Why Do I Blog with a Sans Serif Font?

AIGA logoAmong other projects, I’m currently helping spearhead a discussion of digital humanities at Bethel. Initially, I was most interested by the notion of helping history, philosophy, literature, and theology majors become proficient enough with computer programming that they could use digital tools to enhance the skills traditionally associated with the humanities: reading, research, critical thinking, writing, etc. That’s still a key theme of our emerging program, but I now think it’s just as essential that there be a strong element of graphic design.

In short, students in such a program would be more conscious of how the combination of images, typography, and the space around them “informs, persuades, organizes, stimulates, locates, identifies, attracts attention and provides pleasure.” (That from the description of graphic design by its main professional society in this country, AIGA.)

Fortunately, Bethel just launched a new graphic design major. Unfortunately, I know nothing of design. Excited as I am to jump headfirst into digital history this summer, I’m keenly aware that when it comes to designing how our Omeka exhibit looks, I’ll be doing little more than making half-educated guesses about how our visual choices reinforce the ideas we’re trying to get across.

To help me get up to speed, my friend Sam suggested that I check out the documentary Helvetica, an exploration of one of the world’s most famous fonts, designed in 1957 by Max Miedinger and Eduard Hoffman.

The documentary convincingly argues that Helvetica was one particularly ubiquitous expression of the desire of many graphic designers to restore beauty, clarity, and order to a postwar world Or as Michael Bierut puts it in his interview:

Helvetica specimenI imagine there was a time when it just felt so good to take something that was old and dusty and homemade and crappy-looking and replace it with Helvetica. It just must have felt like you were scraping the crud off of filthy old things and restoring them to shining beauty.

For designers and their corporate clients, says Bierut, Helvetica “kind of cleared away all this horrible burden of history.”

Not just modern, but intentionally neutral, Helvetica became the typeface of choice for all sorts of corporations. Of course, the backlash wasn’t long in coming. Another designer contends that by the late Sixties and early Seventies, that font evoked not just corporate conformity, but support for the Vietnam War.

Nonetheless, it remains pervasive, used in corporate logos for everything from airlines (American Airlines, Lufthansa) to department stores (Target, JC Penney). But also to be found on IRS tax forms and the New York subway system, on Sesame Street and the cover of Run DMC albums.

Even this blog uses a similar font: Arial. (Except for block quotations like the one below.) It was designed in 1982 for Monotype, which claims that

Arial-Helvetica overlay
A lower-case ‘a’ in Helvetica (red) overlain with Arial (blue)

Arial contains more humanist characteristics than many of its predecessors and as such is more in tune with the mood of the last decades of the twentieth century. The overall treatment of curves is softer and fuller than in most industrial style sans serif faces. Terminal strokes are cut on the diagonal which helps to give the face a less mechanical appearance. Arial is an extremely versatile family of typefaces which can be used with equal success for text setting in reports, presentations, magazines etc, and for display use in newspapers, advertising and promotions.

Frankly, it surprised me that I chose a theme for this blog that used a typeface so similar to Helvetica. Aside from large titles in Gill Sans or Trebuchet on PowerPoint slides, I rarely use any kind of sans serif font when I write in a professional capacity. (E-mail is a different story, but I think that’s mostly sloth — Sans Serif is the default in Gmail.) Whether I’m working on syllabi or a book manuscript, grant proposals or posts at our department blog, I tend to opt for a serif font like ConstantiaGeorgiaBaskerville, or Palatino. Perhaps I’ve been convinced by Errol Morris’ font experiment in 2012, which found that a claim written in Baskerville and Georgia was much more likely to convince a reader than the same passage rendered in Helvetica.

But I suspect that I instinctively went with a WordPress theme that uses something like Helvetica for two, maybe three reasons. First, Bierut’s modernism: a historian who blogs is probably seeking to break with hoary old conventions about what constitutes legitimate academic communication. Second, such typefaces were designed to be neutral, capable of supporting many different kinds of messages, and I’m fairly self-conscious about hosting a site whose evenhandedness causes it to stand out from the partisan hyperbole of the blogosphere. It’s also similar to the font used, until a recent redesign, by my hometown newspaper, The [Minneapolis] Star Tribune, and blogging is about as close to fulfilling my childhood interest in journalism as I’m going to get.

What kind of font do you prefer to use? Does it vary by medium?

4 thoughts on “Why Do I Blog with a Sans Serif Font?

  1. When I have to produce documents for our church congregation’s use, I always use MV Boli. It is easily readible, looks good in a larger size (which I use for the benefit of aging eyes, mine included) and I like the stylish look of it. It probably does use more ink than others, but we don’t need too many copies of things so it’s appearance outweighs its marginally increased expense.

  2. You might also look at “Art & Copy,” a film produced by the same people who made “Helvetica” (I believe). I encourage my copywriting students to think visually as often as they can (http://wp.me/pqJ7j-si ), because the message the audience receives is some combination of words that signal content + font + white space + everything else going on around them. The whole point is to get heard–or perhaps to get closer to being heard.

  3. A lawyer named Matthew Butterick has a superb resource, available for free (unless you choose to donate) called Butterick’s Practical Typography. You can find it at http://practicaltypography.com. (It’s actually a fairly innovative “e-book as website” model, too; it looks particularly good on a tablet.) It goes into much more than fonts, but includes some rules of the road on fonts, too. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

    I tend toward lighter, humanist sans serif fonts when I’m making presentations. I like Helvetica, but I also like Avenir (which is available as a system font on Macs, I think.) At work, I’m limited by software, and choose Segoe UI as an alternative to Arial and Calibri.

    When I’m writing papers/briefers, I use serif fonts. I prefer Hoefler Text when I’m not confined to work software; Palatino Linotype when I am. They are both readable, and different enough from Times New Roman, which I don’t like at all. (Probably because it’s the default font we’re forced to use for almost all papers at my government agency.)

    In web design, I think either serif or sans serif fonts work, so long as it’s readable.

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