Dirt. Noise. Crowds. Delays. Scary smells. Even scarier fluids swirling on the floor. There are lots of reasons to loathe the New York City subway, but one very good reason to love it — Helvetica, the typeface that’s used on its signage.
Seeing the clean, crisp shapes of those letters and numbers at station entrances, on the platforms and inside the trains is always a treat, at least it is until I spot the “Do not lean …” sign on the train doors. Ugh! There’s something not quite right about the “e” and the “a” in the word “lean.” Somehow they seem too small and too cramped. Once I’ve noticed them, the memory of the clean, crisp letters fades, and all I remember are the “off” ones.
That’s the problem with loving typography. It’s always a pleasure to discover a formally gorgeous, subtly expressive typeface while walking along a street or leafing through a magazine. (Among my current favorites are the very elegant letters in the new identity of the Paris fashion house, Céline, and the jolly jumble of multi-colored fonts on the back of the Rossi Ice Cream vans purring around London.) But that joy is swiftly obliterated by the sight of a typographic howler. It’s like having a heightened sense of smell. You spend much more of your time wincing at noxious stinks, than reveling in delightful aromas.
If it’s bad for me (an amateur enthusiast who is interested in typography, but isn’t hugely knowledgeable about it), what must it be like for the purists? Dreadful, it seems. I feel guilty enough about grumbling to my friends whenever I see this or that typographic gaffe, but am too ignorant to spot all of them, unlike the designers who work with typefaces on a daily basis, and study them lovingly.
“I think sometimes that being overly type-sensitive is like an allergy,” said Michael Bierut, a partner in the Pentagram design group in New York. “My font nerdiness makes me have bad reactions to things that spoil otherwise pleasant moments.” One of his (least) favorite examples is the Cooper Black typeface on the Mass sign outside a beautifully restored 1885 Carpenter Gothic church near his weekend home in Cape May Point, New Jersey. “Cooper Black is a perfectly good font, but in my mind it is a fat, happy font associated with the logo for the ‘National Lampoon,’ the sleeve of the Beach Boys’ ‘Pet Sounds’ album and discount retailers up and down the U.S.,” Mr. Bierut explained. “I wouldn’t choose it as a font for St. Agnes Church even as a joke. Every time I go by, my vacation is, for a moment, ruined.”
Choosing an inappropriate typeface is one problem. Applying one inaccurately is another. Sadly for type nuts, movies often offend on both counts. Take “Titanic,” in which the numbers on the dials of the ship’s pressure gauges use Helvetica, a font designed in 1957, some 45 years after the real “Titanic” sank. Helvetica was also miscast in “Good Night and Good Luck,” which takes place in the early 1950s. “I still find it bizarre to see type or lettering that is wrong by years in a period movie in which the architecture, furniture and costumes are impeccable, and where somebody would have been fired if they were not,” said Matthew Carter, the typography designer based in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
The same applies to TV shows, including the otherwise excellent “Mad Men.” It is rare to find a review of the show that does not rave about the accuracy of its early 1960s styling, yet the “Mad Men” team is woefully sloppy when it comes to typography. Mark Simonson, a graphic designer in St. Paul, Minnesota, blogs about typographic misdemeanors on his Web site, www.marksimonson.com, and he once catalogued the flaws in “Mad Men.” The 1992 typeface, Lucida Handwriting, appears in an ad in the opening titles. Gill Sans, a British typeface designed in 1930 but rarely used in the United States until the 1970s, is used for office signage. A lipstick ad features one wholly appropriate 1958 font, Amazone, but two incongruous ones, 1978’s Balmoral and 1980’s Fenice. He noted lots of other clunkers too, but admits that he has spotted fewer new errors in the most recent episodes of “Mad Men.”
“I guess they must be doing a better job,” Mr. Simonson said, adding that the same applies to other TV shows and movies, with the unfortunate exception of the animated feature film “Up,” in which he espied Verdana, a font designed by Mr. Carter in 1996 specifically for use on computers, in scenes set in the 1930s and 1940s. “But I’m not sure how picky you should be with a cartoon.”
Yet another common blunder is the misuse of the individual characters in a typeface that includes obscure versions of letters and numbers as well as more familiar ones. These gaffes often occur when lazy designers confuse one character with another, thereby making the typographic equivalent of a spelling mistake.
The British typography designer, Paul Barnes, remembers seeing one on a poster in a Gap store. “It was set in Adobe Caslon and was supposed to say ‘Your first clothes,”’ he recalled. “Rather than use an ‘f’ and ‘I,’ they decided to use a long ‘s’ and dotless ‘i,’ thus spelling ‘sirst’ rather than ‘first.’ ” He is equally irritated by similar errors in the use of historic fonts, like the archaic black letter typefaces that date back to the invention of the printing press in the 15th century.
That said, even the type-savvy Mr. Barnes claims to have become more tolerant — or less intolerant — of such howlers over the years. “I’m not sure if it’s a case of growing older, or maybe I have lower expectations,” he explained. “In France recently, I drank some nice Côtes du Rhône wine with a fairly dreadful typographic dress. I was less bothered than I used to be; after all, it’s the wine that’s important!”
By ALICE RAWSTHORN
NY Times Published: November 15, 2009
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