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The Secrets Between The Letters

Caroline McCarthy

Think about the last time you saw something printed in a beautifully designed typeface, and you knew it was familiar, that you’d seen it before. Perhaps it drums up a cozy memory, much as sniffing a familiar scent does. A glimpse at the Futura font, a staple of midcentury typography, may make you think of a time when you were strolling through the tableaux of the American Museum of Natural History in Manhattan. You stopped next to, say, the scene of a Canada lynx stalking a snowshoe hare on a frozen alpine slope, and turned your attention to the softly lit placard next to it that details the animals and their environment. It’s printed in a font that’s clean, angular, academic, and somewhat reminiscent of the 1950s – and that placard, that tableau of a lynx, that museum is the memory that you recall the next time you come across something printed in Futura.

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We tend to think of typography as coming from the realm of creative genius, deep within the right half of the brain. Yet in reality, typography is one of those phenomena that has straddled the divide between science and art for centuries, sometimes leaning more toward one side than the other. With Gutenberg’s invention of movable type in 1439, for example, the business of typography entered an industrial explosion of its own: Take Italian printer and publisher Aldus Manutius, born a decade after Gutenberg’s invention, who is credited with inventing italic type as well as developing the appearance and usage of what we now know as the common comma and semicolon. In our age it’s difficult to imagine a world without these things, but it was in the century following Gutenberg that such fundamentals of typography were developed as though they were the basics of scientific inquiry – the periodic table, units of measure, Linnaean classification.

(It’s worth noting that more subtle hints of Aldus Manutius’ influence are still all around us; if you’ve used the Palatino or Garamond fonts on your computer lately, you can thank him.)

The following centuries saw a gradual refinement in the development of typefaces; less about invention and more about smaller modifications and experimentation as designers grew accustomed to movable type and further pushed their work beyond the standards of traditional calligraphy. This “transitional” period following the “Old Style” (immediately post-Gutenberg) era was epitomized by the British printer John Baskerville, whose 1757 printing of a Virgil text in an original typeface is the underlying reason why there’s likely a typeface called “Baskerville” in your word processing program of choice today.

Arguably, the next milestone in typography that rivaled Gutenberg’s in importance was one that wouldn’t come along until nearly 450 years after the printing press. That would be the linotype machine, invented by the German-born Ottmar Mergenthaler in 1884, which made it possible for typefaces to be commodified and easily reused (in addition to making it viable for newspapers and magazines to be more than a few pages in length). Before the linotype machine, the creation of a new typeface was an arduous process and it was unlikely to achieve mass adoption. Now? Type designers and type foundries had both a flexible creative canvas, and a clearer path to an audience.

Following the development of typefaces and fonts – the two aren’t interchangeable, technically, as a “font” refers to a particular weight and style of a typeface, and in our digital age also refers to the file containing that typeface – is like reading a narrative of evolution. Sans-serif letter designs, for example, date back to Etruscan and Greek inscriptions from as early as the fifth century B.C., but fell out of favor until the late 18th century, when they were likely revived in tandem with the rise of Neoclassical architecture.

And the typefaces with which we’re most familiar today – now listed alphabetically in drop-down font menus in Microsoft Word or Google Docs – were often developed centuries apart from one another. Both Times New Roman and Futura were developed around the same time (1932 and 1927 respectively), but while the former is a ubiquitous staple of digital word processing, the latter’s association with the Bauhaus design style and eventually American midcentury printing have forever associated it with decades and memories past, though director Wes Anderson’s penchant for it has given it new life among the indie-artisanal set. Meanwhile, the font most closely associated with hipster trends in the ‘00s (Helvetica) actually dates back to 1957. Fellow ubiquitous sans-serif typeface Arial came along in 1982, one of the few mainstream font families that was designed with computers in mind – designed by type foundry Monotype, it is metrically identical to Helvetica to enable easy document conversion without having to pay for a Helvetica license.

Typefaces like Times New Roman, Baskerville, and Futura are largely household names with untold backstories. But some of the most recognizable typefaces have lost their name value too, as they’ve been superceded by their most familiar contexts. Franklin Gothic is now better known as the font used in the rolling opening prologues of the Star Wars movies. Klavika, with some modifications, became the typeface used in Facebook’s logo. Frutiger, originally designed in 1974, is used in the logos of both Flickr and Panda Express as well as all signage for the BART train system in the San Francisco Bay Area. Two fonts from a typeface called EF Windsor are forever associated with the title cards in Woody Allen’s films.

And everyone’s favorite typographic punching bag, Comic Sans? There are, understandably and perhaps thankfully, no storied Renaissance-era roots to it. It was designed internally at Microsoft and released with Windows 95.