Introduction:

Several weeks ago when I was at the bank, I noticed a little sign in the drive-through that read simply, “Please limit to three transactions.” It was in Comic Sans. What some people (like sign makers for banks) fail to realize, is that typefaces are a form of art, and like hanging the Mona Lisa on a bathroom wall, or playing a kazoo in Carnegie Hall, any form of art can be misapplied.
All art has what are termed “the three Cs”: craft, communication, and context (this was not my original idea. I got it from a certain blogger for whom I am writing this article). For a typeface to be used correctly, it must properly utilize all three Cs. So to begin, it must have good craft, which means it needs to be both readable and beautiful.
It must also communicate the right message. A typeface carries with it its own values, history, and worldview.
One must make sure that the typeface’s message is congruous with the message being communicated by the overall design. For instance, a simplistic, futuristic sans serif does not communicate the same message as the phrase: “Ye Olde Wine Shoppe”. While said sans serif may have good craft, it would be misused if chosen for that shop sign.
Lastly, there is context. Helvetica has good craft, but if it was used for the teeny-tiny writing in phone books, it would become unreadable. The phone book context would make Helvetica unreadable (ruining its craft), and would, hence, be a misuse of the font. Now for practical application. I would like to go through several of the more popular typefaces, briefly discuss their underlying worldviews and messages, and give examples of how they can be used well and/or misused.

. . .

The Sans of Iwo Jima:

Helvetica

This is a simple, practical, and yet beautiful font that is so popular, an entire documentary was made about it. It is found practically everywhere from the new US dollar bills to menus in Chinese restaurants.
 
Right:
New York’s subway system which switched to Helvetica in 1989. It is straightforward and almost insanely readable. How could anyone get lost with Helvetica?

Wrong:
One example of misusing Helvetica, as I mentioned earlier, is the phonebook.
 
In his TED talk, “My Life in Typefaces”, Matthew Carter said that the characters in Helvetica are designed to be as similar to each other as possible. While this is beautifully harmonious at a comparatively large size, it become unreadable when the characters are reduced to the size needed in phone books.

 

Helvetica Ultra Light

The Helvetica Neue family is a direct descendant of its prestigious ancestor whose name it bears, but the Neue clan carries a surprisingly different set of values and messages. While Helvetica is practical, straightforward, and readable, Helvetica Neue Ultralight is elegant, exclusive, and highly sophisticated.
 
Right: Due to its classy nature, this typeface is used to good effect by classical singers like Sarah Brightman and Katherine Jenkins:

Wrong:
Of course, this typeface completely bombs when the message being communicated is on the coarser side of things.

 

Futura

Designed by German visionary Paul Renner in 1924, this minimalistic, mechanical font still looks futuristic today. It is a font that looks to the future progress of mankind, and builds a utopian vision of perfect simplicity.
 
Right:
It is little wonder, therefore, that the plaque left on the moon by the Apollo 11 astronauts was done up in Futura. What better font to use?

Wrong:
Arby’s features a ten gallon cowboy hat and serves beef sandwiches. Its logo used to feature a very western slab serif font, but for some strange reason, it was changed to a customized version of Futura.
 
A cowpoke looking for some grub wants the traditional, relaxed, buckboard feel of a slab serif, not minimalistic futurism. While the new font choice has good craft, it fails in communicating the right message.

 

Gotham
A recent addition to the type world, Gotham was created in 2000 for a design company in New York City. This bold font features a determined, progressive, and straight-forwardly honest attitude. It is confrontational, demanding to be heard.
 
Right:
Whatever one thinks of his politics, one thing is certain: President Obama knows a good typeface when he sees it. His bold image of hope and change is very much in line with the messages of this font.

Wrong:
In the wake of President Obama’s stunning success, liberal/progressive venues from TV shows to movie posters have jumped on the Gotham bandwagon. But there’s much more to Gotham than just this one message. It’s so versatile, it would be a shame to pigeonhole it as “the liberal font.”
 
When it comes to a certain comedy show, the only link between it and Gotham is the progressive slant. In my mind, that’s a bit of a stretch: Gotham is not inherently liberal, and it’s certainly not inherently funny.

Optima

It took three years to design Optima, a beautiful, elegant sans serif that looks good just sitting there. Its slightly undulating line thickness adds an alluring, ritzy quality to it, like the curves on a Corvette.
 
Right:
Simon Garfield in his book, “Just My Type,” notes that Optima is “a perfect perfume font”. The attractive elegance of Optima fits right at home in the mysterious and exotic world of perfume.

Wrong:
Will and I were eating a hurried lunch in a van one time when he noticed the font on the package of the granola bar he was eating. Yep, you guessed it. Because everyone knows nothing says “elegant, classy, and alluring” quite like a granola bar.

. . .

 

The Serifs of Nottingham:

Times New Roman

Times New Roman is a respectable, enduring font that says little. Its purpose is to draw attention away from itself and towards the content.
 
Right:
As its name implies, Times New Roman was created for “The Times” newspaper where one wanted to know the news, not examine the font. Success!

Wrong:
Of course, because Times New Roman is purposefully expressionless, it makes it rather awkward to build a dynamic campaign image around it even with good colors. While the font might fit a candidate’s old-fashioned, somewhat expressionless personality, it’s not exactly something that’s going to resonate with voters.

Trajan

Arguably one of the oldest fonts in the world, Trajan harkens back to the days when Roman soldiers ruled the world. Trajan is the strong, fearless, manly font of warriors. Today, it is “the movie font,” featured on countless movie posters and covers.
 
The following are two movie covers; one which uses it well, and the other which does not. On “Last Samurai”, Trajan conveys the sense of strong, gutsy warriors in battle. “Enchanted April”, on the other hand, is much too girly of a movie for Trajan.

Garamond

Another old, well-respected font, Garamond speaks of well-made, handcrafted design. Like its original letters carved by hand, Garamond does not look like it was haphazardly printed en masse. It bears the rough, storied scars of a blacksmith’s hands.
 
While I’m here, I think I’ll plug Will’s other blog, www.theknotbrothers.com, which he built with fellow photographer, MJ. The handcrafted feel of their photos fits perfectly with Garamond:

Didot

Didot and its sister font, Bodoni, are two stylish, professional, classy looking fonts. So they should only be used in conjunction with stylish, classy images, right? Not necessarily.
 
This logo uses Didot together with a drawing by a little kid who apparently didn’t take art lessons. Does this break the rule of communication? No. Riley’s wagon logo gives the hospital its little children, personal care, and community aspects, while Didot keeps it professional and reputable in the public mind. A font like Chalkboard that is loose, fun, and approachable would go well with the wagon logo, but would fail to communicate the full identity of the hospital.

. . .

 

In Conclusion:

If nothing else, I hope you’re getting excited about fonts. Each one is unique, carrying with it certain ideas.
As you move forward in your own design, think through what it is you want to communicate, what context you are working in, and what typeface to use that will fit your message like a glove.

When I’m not writing, you’ll usually find me reading books, poetry, or cartoons and listening to Sarah Brightman music. I also enjoy drawing and have recently picked up the mandolin which I play rather poorly. I am a typeface enthusiast, an assistant independent filmmaker, and if that’s not strange enough, I’ve had aspirations to be an unorthodox educator and sometime lobster fisherman for a number of years.