Typography reveals more than just words

My thesis is that the value of written words has declined in direct proportion to the rise of sans-serif fonts as defaults for the software and interfaces of the technology giants: Alphabet (Google), Apple, Facebook, Microsoft, Twitter, Wikipedia, and so on.

Moreover, the orthodoxy that words are merely ‘content’ in social media, ‘blogs’, and other online monetization vehicles betrays a benighting contempt for prose as an entirely disposable filler between advertisements, clickbait, and the harvesting of personal information.

How did I get to my position?

Before I go on, let me make a couple of points that may not be as obvious to others than they are to me: although most people talk ‘fonts’, what they mean is typefaces, because ‘font’ means the typeface style, like italic, bold, condensed, size, and so on; and a serif font is one that has little embellishments at the ends of the main strokes, while sans-serifs don’t.

The small embellishments on the typeface at the top make it a serif, while the absence of those in the typeface below make it a sans-serif.

For me the aesthetics and readability of serif fonts starts with handwriting, a skill my early teachers regarded as quite fundamental to any other kinds of teaching.  I remember being ordered to adopt certain letterforms and conventions for running writing.  It seems to me that, generally, serif fonts emulate running writing by using the serifs to almost join the letters in words, broken by the spaces between words to make them stand out as separate entities.  Even well-designed sans-serif fonts make this distinction harder on the eye, particularly when you are confronted with too little differentiation between individual glyphs (the shape of each letter), as in I, l, 1, O, 0, and so on.

An interchangeable ‘golfball’ typeball.

Later on, when I started to use typewriters, it was unheard of for the keys to be in a sans-serif typeface.  That didn’t happen until the advent of electric typewriters using the interchangeable ‘golfball’ typeball.  Still, academic essays and any kind of manuscript for printing were required in a serif font. Even today, manuscripts for publishers are requested in a plain courier serif.

As soon as word processing software allowed for advanced elements of layout, like WordPerfect 5.1, I was careful to apply these features to all I wrote.  Including especially the choice of typefaces, leading, and kerning.

There is a clue in the words ‘word processor’ to how software programmers thought of writing: essentially as a computing task, stripped of literary aesthetics and sensibilities.

Programmers are not renowned for educated, literary tastes.  But they came to dominate how all of us think of online prose these days: sans-serif typefaces by default, as they are in the Microsoft Manual of Style, and much technical documentation.

The WordPerfect 5.1 interface.

Over time the technology giants — like Microsoft, Apple, Google, Facebook, Twitter, and others — normalized the default use of sans-serifs.  They not only used sans-serifs as defaults for interfaces and word processors, they invested in custom-designed sans-serif typefaces to include the extended character sets necessary for use in non-Roman alphabets, and for scientific uses (mathematical equations, for example).  I’m not sure they realized how that decision caused flow-on effects, with users of software and online interfaces mostly accepting the default use of sans typefaces, making it a de-facto standard in bureaucratic and online prose.

It is quite true that early computer screens were awful at rendering fonts legibly, and some sans-serifs were far more readable on-screen than some serifs.  But that was decades ago.  Screen technology is really quite good at displaying even tiny font sizes well.

***

In the early 1990s, I used an Apple desktop publishing infrastructure, running Aldus PageMaker, to design and produce a monthly business magazine, switching to PC-based QuarkXpress and InDesign in the later 1990s and 2000s.  Typography always struck me as vitally important to the presentation of prose.  There was quite a craft to writing headlines: short, pithy, sometimes witty summaries of the stories they announced.  Like traffic signs.  Perfectly suited to the stern, declarative nature of a bold sans-serif.  But the copy (the words of the story) deserved to be treated on par with literature, in a well-designed serif.

I didn’t dabble in the online space until the mid to later 1990s.  Like many others, I struggled with poor display of typefaces, and a limited range of client-side typefaces.  For some years you could specify the typeface to display, but it would display as you wanted only if the audience for your web pages had that typeface on their computers (client-side).  In combination, poor display technology and limited ‘web safe’ fonts meant that many designers and designers adopted and advocated for sans-serifs as more readable than serifs.

Over time, the economics of publishing to the web changed how prose was thought of.  To begin with, there were designers, developers, and copywriters.  Separate disciplines responsible for separate parts of the whole.  That proved to be expensive, so web developers increasingly assumed the rôles of designers and writers as well.  The end result was like getting a swineherd to write poetry and paint the Sistine Chapel ceiling in between tending to his pigs.

