The curious faces behind our lettering
Language is expressed through a Myriad of typefaces, each of which has its own Impact on the written form. It’s a peculiar world—think Gotham san Batman—and one which has found a home in Wellington. This week Salient‘s Chris McIntyre has Georgia on his mind, and gets to the point with some who have made Courier out of the typeface design.
At age 5, Jack Yan looked up at the alphabet on his classroom wall: “capital A, little a, capital B, little b— but the little j didn’t have a tail on it, which of course meant it was set in Futura. I noticed that at age 5,” he tells Salient proudly. For the next hour the type designer, publisher, 2010 mayoral candidate and Victoria alumnus waxed lyrical about Wellington, language, and all things type.
Yan believes Wellington has become the home of typeface design within New Zealand, though admittedly this has occurred “by accident”. He quickly reels off no less than seven Wellington-based type designers, emphasising the importance of each in turn. His appreciation for fellow craftsmen is eminently evident, especially for one Kris Sowersby; someone “born with a gift” for type design. Both Sowersby and Yan identify another Wellingtonian, Joe Churchward, as the pivotal figure in New Zealand type design. Since drawing letters in the sands of his childhood homeland, Samoa, Churchward has designed over 580 typefaces—reportedly more than any other individual—including a notable contribution to the Dominion Post masthead.
Yan’s own love for type did not begin at primary school, but has been life-long. “I think if you’ve been open to it that long, you do gain an instinct for it…It’s something you’re born with,” he explains.
Sowersby has created a number of iconic typefaces, too: Serrano is the approachable, friendly typeface for BNZ, while NZ Rugby Chisel’s stoic prestige represents the All Blacks and NZRU.
While Sowersby doesn’t believe New Zealand has “had the time, population or resources to develop a typeface culture,” Yan sees his contributions as providing an image for New Zealand type. To Yan, Sowersby “has managed to do something that I don’t think many people have—he’s found a sort of New Zealand aesthetic.” Parallels are drawn to Jean- François Porchez, designer of the Paris Metro’s quintessentially French typeface, Parisine. Yan sees Sowersby’s typefaces as a contemporary take on modern New Zealand, and believes— in the last 7 years, especially—“he’s managed to redefine what New Zealand type is about”.
When Yan laments Wellington’s creative sector as “not [being] as strong as it could be”, he sounds very much like the mayoral candidate he was in 2010. As he outlines the need for creative clusters and greater facilitation by local government, he becomes (even more) purposeful—animated even— with his vision.
His vision for a city which lives up to its potential, not only creatively, but economically, is considered and well-rounded. He approaches it with the same passion he exudes when describing type. To Yan, that “very few have taken any leadership role” in successfully growing Wellington’s creative sector seems as much a disappointment as the grotesque stretching of Sonoran Sans Serif to Swiss widths undertaken by type giant Monotype Corporation to construct Arial.
“Arial would be my least favourite [typeface], I think it’s horrible” Yan quickly offers; he prefers Helvetica, and blames Monotype’s cheap copy for the resulting monstrosity. Their efforts to turn an essentially British design Swiss is “like getting Oliver Reed into Boris Becker’s trunks”.
When pressed for his favourite font, Yan pauses for a moment: “if I said any one, I’m going to offend a whole bunch of mates”. Later in the interview, Yan decides ITC Galliard by his friend Matthew Carter (creator of Verdana and Georgia) is his favourite “at the moment”, but “that could change next week. Just like your moods change day-to-day, or hour-to-hour, I think your type favourites change as well, to suit your mood. Galliard, it’s so beautifully done”. His passion is palpable.
If he’s sitting down to write something to himself, Yan will always pick a typeface which suits how he’s feeling. Programs like MS Office which force a default font are in some ways fatally flawed—though Office’s current default, Calibri, is designed by another of Yan’s friends: Dutchman Lucas de Groot. The flaw of a default font is not a failing of Calibri, or indeed the preceding default Times New Roman, but a failing which eventuates from their resulting overuse.
“Say I sent you a letter in Times. Well, Inland Revenue also sent you a letter in times, ‘cause they were using Times for a while. [So using Times is] not going to do your business any good. What if an institution you don’t like, say, the debt collector, sends a letter in Calibri? Then your business sends a letter in Calibri? Then your letter’s going to look like a debt collection notice”.
Of particular note to students, the same principle applies to CVs and essays. Yan’s advice for students is this: “your CV in Times or Arial will look very dull. I won’t look at a CV if it’s set in Arial, if it’s for a designer [using Arial shows] you obviously don’t care. Pick something that’s new—look at a Georgia, at a Baskerville, at a Minion.”
Further advice come when Yan references (admittedly non-scientific) research from a web-designer, who found Georgia-fonted papers tend to get A grades, Times New Roman-fonted papers get A- grades, and Trebuchet-fonted papers get B grades. While this observation may not hold much academic weight, isn’t using Georgia simply the natural extension of not using Comic Sans or—Helvetica forbid—Curlz MT? Yan advises: “if you can’t get type right, the whole thing falls apart. I think typography is fundamental to good visual communications”.
The chosen typeface is not the only determinant of the effectiveness; language bears a large part in creating a pleasing layout. Yan describes how setting text in different languages gives different effects, an observation no doubt informed by his multilingualism. In any typeface, Yan believes a passage will look “right” in Italian—“the words are a decent, moderate length, the spaces look quite regular…it’s got a very calm look. Compare that with German; it’s at the opposite end of the scale—you’re going to have a very disrupted looking layout. English is probably somewhere in between because it’s a bastard language, it takes elements from Latin [and] Germanic languages, so it’s probably not the best looking language in the world to set”. Quindi, studenti d’Italiano siete fortunati.
Type will always be an integral component of any published document. Yan compares it to cuisine: “If you go and have dinner, you choose a good wine. It’s very important to know what you’re doing. [Choosing good type is] maybe more important than the wine at a dinner, because if you think about it, type has a subliminal effect … something set in Verdana is going to look more serious than Comic Sans, however something set in Times is going to look more serious than something set in Verdana”
As for the future, the use of type on the web is a huge emerging market. With the number of fonts exploding into the hundreds of thousands, Yan wonders where this huge proliferation is going to lead. Perhaps, the most suitable sign of the Times is ‘&’.