Type (not that type)

One of the benefits of typography being so popular these days is that general public starts to perceive it as a subject, something that is taught and learnt, with people whose job is to design alphabets. If letters are the vehicle of written language, typography is the tone. In the same way that it is inappropriate to attend a funeral in flip-flops neither is composing an obituary using a festive font.

When Vincent Connare designed the Comic Sans in 1994 he hardly could imagine what was about to happen: Microsoft decided to include it in the default font menu in Windows. In a snap, it was available for millions around the world. The rest is history and it is well documented. The most paradigmatic case of a font designed with a purpose and misused to death.

Why is Didot still so sexy (designed in 1784!) and Hobo looks so bland today, a remainder of those poorly designed flyers of the nineties? Didot is to typography what the Chanel jacket is to fashion: a safe bet. Designs that have stood the test of time. Back in those days they were risky proposals but today it is assumed that you can’t go wrong with a title nicely composed in Didot.

Continuing with fashion similarities, Helvetica is the blue jeans of typography. A must, the one for all, up to the point of coining the mantra: in case of doubt use Helvetica. But the one better known by the public is its bastard sister: Arial. A team of ten people led by Robin Nicholas and Patricia Saunders designed in 1982 an evil clone of Helvetica, avoiding the cost of licenses. Again Microsoft to the scene: Arial was included for the first time in Windows 3.1, and from there to stardom.

A recent example, Tobias Freere-Jones designed the Gotham superfamily in 2000, a sans serif font, very geometric with a high readability. Famous for being chosen for Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign or in film posters like Gran Torino by Clint Eastwood. Would Gotham stand the time test as Helvetica has done for forty years? Or it will be a victim of its time, exhausted for being over-used everywhere? Who knows.

One last case, tricky even before it was born. Apple designed in 2014 the San Francisco font (first one after twenty years of dry spell) to include it in El Capitan OS with variations for their mobile gadgets. Instantly everyone became a competent typographer: …that terminal of the “a” or …that shoulder of the “r”. Designing a font for an operating system used by millions on a daily basis –and for a company permanently in the spotlight– is a poisoned gift, even for the masters of the typographic universe.