Just my type

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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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How to be a graphic designer

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What you’ll need: at least 2 monitors, Adobe creative suite

Songlist: anything by Bauhaus, Written in Reverse by Spoon

Further reading: um, a graphic novel? No wait, something about graphic design.

McKayla Maroney is not impressed with this logo.

Ok, last post about the Olympics. I swear.

Now, were you surprised at seeing an image as horrifically ugly as the logo above in a post about graphic design? I don’t know a whole lot about graphic design, so I didn’t follow the unveiling of the 2012 London Olympic logo or the subsequent typeface associated with it, and thus wasn’t aware of the outrage that predated my own. Because, for all my love of the Olympics, and for the million hours I spent watching TV over the past 2 weeks, I just could not get over that horrible, clunky, graceless font. (Last time I checked, the Olympics are not exactly a celebration of clunkiness).

Unfortunately, I didn’t rally any of my fellow Olympics-watchers to my cause:

“Isn’t the typography awful?”

“Eh.”

“I mean, seriously, doesn’t it just make you angry?”

“Shh, the girls are hitting the ball now.”

To console myself, I tried outlining a logo of my own, and quickly noticed that the first two letters of the host city’s name are quite similar to the current year. With a little work, something interesting could be done with that similarity. My own attempts weren’t great, but you’ll see what I mean in the following logo, created by British graphic designer Richard Voysey:

Ahhh, that’s more like it

I felt vindicated both by the Brits’ selection of Mr. Voysey’s design as the “favourite alternative logo” of the games, as well as this design blog’s list of the 8 worst fonts in the world. The London Olympics typeface, called 2012 Headline, ranks #1, worse than Papyrus, worse than Comic Sans (which didn’t even make the list). It can’t get any worse.

But I don’t just want to be one of those Debbie-downer-negative-Nancy complainers. I’ve become much more interested in graphic design over the last year or so, after a) reading blogs that frequently link to lovely infographics* and typefaces and b) having to do very basic graphic design myself for one of my jobs. On Saturday I lugged home 5 enormous history-of-graphic-design books from the library, and I mean to make a serious dent in them. At least by leafing through the pretty pictures.

Look out, world.

*The best infographics I’ve seen are by Nicholas Felton, who produces his annual Feltron report, and Warby Parker’s annual report. Here’s a sample of Nicholas Felton’s work:

Data done right.