Font Lines

Last Tuesday, my work iMac had a meltdown. I felt like having one too: it’s been a stressful month, trying to keep my major seasonal project rolling while filling in the gaps that open in the absence of a departmental assistant. But there is no time for hard drive failure, mine or otherwise, so I worked on the vacant assistant’s PC and focused on textual tasks until my Mac was reinstated yesterday.

Coming back to it was strange; after a year of working seamlessly on my work Mac and home PC, one week of all-PC-all-day caused my hands to forget Mac keystroke combinations. The gutted and replaced Mac seemed to suffer few such memory lapses and cheerfully booted up all the programs and files we had backed up and copied over–until I opened some book ads in InDesign and saw that the text was all highlighted pink, default systems fonts replacing the weights of Helvetica I have always used.
“It’s possible that they couldn’t be copied over,” said the technician. “You had a hard drive failure, maybe that’s where the fault lines were.”
I like the image of a computer’s memory tearing asunder like two shelves of land during an earthquake, letters and numbers all tumbling into the gap. I like it less when applied to my own workstation. Of course the fault lines trace the paths I use most often, the fonts we have always used to declare new titles.

Thinking about fonts today reminded me that, long ago, I borrowed a book on typography from my press’s art director: The Elements of Typographic Style by Robert Bringhurst. “It’s a bit flowery,” he warned me–and it is, gloriously so. Bringhurst was evidently a poet as well as a typographer, and his rhapsodies about the effect of sublimely deployed typography are matched only by his scathing dismissal of the stylistic excesses of the nineteenth century and the eye-candy aesthetic of the contemporary logo. He’s so wonderfully quotable that I’ve been meaning for ages to make some of his zingers into images, the sorts of things you can reblog or pin, which would double as typographical and textural exercises for me. I’m usually too busy to practice at work, and at home I have much less powerful software to work with, but in the wake of my missing and sorely missed iterations of Helvetica Neue, it seems like a good time to take up The Elements of Typography again and start playing.

Bringhurst 5.5.1

My lesson this week, from section 5.5.1 (“Use the accents and alternate sorts that proper names and imported words and phrases require.”)

Simplicity is good, but so is plurality. Typography’s principal function (not its only function) is communication, and the greatest threat to communication is not difference but sameness.

Bringhurst is talking about the need for contemporary fonts to include a broad range of diacritics so that they can accurately represent words from a diversity of languages. For me, it’s a gentle reminder that it’s okay to stray from the design set by years of advertising templates before me. (Although font nerds will note my use of Helvetica Neue above, too.)

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