Wednesday 24 January 2018

So, are you the strong silent type?

When I think of love letters, I think of thick paper covered in inky, cursive writing, the font as distinctive as the person who might have inscribed it. Time-yellowed, creased from folding and unfolding or faded with the years, love letters have the power to transport us to a different place and time.

Now imagine a love letter typed in Times New Roman, point size 12. It doesn't have quite the same effect, does it?

In his new book, Just My Type, Simon Garfield looks at how we engage with fonts and typefaces on an extremely emotional level, often without knowing it. From the writing on your CV to the lettering on a Valentine's card, the font you choose can mean the difference between getting a job and having your application thrown straight in the bin, between getting the girl or not; it can even make the difference between winning and losing a presidential election (more of which later).

Okay, so a book about fonts wasn't high up on my things-to-read list either but Garfield's book is a compendium of fascinating stories about the origins of the thousands of typefaces that exist and the ways they influence the world around us.

Fonts hold profound emotional associations for us. They are older than we think -- the first fonts were designed nearly 500 years ago. When I'm feeling uninspired, I switch from Times New Roman to Courier; its traditional 1950s typewriter face evokes a sense of a real writer, which I then attempt to channel with varying degrees of success.

Fonts can also reveal quite a bit about your personality. The web page www.pentagram.com/what-type-are-you analyses your personality through font. I was chuffed to find I actually am Courier -- rational, disciplined, understated, progressive (although I'm sure several ex-boyfriends would beg to differ).

The number of fonts at our disposal has increased exponentially as the computer age has developed, but why do we need so many of them?

"We're a creative people," says Garfield. "We like to express ourselves in different ways. It's a bit like saying 'why do we have so many songs? There are only 36 notes'. The alphabet is a limited framework but actually you can be fantastically creative within that.

In much of our everyday lives, fonts are used because they are cheap rather than any other reason, but when it comes to politics and advertising, you can bet not much has been left to chance.

"In advertising, a huge amount of, not quite mind control, but psychological interpretation has gone into its use."

Likewise with politics. Barack Obama's presidential campaign literature used the font Gotham consistently, the only thing that never changed in his 'Hope and Change' campaign.

Since then, the conservative Tea Party and Republican Sarah Palin have adopted the font for their messages.

"They've obviously thought, well, it worked for the democrats . . .," says Garfield.

"They've used it in a very cynical way. It's selling by association."

Another area where a certain amount of care should be exercised when choosing a font is on CVs.

"If you're writing an important job application, you should use Gill Sans or Helvetica, something where no one is going to pick it up and think this guy is a bit of a weirdo. Too flowery and it looks like it comes from an institution."

On the other hand, if you're resigning from a job that has been hell, Arial is your only man.

As for love letters -- it's simple. "The love letter should be hand written."

Just My Type: A book about fonts is published by Profile Books

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