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27 fonts* (give or take) that explain your world

For every news story or advertisement you see, there is at least one writer who has agonized over every word. But a designer has also agonized over how those words look. Here at Vox, for example, a designer told me that the fonts you're reading now were chosen because they convey "openness, boldness, willingness to experiment, thoughtfulness and trustworthiness." This is a list that shows just how much thought goes into the look of letters.

*And before we begin, let's acknowledge that the title of this article is inexact: we tend to think of Times New Roman and Helvetica as fonts, but what you're about to read is a list of typefaces, categories of fonts, and letterings, among other things. These are all different words that refer to subtly different things. A more apt title might be "27 ways that letters themselves, and not what they say, explain your world." Pedants may cringe, but the point here is to show that it isn't just words that explain, change, and define our world. Often, it's how those words are presented.


  1. Blackletter

    OK, so we're already cheating. Blackletter is not a typeface, but rather is a category of typefaces, all of which are similar in that they have that formal, calligraphic, centuries-old look (as opposed to the other two major categories of Western type, italic and roman). Blackletter typefaces were the first printed using movable type — this picture is of the letters Johannes Gutenberg used to print his Bible. According to the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas, it was created to look like the scripts used in handwriting manuscripts. If you look at a page of printed blackletter, you'll find that the tall, thick strokes and thin sideways strokes (especially when all squished together) can be near impossible to read. However, that's only to our modern eyes, which are more used to more uniform, open letters. Back in the 15th century, this was normal and much more readable.

  2. Jenson

    Printers in the Italian Renaissance, along with artists and writers, shrugged off the "monastic" blackletter and embraced humanism, as type designer Mike Parker writes in his history of type on the Font Bureau website. Nicolas Jenson is credited with being one of the first to print with roman type — a simpler, more open (and more recognizable to our modern eyed) style of writing than blackletter. These earliest roman fonts, like Jenson's, are also called humanist fonts, and according to Parker were based on ancient Roman capital letters and a relatively easy-to-read handwriting style called Carolingian miniscule.

  3. Caslon

    Caslon dates to 1722, when it was designed by British type designer William Caslon. His typefaces became popular throughout England and the rest of Europe ... which makes it all the funnier that it is the typeface of the first printings of the Declaration of Independence, as McSweeney's pointed out in a 2009 article. The font had widespread use in revolutionary-era America (Ben Franklin did much of his printing in Caslon) and became so popular that in 20th-century printshops, McSweeney's writes, printers often said, "When in doubt, use Caslon."

  4. Baskerville

    Ben Franklin may have loved Caslon, but he also admired Baskerville — and was a pen pal of its creator, English type designer John Baskerville, who in fact created his typeface to improve upon Caslon. In a letter to Baskerville explaining the "prejudice" against his font, Franklin told Baskerville of a "connoisseur" of typefaces who complained that Baskerville's typeface was "blinding a nation." Franklin, ever the joker, brought a Caslon specimen out and presented it as Baskerville. Hilarity ensued: the Baskerville critic failed to recognize it as Caslon, and proceeded to complain about its "proportions." But Franklin was merciful and spared the critic the embarrassment of being told he was (as they said in those days) totally full of it.

  5. Julian Nitzche (j.budissin) / Wikipedia

    DIN 1451

    If you've ever been to Germany, you've seen DIN. The sans-serif typeface family is named for the Deutsche Industrie Normung, the German standardization organization. Germany adopted DIN 1451 for its road signs in 1936. In 1995, according to MOMA, type designer Albert-Jan Pool revived DIN, adding new weights and characters, creating the typeface FF DIN.

  6. Danielle Kurtzleben

    Times New Roman

    You can probably spot this one just by looking at it. The typeface most people know as the default for Microsoft Word (and that countless college professors forced you to use) is in fact far older than any computer operating system. The London Times unveiled it in 1932. The Times had challenged type designer Stanley Morison to create a new typeface for the paper, after Morison had criticized the newspaper for the crime of being "out-of-touch with modern typographical trends," according to the New York Public Library. Morison created Times New Roman to be easily legible but also efficient — it allowed the paper to squeeze more text onto a line, in part because Morison reduced the tracking (that is, the space between letters).