What we were all left with was a debasement of prose as merely ‘content’.  Entirely disposable placeholders between monetization strategies and the harvesting of user information that was and remains an overriding priority for the owners of web pages and social media.  I have sometimes wondered if most online platforms couldn’t get away with just using the Lorem ipsum gibberish text used by many designers to populate empty spaces in their layouts that are intended to be filled with copy.  Would most people notice between cooing at cute cat gifs and other images?

***

The world has changed.  Screens are no longer incapable of displaying even the most ornate of fonts.  Social media carry gossip, mass-delusions, extremism, and conspiracy theories – all in sans-serif fonts.  Software houses care solely about annual license fees, and are not conspicuous in supporting the humanities, where serif fonts dominate in books and journals.  Journalism, once delivered almost exclusively in serifs (with sans headlines) is dying out as a profession, giving way to PR and marketing copy writing, which seems to favour the advertising ‘shouting’ in bold sans-serifs.  Literature and literary writing, traditionally printed in serifs, is in full retreat against the onslaught of barely literate online ranting and misinformation, more often than not carried by sans-serifs.

Anyone who grew up reading literature, literary journalism, and academic writing might well have adopted the prejudice that serif fonts indicate seriousness of intent and content.  I don’t think that has changed even for Millennials not shanghaied by the recent cult of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).

To those of us who do read and write for pleasure, the point is that both reading and writing are not merely mechanical functions to achieve fixed objectives, but experiences that imbue the outcomes with nuanced meanings and insights.

Writing for the web is these days being taught along lines I would think appropriate for tutoring someone to write toilet wall graffiti.  That’s because catering to ‘search engine optimization’ (SEO) means debasing language so a bad algorithm written by a functionally illiterate programmer improves chances for monetizing ‘content’.  It’s like abandoning education, erudition, and literacy to bow before the great god algorithm.  That strikes me as a perverse inversion of the tools suiting the intended outcome, rather than changing the outcome to suit the tools.

***

In these contexts, then, the durable serif is like a constant companion, a known quantity, a reliably readable enabler, but a faithful servant of the words. The sans serif, in contrast, makes its own statement of brutalism, coldness, and functionality. It is a herald of online disinformation, government double-speak, and dishonest advertising.

It’s not really that sans-serifs are ugly or bad.  It’s how they have come to be associated with such qualities in people: ugly thoughts and bad grammar.

During my IT master’s studies, I got to read quite a number of papers in an enforced peer review process, and came to appreciate how lecturers and tutors had to endure an avalanche of shockingly bad writing. I sometimes wondered whether English composition wasn’t taught at high school at all anymore, or whether you could forget what it is about in the years between school and some higher degree.  I became convinced that most of my post-graduate cohort loathed writing, and because writing is always the expression of thinking, they hated thinking even more passionately.  Looking at their Spartan reference lists, they also clearly despised reading.  Whatever reading they did force themselves to do was almost always interpreted literally, like a sermon in a big tent revivalist gathering.  No hint of appreciating elegant grammar and nuanced meanings.

It was as if there had arisen an anti-intellectual bent, with a mass phobia for reading and writing, matched with a technocrat literalism that robs all but the most basic, functional meanings.  An anti-intellectual tyranny that characterises all totalitarianisms. Just look at the lack of sympathy for art and literature in theocracies, dictatorships, and even among the white, closet-fascist populists in Australia, the UK, and the USA.

To end on a more humorous note, hands up all who know something about the history of Helvetica!  It seems to have been an all-purpose sans serif that has its roots in what even the designers called ‘grotesque’ and ‘neo-grotesque’ pan-Germanic typographic design.

There’s a documentary, Helvetica (2007), which is informative, entertaining, and, at times, hilarious, in examining the ‘phenomenon’ and ‘cult’ of a single sans-serif typeface.  A preview of the documentary is embedded below.

A preview of the Helvetica documentary.

The documentary is well worth watching in its entirety.

Helvetica went on to become one of the most popular typefaces of its century. But mostly as a signage font.  Not for extended text.  It is the policeman of fonts, giving directions and telling you what you can or cannot do. It labels things, and tells you what’s what in succinct, stern tones. It becomes elegant only when used by master designers. After watching that documentary, it occurred to me there is no equivalent story for any serif typeface.  Because they all speak with the writer’s voice, not with their own, or the baggage that comes from their misuse.

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