printers needed both a printing press and a type font – the set of movable type – to produce books. Type was cast from molten metal poured into carved molds; the task of carving the molds was the done by typographers. (My 1981 wedding invitation was printed using two dies.) 

From the late 1600s to the late 1800s – the printing press and the science of typecutting had only minor refinements. Then in 1814, The Times of London introduced the first steam press to replaced hand-operated presses; in 1868 the rotary steam press was introduced. With that came the fonts as we know them today, starting with Times New Roman.'s "History of Typeography" notes that Claude Garamond from France was the first that developed the first true printing typeface not designed to imitate handwriting, but designed on rigid Geometric principles. Garamond also began the tradition of naming typefaces after the designer. Caslon, Baskerville, Bodoni, Goudy soon followed. In 1954, Max Miedinger, a Swiss artist created the most popular typeface of our time...Helvetica. The Swiss also championed the use of white space as a design element.

Fast forward to the modern era ... everyone with a computer has become a designer with access to so many fonts that come pre-installed with programs. Unfortunately, some misuse and abuse the fonts and make a mockery of good design.

In my opinion--which is commonly shared by graphic designers--a font says a lot about the published piece, regardless of the medium. It is like clothes that someone wears. Adobe Garamond and Gill Sans are two of my favorite fonts and they are often used by brands with sophisticated style. Sabon is another classy font used in corporate communication. Newspapers, magazines and practically every college paper uses Times New Roman. Trade Gothic is used in all classified ads and most forms of advertising. Where space is of the essence, Franklin Gothic is used. (source:

So, when you are at a restaurant, after you have decided on your order, spend a little time checking out the fonts on the menu. See if you agree with the design and whether it helped you decide quickly or whether it distracted you because it was either hard to read or too cluttered. A badly designed menu may remind you of some garishly dressed person who caught your attention and you wondered, "Did that person look in the mirror before they left the house?"


Cecil Archbold JR. said...

I learned a new word "fontaholic"! Is there treatment for that? LoL I'll be paying closer attention now that you've called it to my attention.

Molly Walpola said...

there is a 12-step program ;-) Start with Arial (not Ariel)