Have you ever really thought about letters? About how the simple act of writing is an art form, and how the science of typography is at once omnipresent and therefore often unnoticed?

I asked my dad these questions the other night, feeling epiphanic. To which he responded, well, yes, actually.

Well, duh. My dad once worked as a graphic designer, is a calligrapher, and an artist of many forms. But I had not given much thought to typography until recently. It’s amazing, really, to consider the varieties of the Roman alphabet that we recognize. Sometimes I catch myself going in and out of cursive when I’m writing fast, and wonder what an alien would think if told that those two types of r signify the same sound. It was certainly confusing to the second- and third-grade students I tutored in literacy.

And, of course, the way we write our language communicates more than just sounds. Recently, Errol Morris provided a passage for the New York Times for readers to gauge whether they were optimists or pessimists. In fact, Morris was trying to prove “the effect of typefaces on truth.” The passage was written in one of six typefaces, and readers were randomly assigned which they read. Only a few readers realized something about the typeface was strange, and these were the readers who’d been assigned the notably bad Comic Sans. Morris found that, of the six typefaces, readers seemed to trust what was written in Baskerville the most. So, if you want people to believe you, choose Baskerville. (Don’t let politicians in on this secret).

And what of poor Comic Sans? In this case readers trusted it the least, but other studies have shown that teaching concepts in difficult-to-read typefaces actually improves retention in learners. The study specifically tested easy-to-read Helvetica and Arial against Monotype Corsiva and Comic Sans Italicized. There was an uproar earlier in the summer when the the announcement of the Higgs boson particle was made in Comic Sans (one tweet said, “Every time you use Comic Sans on a powerpoint, God kills Schrödinger’s cat. Please think of the cat.”) But perhaps those who studied that powerpoint will remember the data forever. Even if it hadn’t been linked to the God particle, Comic Sans has been immortalized in McSweeney’s most popular article of all time, “I’m Comic Sans, asshole:”

There’s so much more to say about typography, but it’s getting late so I’ll just recommend checking out a few blogs on the subject: typographica, which publishes a favorite-typefaces-of-the-year list, chictype, which is full of lovely letters, and Kottke’s posts on type, which is where I got almost all my information on the subject. If you’re already a word whiz, try these challenges on kerning and letter shaping. And, after all that comic sansing, let’s clean our palettes by watching the wonderful chalk artist Dana Tanamachi create her letter art:

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