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Flawed Typefaces
May 15, 2011 11:53 AM   Subscribe

Flawed Typefaces. Paul Shaw, author of Helvetica and the New York City Subway System and a writer with a sharp eye even by typography standards, dissects the one or two characters in each of nearly two dozen fonts that stick out like a sore serif. (Yes, the Gill Sans numeral 1 is in there.)
posted by joeclark (57 comments total) 35 users marked this as a favorite

 
A lot of these seem more like misunderstandings of completely intentional aesthetic choices than like "flaws" to me — if you don't like the size of the dots in Carter Sans or the ampersand in Univers, why not just pick another typeface? All the same, I'd be the first to send that Galliard "g" to the guillotine; there's no other character so distractingly weird in such common text use. (If every other book I read were set in Joanna then I'd be complaining about that one, too.)
posted by RogerB at 12:11 PM on May 15, 2011 [2 favorites]


The "weird" lowercase 'g' in Didot the Elder is gorgeous.
posted by Foci for Analysis at 12:15 PM on May 15, 2011


Yeah, that Didot the Elder "g" is absolutely dripping with 19th-century flavor — the complaint that it's distracting or "annoying" to a 21st-century eye misses the point completely.
posted by RogerB at 12:19 PM on May 15, 2011 [2 favorites]


And this comment finally settles it for me, I didn't dream that. Must have seen the same book.
Ambrose, if you have no problem with the Burgundica capitals then more power to you. I can read blackletter typefaces with little problem, but that is because I have years of experience with blackletter calligraphy, but most American designers I know stumble over letters like A, D, S and lowercase k and x in such typefaces. That is why I saw a bookjacket in the 1980s for that Adolf Hikler.
posted by dabitch at 12:24 PM on May 15, 2011


I love the phrase "pelican-jawed," applied here to CC Galliard. I must find ways to use this phrase in real life.
posted by Gator at 12:25 PM on May 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


the complaint that it's distracting or "annoying" to a 21st-century eye misses the point completely.

I know very little about fonts or graphic design or anything, but I'm not sure that I agree with this; I think that any time you're using text, readability is of paramount importance. If it's distracting, that detracts from the ability of the reader to pick up on what is being conveyed. I think aesthetics are important and that we need to pay attention to form, but if it's distracting then isn't the form getting in the way of the function?
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 12:26 PM on May 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


Didot is mostly a display face and not really suited for long stretches of text and certainly not body text.
In that context the lowercase "g" works perfectly.
posted by Senor Cardgage at 12:33 PM on May 15, 2011 [2 favorites]


Whoever wrote this seems to have a beautiful, exacting eye and a terrible personality.

There are plenty of acceptable book/block text fonts with few or no irregularities - if you don't like the more idiosyncratic options, ignore them.

It's like complaining that we live in a world where you can have mayo on your fries. Nobody's forcing you to do anything, pal. Let us have our beloved white squeezebottles.
posted by voronoi at 12:40 PM on May 15, 2011 [3 favorites]


Whoever wrote this seems to have a beautiful, exacting eye and a terrible personality.

There are plenty of acceptable book/block text fonts with few or no irregularities - if you don't like the more idiosyncratic options, ignore them.


I didn't get the feeling he was disparaging many of the "sore-thumbed" faces. He framed several historical contexts where the originals were changed because of typesetting challenges of the time; several where it's up for interpretation which version is more suitable (depending on the context of use); and one where the font, curiously, only included the more flourishing version of a glyph. He also noted many new versions of these fonts that "correct" the prior state.

All in all, I thought it was an interesting overview.
posted by stance at 12:47 PM on May 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


But "typefaces that are largely conventional except for one or two choices that aren't good for all purposes" isn't as catchy a title.

The English language can make it hard to speak naturally without sounding like you're making a forceful statement about objective truth. Usually the people who call something "flawed" or "wrong" know full well that it's a matter of taste or opinion. Qualifying every subjective statement you make reads badly, so I like to give the benefit of the doubt.
posted by Lorc at 12:47 PM on May 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


Burgundica (Gerrit Noordzij, The Enschedé Font Foundry, 2009)
Burgundica is a modernized fraktur. As such, it has several letters that are inherently problematic for modern readers, especially non-German ones. The A, D and S are all extremely difficult to recognize in frakturs. For Burgundica, Gerrit Noordzij simplified each of them, but not enough. Which one is the fatal flaw depends on the reader. For those who want to still use Burgundica, the solution is to find a compatible roman face and substitute its capitals.


