Culture, care and typography

I’ve been fascinated by the way we set type since I did my first packaging forty years ago. It’s a combination of tech, art, systems, culture and most of all, deciding to put in the effort to get it right.

[This is a long post, it would have been a podcast, but it doesn’t really lend itself to audio.]

When airplanes first started flying passengers, there was a need for labels. Labels for passengers and pilots. WEAR SEATBELT WHEN SEATED. Why is it in all caps? My guess is that at the dawn of aviation, the machine that made the little metal signs only had the capacity to easily handle 26 letters, and they choose all caps. Certainly, over time the labeling tech got better, but we stuck with all caps because that’s what airplane signs are supposed to be like, even though they’re more difficult to read that way.

Typography is a signal not just a way to put letters on a page.

Before mechanical type was set by pressmen in the basements of newspapers, type was handwritten by monks. As a result, we see the beautiful kerning of letters, nestling the ‘a’ under the ‘W’. That takes effort and as a result, it simply looks right. It’s not right because your brain demands kerning, it’s right because the signal is something we associate with confidence and care.

Once we see the magic of kerning, it becomes impossible to avoid how careless people who don’t use it appear to be…

There have been many golden ages of typography, but the 60s and 70s saw a combination of high-stakes mass production (in ads and media) combined with innovations in typesetting that meant that instead of using handmade metal type, marketers could simply spec whatever they imagined. It also meant that instead of one person working on a document, a committee would spend days or weeks agonizing over how an ad looked, or whether the new layout of Time magazine would send the right message to millions of people each week.

Pundits were sure that the launch of the Mac would destroy all of this progress. Now that anyone could set type, anyone would. So resumes ended up looking like ransom notes, Comic Sans became a joke that was taken seriously by some, and folks like David Carson set type on fire.

Instead, the Mac and the laser printer pushed the best examples of type quality forward. Once again, culture combined with tech to create a new cycle. Now, small teams of people working on small projects could also agonize about type. Now, as beautiful typefaces increased in availability and diversity, it was possible to set more type, more beautifully. If you worked in an industry or segment where the standard demanded careful expression through type, it was possible and it was expected.

More good type, a lot more lazy type.

And then smart phones arrived.

And the type culture changed in response. If you don’t have a mouse or a keyboard, if your screen is the size of a deck of playing cards, you’re probably not being very careful with typography. Whatever is built in is what you use. People create so much content that there’s no time for meetings, for care, for awareness. Speech to text, type with your thumbs, take a picture, hit send.

The culture shifts. Now, the appearance of authenticity matters more than ever. And one way to do that is to not put on airs with fonts that remind us of craft, or kerning that reminds us that you took the time to do something more than the automatic minimum.

And this won’t last, because the cycles continue.

They say you can tell a lot about someone from their handwriting. For my professional life, my handwriting has always involved a keyboard. I know that even if people don’t consciously know that they’re judging the way our words look or sound, they are.