Monday, August 24, 2015

What's in a Font?

I have a confession to make. I've never really taken any interest in fonts.

Perhaps it stems from the fact that I'm sadly not artistic. I would love to be able to draw or paint but since I'm no good at it (Grandchild: 'Draw me a pussycat, Granny.'  Me: 'Er...') I have taken the 'Oh well, suit yourself,' position and have sulkily stopped bothering about stylistic detail.

I use good old Times Roman professionally, but it does look a bit formal. For my personal emails, I looked at a bewildering number of alternatives and chose Lucida Sans, I think because it was the first one I came across that looked less stiff but still sort of normal and not obtrusive.

Having said that, though, when it comes to the print in a book l'm like many philistines: I don't know much about it, but I do know what I like.

I hate it when the letters draw attention away from the words I want to read. I dislike it when to differentiate between two fictional voices, one's story is printed in italics, or even worse, in handwriting. When I'm racing along, enjoying the narrative, a solid slab of italics makes me feel as if I've fallen on to my nose. I've even been known to abandon the book in disgust.  And a flashy or jokey font in an email induces in me the same dark suspicions as a handwritten letter in green ink.

What I don't notice, I suppose, is good practice – the simple, elegant fonts that don't draw the eye. Certainly I would never have thought that these would make any difference to the way I read.

But the research Amazon did before introducing 'Bookerley,' a new font used for some best-sellers that that will soon be rolled out more widely, was fascinating. Some styles actually fatigue the eye (See above, italics and handwriting) but by making curves and serifs thicker and thinner in strategic places, the eye is led forward and reading, they claim, will be 2% faster and much less tiring.

It would never occur to me to have a discussion with a publisher about the principles on which fonts are chosen, but perhaps it should. We're all trying to write easy, flowing prose that draws our readers on, and we need any help we can get.


Carrie-Anne said...

I've typed exclusively in Palatino since October '93. I'd read in the late editor Olga Litowinsky's now-rather-dated Writing and Publishing for Children in the 1990s that people writing on computers should use a typeface which looks like it came from a typewriter. From what I remembered about typewriters, Bookman (on the 152K Mac) looked the closest. When that dear old computer left this world a month later and I had to move to my parents' new '93 Mac, I thought Palatino looked the closest. It's been a perfect match ever since, my font soulmate. When I've downloaded documents from other people, it doesn't look right until I've changed it into Palatino.

However, I sometimes have changed it up and written papers in other typefaces I like, such as Janson, Garamond, Cochin, Baskerville, Bodoni, Cassandre Graphika, and Underwood Champion. I love downloading new typefaces, particularly typewriter typefaces and calligraphy, handwriting, or Gothic typefaces for title pages.

Aline Templeton said...

Such an interesting post, Carrie-Anne. I'll certainly try to find Platino and see if it speaks to me too.

Donis Casey said...

I tend to like san-serif faces for reading, but of course use Times New Roman for the pro writing since that's what most publishers want. But I'm with you, Aline, when I'm reading a book, I don't want to be distracted by the font, of all things. Unless distraction is the point, of course!

Rick Blechta said...

Carrie-Anne, I have to say I strongly disagree with Ms Litowinsky's typeface advise, and I doubt if you would have found much agreement with her even in that time. Fact of the matter is, monospace type is darned hard to read for extended periods of time. Palatino is a very nice design, but it's not a monospace typeface -- which is a good thing in my mind! Thanks for the comment. Interesting.