I'm sorry, but this is just bananas.
posted by Sys Rq at 12:53 PM on May 15, 2011


Actually, I bet this guy's personality is all right. All his solutions revolve around hacking the font to be how you like/need. That sounds like someone who sides with humans rather than being a purist zealot.
posted by DU at 1:16 PM on May 15, 2011 [4 favorites]


hacking the font

It's Avant Garde ITC Gothic Extra Light... I know this.
posted by nathancaswell at 1:23 PM on May 15, 2011 [8 favorites]


Does Microsoft Office or LibreOffice provide any kind of figure-control yet? (previously)

Because it drives me crazy that if I'm using something like one of Microsoft's ClearType fonts (I know, I know, most of them are meant to just be screen fonts, and I should just be using Frutiger or Georgia or something), I can't get lining numerals for my headers and tables without moving the whole thing over to InDesign.
posted by waterunderground at 1:24 PM on May 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


I like the dirk-like j in Centaur! And it seems as if Centaur shouldn't even make into this article if this is true: "It is distracting in text, beguiling in headings and logos (see john varvatos)." So it's not something you'd avoid using tout court, just something you'd avoid using except for certain purposes, in the pursuit of which it's "beguiling". Doesn't sound flawed at all, just specialized.
posted by kenko at 1:28 PM on May 15, 2011 [2 favorites]


And again: "I am not one of those who disliked the pelican-jawed g, but I am happy to have the alternate g as well."

So … it was never, in your view, flawed at all? But now it's better?
posted by kenko at 1:32 PM on May 15, 2011


RogerB, Shaw goes out of his way to describe context.

Your attitude, shared by Voronoi, that one can just pick another font would, if taken to its logical end, preclude criticism of anything.
posted by joeclark at 1:47 PM on May 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


Ugh, the 1 in Gill Sans. That's easily the worst thing Eric Gill ever did.
posted by "Elbows" O'Donoghue at 1:50 PM on May 15, 2011 [7 favorites]


I love Gill Sans (have my browser set to it right now, ahhhh) but the number 1. *shakes fist*
posted by shothotbot at 1:57 PM on May 15, 2011


Ugh, the 1 in Gill Sans. That's easily the worst thing Eric Gill ever did.

yeah, that 1 really gets Sans in my Gills
posted by nathancaswell at 1:58 PM on May 15, 2011 [3 favorites]




Gill sexually abused his own children, had an incestuous relationship with his sister and performed sexual acts on his dog

You think that's worse than the 1 in Gill Sans?
posted by verstegan at 2:25 PM on May 15, 2011 [15 favorites]


One of these days some pedantic functionary in the BBC is going to be like "if we keep using Gill Sans we are condoning the sexual abuse of children, we must have a new typographic identity STAT".
posted by oonh at 2:37 PM on May 15, 2011


After the initial shock, […] as Gill's history of adulteries, incest, and experimental connection with his dog became public knowledge in the late 1980s, the consequent reassessment of his life and art left his artistic reputation strengthened.(from the Wiki link)

'Experimental Connection with his Dog' is possibly the funniest phrase I will read all week.
posted by Sebmojo at 2:37 PM on May 15, 2011


I can't imagine it's a particularly easy connection to make...
posted by nathancaswell at 2:47 PM on May 15, 2011


When I was on the University of Washington logo redesign committee, we agreed readily that Matrix II was the choice for the primary wordmark font. But one thing bothered me about Matrix II -- the N's. The bottom point of the N descends below the baseline, making it almost look like a fang. So I lobbied to get the font modified for the university to trim the "fang" off the N, and it was made so.

After we released the new logo, everyone wanted to synthesize their own version for their purposes, completely ignoring the rules we'd set in place. But I could always tell if they'd made the logo themselves by looking at the N's.