  7. Danielle Kurtzleben

    Wingdings

    Wingdings is another one most of us know thanks to Microsoft Word. Designed in 1990 and 1991, Wingdings were originally named "Lucida Icons, Arrows, and Stars," according to Microsoft, and were intended to accompany the Lucida typeface. It's true that Microsoft created the font specifically to include computer symbols (diskettes, printers), but little typographical ornamentations like these are nothing new. Wingdings is what's known as a dingbat font, and the use of dingbats goes back centuries. Dingbats are often also called "printer's ornaments," and they have long been used as spacers between paragraphs and chapters in books and magazines.

  8. Comic Sans

    Comic Sans conveys a manic, forced sense of happiness from garage sale signs everywhere. But it was created for a reason: typeface designer Vincent Connare explained to The Guardian last year that he created Comic Sans for the very appropriate purpose of filling a little cartoon bubble with text. In the 1990s, Microsoft Windows had a character named Microsoft Bob — a cartoon dog who tried to help users (sort of like Word's over-eager Clippy). Originally, Bob's words appeared in Times New Roman, which looked wrong to Connare. He designed Comic Sans, and a monster was unleashed upon humanity.

  9. Helvetica

    This list just wouldn't be complete without Helvetica — not only is Helvetica everywhere; it also has an entire documentary devoted to it. In that film, design writer Rick Poynor explains that Helvetica was born of the "idealism" and "sense of social responsibility" among designers in the post-World-War-II period. That idealism, combined with a need for "rational typefaces" for things like official signage, helped Max Miedinger and Eduard Hoffman create Helvetica in 1957. And because of its simple, clean look, the font has become pervasive. In 1989, for example, it became the official font of New York City Subway signage, but it has also been used in countless logos.

  10. License Plates

    To be fair, there are a lot of license plate typefaces out there. But when you're thinking about the old-school, embossed plates, these are the four main designs they follow, according to Leeward Productions, a custom license plate maker whose website is an online repository of almost obsessively detailed license plate research. States use different fonts (there's no federal regulation of what states have to use on their plates), but those old license plate fonts almost all fall into four broad categories: semicircular, oval, squareish, and hybrid. The letters, designed by draftsmen and engineers, tend to therefore have uniform line thickness and geometric shapes — straight lines, circular curves. As more and more states move to flat plates — the ones with the letters printed on the metal instead of stamped into it — you'll see these styles of letters slowly disappearing. Today's flat plates also generally have fonts that fall into one of these categories as well, Leeward writes — see their site for a rundown of where old fonts and new fall in the classification system.

  11. 608 vs 708 captions

    This might be the biggest cheat on our list, as it doesn't cover a typeface so much as a system that started allowing for all sorts of new typefaces. As the technology changed for TVs, from analog to digital, so did the way closed captions were presented. In the industry, this was known as the change from 608 to 708 fonts. In the 608 captioning system, characters were typically in all-caps and were white, on a black background. But no longer. 708 captioning made it so that captions could be in different typefaces, as well as different colors and on different parts of the screen.

  12. Clearview and Highway Gothic

    You might not know Highway Gothic by name, but you've seen it, millions of times. This is one of the typefaces used widely on road signs in the US, and as of 2003 was the only font on highway signs. But in 2004, the Federal Highway Administration gave "interim approval" to a new typeface, Clearview, meaning states could start adopting it if they wanted. Clearview was developed in part as a way to make signs more readable without simply making the Highway Gothic type bigger (and therefore having to buy bigger signs).

  13. California Braille

    Braille letters are always some permutation of two dots across, three dots tall. But different authorities and organizations have different standards. This is a picture of California's standards for braille signage — according to the Braille Authority of North America, California was the first US state to develop its own braille standards for building signage. Different Braille letter types are characterized by the measurements between dots and characters — California's braille, for example, is 0.1 inches dot to dot in a cell, with 0.2 inches between letters. But there are lots of other standards from country to country and from situation to situation (pharmaceutical packages vs. signs, for example) for different Braille letters. It might not quite be a "font" or "typeface," but it's at the very least closely analogous — it's a change in how big, how broad, how squat, how tall a Braille letter is.

