I admit to being a typography fan — that is the science and art of the shape of letters and how they look on the page. I’ve learned just enough to know I don’t know enough, and enough (so I like to think) to spot good and bad examples. These days, authors need to be more aware than ever about the effective use of fonts, so it’s something that sticks with me. The fonts chosen for any project not only convey an instant emotion, they convey a message. That emotion and message can be strengthened or considerably weakened by font and typographic choices.

Fonts can be elegant, or noisy, or fun, or mocked (comic sans, anyone?). They can convey the tone of a document before we’ve read a single word. A font can instantly identify something, say, The New York Times. They can give you a headache, make you squint, or leave you uncertain about the difference between letters. Is that a lower-case L or the number 1? Microsoft, infamously, in my opinion, used just such a font in some of its early server software. With computers, the difference between l and 1 is huge. To this day I remain baffled by the decision to use a font with ambiguities like that.

Typography has been in the news lately in the form of the observation that dyslexics reading a page with fewer words on it find it much, much easier to make sense of the letters. And by page, is meant screen. People with dsylexia AND a smart phone or tablet, can increase the font-size and decrease the noise on the page, and thereby make it easier to read. See this Marketplace report of August 21. While there’s a link to audio, the summary has a good synopsis of the findings.

To all the people who scorn eBooks just because they’re not paper, here’s proof that the technology has benefits, and huge ones, that paper books don’t offer. If I need or want to read with a smaller or larger font at any time in my reading experience, I can do so. I do not need to buy the large print edition.

This is sans serif.

This is serif.

In mulling over the subject of this post, I did some Googling. There are websites that claim the sans-serif (no curly-cues) was invented in the early 1800’s and was called the “egyptian font.” This is only sort of true. (see Wikipedia.) Sans serif lettering goes back to ancient alphabets, but it was, indeed, during the Regency period, that sans-serif fonts became what you might call a thing…and that’s even though there were sans-serif fonts developed in the mid-1700’s.

Sans-serif letters began to appear in printed media as early as 1805, in European Magazine. However, early-19th-century commercial sign writers and engravers had modified the sans-serif styles of neoclassical designers to include uneven stroke weights found in serif Roman fonts, producing sans-serif letters.[3]

In 1816, the Ordnance Survey began to use ‘Egyptian’ type, which was printed using copper plate engraving of monoline sans-serif capital letters, to name ancient Roman sites.

I will leave you with this thought: Technology has made it trivial to examine typefaces of the past. Call it evil or the greatest thing since sliced bread, but Google Books with its image view of the books they scanned, means we can leaf through the typographical past with ease.

Do you have a favorite font?

I am very partial to Palatino.