I like to think that after leaving the university in January after 10 years there, my one lasting contribution is to what you don't see in the logo.
posted by dw at 2:47 PM on May 15, 2011 [13 favorites]


I'm sure people who obsess over typefaces have very neat bedrooms.
posted by the noob at 2:50 PM on May 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


Shaw's site looks both strange and terrible in Opera. It seems like there are about five different fonts in a single line of text. Everywhere. I'm curious why. Very odd.
posted by MrFish at 2:55 PM on May 15, 2011


I'm sure people who obsess over typefaces have very neat bedrooms.

If you saw my bedroom, you wouldn't think so.
posted by Faint of Butt at 2:58 PM on May 15, 2011


I'm sure people who obsess over typefaces have very neat bedrooms.


I think quite the opposite, the obsession over the neatness of script replaces the obsession over the neatness of bedrooms. Or any rooms. In my case at least.
posted by criticalbill at 3:02 PM on May 15, 2011


In my (type)case at least
posted by criticalbill at 3:02 PM on May 15, 2011


In my type/case at least
posted by criticalbill at 3:03 PM on May 15, 2011


Oh for an edit function
posted by criticalbill at 3:04 PM on May 15, 2011


and a neat bedroom would be nice too. *glares at mess surrounding me*
posted by dabitch at 3:05 PM on May 15, 2011


People like Paul Shaw are my own personal version of ultra-Orthodox Jewry; as in, I strongly respect the heritage and tradition, I am inspired by its stories and ideas, and I'm so very glad there are people out there observing the complexities of the movement. That they maintain their dedicated studies means that I am free to live my more secular typographical life.
posted by redsparkler at 3:07 PM on May 15, 2011 [9 favorites]


I'm sure people who obsess over typefaces have very neat bedrooms.

It's overall pretty neat. But it has one flaw....
posted by dhartung at 3:07 PM on May 15, 2011 [3 favorites]


> Shaw's site looks both strange and terrible in Opera. It seems like there are about five different fonts in a single line of text. Everywhere. I'm curious why. Very odd.

It might be something at your end. I'm using Opera and I don't have this issue.
posted by bjrn at 3:10 PM on May 15, 2011


> I'm sure people who obsess over typefaces have very neat bedrooms.

I'm pretty sure I've never met a good typographer or graphic artist with a clean desk, office or bedroom.
posted by loquacious at 4:00 PM on May 15, 2011 [2 favorites]


This is probably the whitest thing I've seen in years. Talk about your first-world problems.

(I actually found the article reasonably interesting, but then I fit the criteria given above)
posted by DoctorFedora at 4:04 PM on May 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


'Experimental Connection with his Dog' is possibly the funniest phrase I will read all week.

There should be a punk rock band, who met at design school, named Eric Gill's Dog.
posted by acb at 4:35 PM on May 15, 2011 [4 favorites]


I'm pretty sure I've never met a good typographer or graphic artist with a clean desk, office or bedroom.

If you go strictly by the height and number of piles, then I'm a great designer.

Really, all fonts/typefaces have issues. Some are deliberate and some are aesthetic differences between the designer and user. In my experience, most issues come up when the designer is misusing the font - usually trying to use a display or titling font as a copy font, or vice versa.

(Also, if you are a designer and some font quirk bothers you, change it.)

Good article. Thanks.
posted by Benny Andajetz at 4:49 PM on May 15, 2011


I enjoyed encountering fonts I would otherwise never see.

Also I had no rendering issue in Opera.
posted by Harpocrates at 6:10 PM on May 15, 2011


I ain't no typeface wiz, and I use Gill Sans all the time, but isn't its most glaring fault the italic face? Unless I'm using it wrong, it looks much smaller and far tighter, to the point that I actually step it up a point size every time. I suppose the advice above applies: Fix the problem.
posted by gorgor_balabala at 6:41 PM on May 15, 2011


If you go strictly by the height and number of piles, then I'm a great designer.

Maybe you are.

Even the really well organized designers I've met who have awesome morgue files full of nicely cataloged art resources have messy desks. Piles of ongoing proofs to sign off on, colorways, mockups, typography books, torn-off Pantone chits spilling everywhere, pens, markers and so on.

Things seemed to just get worse after computers. Now that designers don't actually need a copyboard or drafting table to work at, all they need is to be able to move the mouse, see the screen and use the keyboard. Said screen is usually furry looking from all the post it flags and is often smudged from clients or art directors poking at the screen with their filthy monkey fingers.
posted by loquacious at 6:53 PM on May 15, 2011 [2 favorites]


Typeface nerds and pedants bring both nerdery and pedantry to a whole 'nother level.