  14. The D'Nealian Letters

    Remember these letters? They may have been hanging at the front of your classroom when you were in grade school. The D'Nealian writing method was designed as a way to help students transition to cursive writing more easily — D'Nealian letters are slanted and have those little tails on them, in theory making it easy for a student to simply connect the letters she already knows when she starts to learn cursive. This was a big change from other handwriting methods, like the popular Zaner-Bloser method. While Zaner-Bloser features straight-up-and-down letters that require more strokes and also have students lift the pencil midletter. This was a big debate for people in one camp or the other, but the bigger fight right now is simply whether to teach cursive or not. Common Core standards say nothing about cursive, so some states have decided that they will set their own laws to require cursive learning again.

  15. MICR

    If you ever look closely at the bottom of your checks (that is, if you even use them any more), you see the routing and account numbers are printed in an odd, blocky font. That's MICR (here in the US, to be more precise, it's MICR E-13B), and it's designed in that odd, blocky way to be machine-readable but also human-readable, unlike, say, a barcode. MICR stands for magnetic ink character recognition — the font is printed with magnetic ink. That means even when it is written or stamped over, machines can still read it.

  16. Bell Centennial

    Bell Centennial was created in the 1970s for phonebooks, and specifically to address problems with the printing of those books. If you look closely at the letters, you'll notice little notches where the strokes meet each other. Those are "ink traps," meant to deal with the combination of the thin ink used to print phone books and the cheap paper they're printed on, MoMA explains. Leaving those notches allows the ink to fill in the spaces and make the letters look full and correct when they are printed.

  17. Retina

    The Wall Street Journal commissioned Retina for use in its financial tables, according to MoMA. As with Bell Centennial, the letters have those notched "ink traps" to ensure that the letters will still be readable on poor-quality paper — particularly important because the letters in financial tables are tiny, and a tiny smudge or over-blotch of ink could make a word unreadable.

  18. Mercury

    Another news-industry fix, this time from the New Times chain of newspapers, which printed nationwide. In 1999, MoMA explains, the Times sought out a new typeface to deal with a problem: printing newspapers in different climates. They wanted a font they could print in varying degrees of boldness without the letters shrinking or growing, which makes paragraphs shorter or longer and can mean reformatting entire pages. Mercury was the answer. It was also designed to be space-efficient, meaning more type on a page.

  19. Verdana

    Verdana was designed with the computer monitor in mind, MoMA explains. Designer Matthew Carter created it for Microsoft in 1996 with the goal of legibility on a computer screen in mind. To do that, he made sure of a few things: one was that adjacent letters, even when bolded, never touched (meaning they wouldn't bleed into each other). Another was a large x-height, as well as large counters — the open spaces inside an a or an o. And he made sure that similar-looking letters, like a lowercase L, 1, and i, all were distinct, according to MoMA.

  20. Romney campaign website via Wayback MachineRappdems.org

    Mercury Display v. Gotham Slab Serif

    When you see the Mercury Display typeface next to Gotham Slab Serif, you just might feel like it's 2012 again. That's because Mercury Display (in combination with Whitney) was the typeface chosen by the Romney campaign, while Gotham Slab Serif was the Obama campaign's font of choice. The Obama team, in fact, asked a type foundry to create that typeface for its logo. Typeface is important to a campaign, and can subtly convey certain messages about a candidate — McCain in 2008 used Optima, which is, not coincidentally, the typeface used on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

  21. Catull

    Yeah, it's a yellow circle. But if you are ever on the internet, you know this is more than a circle — it's the first O in the Google logo. This is not an example, then, of a font or typeface but of a custom lettering that Google created, based on the Catull typeface. This is an illustration of how a letter becomes way more than a letter — when we see a particular color and arrangement of letters enough and associate it with a brand enough, we see not a yellow Catull O but a tech behemoth.

Credits

Correction: This article originally credited the NY Times, not the London Times, with the creation of Times New Roman.
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