Typecast: On My Obsession With Letterforms

I’ve only got a select few friends that understand my obsession with typography–and most of them I know through design classes. The rest of my social circle just doesn’t get it and it isn’t rare that some of them mock me for my nerdiness. But I haven’t let it phase me. In fact, I’m spending this weekend immersed in typography books by some of my favorite designers.

Just as the mainstream public is seldom conscious of their vulnerability to media and advertising, they’re also scarcely aware of the impact and impression a well-chosen type face has on their thinking. Few are likely to pay attention to the stylized, illustrated letters on the wrapping of their morning bagel from the coffee shop, the sleek sans serif of black subway signs (Helvetica), the font of their own company’s logo (which may have cost a pretty penny depending), the traditional serifs of the morning paper, the clean capitol lettering of their Apple keyboard (VAG Rounded) and so on. Deliberate type choices are everyday sights and while the untrained eye may not discern the difference in weights and kerning, or may not even be aware of the simple distinction of fonts with and without feet, type designers are masterful at manipulating our impressionable mind.

Barack ObamaTake for example the font made famous by the 2008 Obama campaign, Gotham. Originally commissioned for GQ Magazine, the geometric sans serif has an even weight and x-height. As its roots would suggest, it’s got a masculine air, but I think its evenness is what makes it an exceptional choice for a presidential campaign. Gotham conveys stability while being undoubtedly modern (as I think all sans serifs are comparatively). That stability gives nuance and context to the key slogan of the 2008 campaign: CHANGE. Rather smart to pair a word with a sense of uncertainty with a font as solid and unwavering as Gotham. And that graphic sunrise done up in American flag patterns set in the center of the “O”? Genius. John Slabyk (graphic designer of the campaign) deserves a pat on the back for that one. Curious to know what McCain’s go to font was during that campaign year? Why it was Optima, the same font used in the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Now if that isn’t proof of the powerful subconscious impact of type, I sure as hell don’t know what would be more convincing.

If that little story piqued your interest, you’ll be happy to know that there’s a crap pile of reading and illustrated books out there about the fascinating world of fonts. Maybe you’re not drafting copy for the next presidential campaign, but just a kernel of knowledge could be useful (think business cards, blog fonts, finally picking something other than the default Times New Roman of your word processor).

I’m a firm believer that while all these new digital fonts are all fine and dandy in their modernism, it’s important to understand the artistry of historical type creation. So I’ve rounded up a list of my must-reads, several of which I’m diving into this weekend after promising myself for too long that I would and not following through:

Gutenberg to Open TypeFrom Gutenberg to OpenType by Robin Dodd
A giant illustrated account of changing letterform technology that’s not only fascinating to devour in one sitting, but also great for a go-to reference worthy of permanent residence on all bookshelves.

Just My Type


Just My Type by Simon Garfield
A comprehensive quick read about all the major points of type history from the modern age, including the craze over Helvetica and a deeper look into the Obama campaign.

New Vintage Type

New Vintage Type by Steven Heller and Gail Anderson
Heller is one of my personal favorites, and in the intro to this great collection of five different vintage type eras, you can just tell how much he (and Anderson) LOVES typography (warning: metaphors can be a bit sexual).



Stop Think Go Do

Stop, Think, Go, Do by Steven Heller and Mirko Ilic
The subtitle of this one reads: How Typography and Graphic Design Influence Behavior. ‘Nuff said.

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