"Here are fifty examples of something most people never notice, but which annoy me to no end. Let me describe why in excruciating detail".
posted by Curious Artificer at 7:01 PM on May 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


Oh, and if you get some free time and a hankering for excruciatingly meticulous dissections of type things, visit Shaw's Blue Pencil stuff, where he's tackled everything from errors in contemporary typographic writings to the occasionally uninformed squiggliness of my beloved Marian Bantjes (who was not entirely pleased, but I think Shaw had some good and valid points.).

"The original impetus behind Blue Pencil was to provide detailed dissections of the shortcomings, both authorial and editorial, of books in the field of design, beginning with those devoted to the history of graphic design. The postings are intended to be the digital equivalent of the editor who, in the heyday of the 20th century, wielded a blue pencil with a vengeance to insure that a manuscript was fit for publication. "

posted by redsparkler at 8:35 PM on May 15, 2011


Does Microsoft Office or LibreOffice provide any kind of figure-control yet? (previously)

One of the many reasons why Word should never be used for any sort of serious printing/publishing work.

For a program whose primary function (arguably) should be to put letters and words onto screens and papers, it fails miserably at this task.

Also, I wouldn't write this off as a superfluous "first world" problem. Good typographic design can have a subtle-but-profound effect on the way that we communicate and comprehend each other. If you think that typography is about aesthetics, you're missing the point.

Ugh. And for a site critiquing typography, I apologize to linking to one of the worst offenders I've seen of the font-face property. The dude should've stuck with Georgia.
posted by schmod at 8:44 PM on May 15, 2011


I ain't no typeface wiz, and I use Gill Sans all the time, but isn't its most glaring fault the italic face?

I was going to say the same thing about Gill Sans, and add that I loathe Garamond's italics even more.
posted by desuetude at 9:20 PM on May 15, 2011


Oh hey! It appears that Office 2010/2011 (PC/OSX) has actually implemented figure control, etc. Maybe there's hope yet (I'll still look into this LaTeX stuff eventually).
posted by waterunderground at 9:22 PM on May 15, 2011


This is probably the whitest thing I've seen in years.
The typeface doesn’t know you’re white. Some of my best friends are black type designers. One of them’s also gay. Second World enough, or should he also be a sustainable farmer in a wheelchair?
posted by joeclark at 9:28 PM on May 15, 2011 [3 favorites]


Just in case that wasn't a joke, "whitest" was meant in the stuffwhitepeoplelike.com sense.
posted by DoctorFedora at 5:24 AM on May 16, 2011


One of the many reasons why Word should never be used for any sort of serious printing/publishing work.

Rightly or wrongly, I think the primary reason is that it isn't meant to be a typesetting program.

(Says the guy whose resume is in Excel for printing purposes because I couldn't get the columns to align right any other way.)
posted by gjc at 5:27 AM on May 16, 2011


When will font designers start putting slashes through zeros and make lower case Ls look distinguishable from ones or capital Is? That makes alphanumeric communication nearly impossible.
posted by gjc at 5:28 AM on May 16, 2011 [1 favorite]


It also seems like most of the complaints can be distilled down to "why don't they look more like Times New Roman?"
posted by gjc at 5:36 AM on May 16, 2011 [1 favorite]


(Says the guy whose resume is in Excel for printing purposes because I couldn't get the columns to align right any other way.)

LaTeX? I had to have help to typeset mine in LaTeX because I don't normally use it. These days I think I would just make due with whatever word processor I have on the computer at the time.
posted by bleary at 6:14 AM on May 16, 2011


The Garamond Italic 'Q'and '&' are fabulous.
posted by grapefruitzzz at 5:54 PM on May 16, 2011


It isn't that the comparisons are not valid, it's that it's so... misguided. Yes, a typeface created 100 years or more after the original is going to be more refined. That's how time works. Anyone who uses these typefaces is well aware of the foibles that give them their unique characteristics.

The Gill "1" is workable. The idea that you can improve on this typeface may be true, but whatever alternative you put in there will not have been created in 1926, was not created by Eric Gill, and is not Gill.
posted by DarlingBri at 6:33 PM on May 16, 2011


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