Plain Type


What you see in front of you is not an essay. It is actually the outcome of an unspoken negotiation between two parties: the one who designed Proxima Nova (in this case‚ Mark Simonson) and the one who decided to use it. Speaking through its counters‚ bowls and tails‚ the typeface designer made his case clearly and plainly‚ never overselling the virtues of his creation. After all‚ what you see is what you get. Once he was done‚ he offered a shoulder and patient ear for the typesetter to state her apprehensions over the typeface’s suitability for the job.

Fonts can be very persuasive‚ the more you get to know them. They will gradually excavate and inhabit a corner of your mind so deep that their presence becomes second nature. Thus entrenched‚ a typeface’s laborious negotiation eventually turns into nothing more than a nod of acquiescence. These pages tell the story of small battles‚ thousands of alternate endings and hard-earned victory. It is a responsibility that isn’t taken lightly.

As the reader‚ you may have been oblivious to these secret deliberations. That is exactly the point. For decades‚ graphic designers have been taught to make their work as invis- ible as possible‚ to let the message rule and function precede form. But in the same way that a typeface can convince a designer‚ its powers of persuasion extend to the reader as well. Unbeknownst to anyone‚ it’s been working its magic on you. In 2012‚ Errol Morris asked readers of the New York Times to take a quiz and find out if they were Optimists or Pessimists. The quiz was bogus‚ but Morris discovered that people were more likely to agree with a statement set in Baskerville‚ as opposed to Comic Sans and even Helvetica. Effectively‚ setting words in Baskerville was akin to a celebrity endorsement.

Somehow‚ these two-dimensional‚ inanimate shapes can capture imaginations and find patrons for life. For Woody Allen‚ it is Windsor‚ always. Futura was Stanley Kubrick’s favorite typeface and as much a prerequisite for Wes Anderson as Bill Murray.

Futura‚ Paul Renner’s geometric vision of the future was the first font on the moon‚ used on the commemorative plaque left by Neil Armstrong and crew. Up until the 21st century‚ you could tell a lot about a histori- cal period by looking at its typefaces. The weight and solemnity of inky blackletter were reserved for Gothic manuscripts. The auster- ity of typefaces in the ‘20s gave way to the ornamental machine aesthetic of the ‘30s and subsequently to the ‘60s preoccupation with the future. Each typeface is a capsule that hints at the prevailing mindset of the time. The architect Ernesto Rogers once said‚ “Examine a spoon carefully and you can understand enough about the society that made it to visualize how they would design a city.” But spoons (and cities‚ for that matter) are less straightforward today. By the time it reaches your plate‚ a spoon has passed through many hands; if it were able to speak‚ it could tell the stories of many nations.

“Things like the rich golden yellow of the yolk from a broken egg…are not merely colors; rather they are perceived at a deeper level through their texture and their taste‚ at- tributes inherent in their material nature‚” says Kenya Hara. Similarly‚ typefaces are more than letters—they become intertwined with the emotions they can express. I never met a word set in Brandon Grotesque I didn’t like. Each sentence in this typeface by Hannes von Döhren is stated with such earnestness‚ without a trace of hidden motive or conceit in sight. There’s an elegance and warmth that makes one want to invite it out for a cocktail. It’s the kind of person who gets along with everyone‚ never wants to be the life of the party‚ and can hold its own in any conversation. So much so‚ that Pelican Books designed its entire website around it. A clear tribute to Jan Tschichold’s typographic system for Penguin’s book covers from the 1940s‚ in the case of Pelican‚ Brandon Text has been refined to read beautifully online‚ a necessity of our time.

Today‚ we find ourselves in a state of anachronicity. And that’s how we like it. There is a new notion of design‚ that according to Frank Chimero‚ “gains value as it moves from hand to hand; context to context; need to need. If all of this movement harmonizes‚ the work gains a life of its own‚ and turns into a shared experience that enhances life and inches the world closer to its full potential.” Typefaces today reference a multitude of styles and scripts‚ even languages. They are built to withstand translations into Devanagari‚ Kanji and often the other way around back to English. There’s more at stake than meets the eye.

This essay originally appeared in Human Being Journal, November 2015.