Largely overlooked in the tributes to Steve Jobs was his contribution to improving the world's communications one letter at a time. His first Macintosh computer in 1984 came with a pull-down menu offering a selection of typefaces. Jobs' elegant addition made font a household word.
Jobs was awakened to the power of typography when he took a calligraphy class at Reed College in Portland, Ore., after he dropped out of school and stopped attending regular classes.
"I learned about serif and san serif typefaces, about varying the amount of space between different letter combinations, about what makes great typography great," he said in his 2005 commencement address at Stanford University. "It was beautiful, historical, artistically subtle in a way that science can't capture, and I found it fascinating."
Before Jobs brought his magic sensibility to the printed word, typography was something far out of the grasp of the average desk jockey and was largely left to the pros, said Simon Garfield, author "Just My Type " (Gotham Books, 2011), a book that may be the definitive look at typography and the role it plays in our communications affairs.
Technology from another planet
Before the Mac, early computers offered up one dull typeface (remember dot matrix, anyone?). For variety, you had to head for your venerable IBM Selectric typewriter circa 1961 that featured changeable type balls — or else you had to use a graphics designer. The ability to change fonts seems like a technology from another planet, Garfield told BusinessNewsDaily.
Sarah Lee "With the early computers, our choices were fairly slim," he said. "Now you had a choice. Before the choice was in the hands of printers and graphic designers who would say, 'You like it in this?' We all have fonts we love and fonts we don't love."
Arial to Zapf Dingbats
Typefaces are now 560 years old. There are more than 100,000 of them, ranging from Arial to Zapf Dingbats. But type is type, isn't it? Does anyone pay any attention to it? For an answer, Garfield suggests you address the folks at IKEA, the Swedish home products company whose ready-to-assemble furniture and appliances and home accessories have conquered homes across the globe.
In 2009, IKEA changed its typeface from Futura to the Web-friendly Verdana, a font that was created for Microsoft and rapidly became ubiquitous in design. Their reasoning was solid: they wanted to use the same typeface in print as they did on their website. Customers and the media didn't like it and a major kerfuffle ensued, a typographic tempest in a teapot that the New York Times joked was "perhaps the biggest controversy to ever come out of Sweden."
IKEA discovered that type mattered.
"Type is shorthand," Garfield said. "It changes the emotion of what we say. We use it to express our individuality. If we all used the same thing, what a boring place we'd be in."
Like IKEA bookcases, Verdana was in almost every home and was something you barely noticed, Garfield said. It was becoming a non-font that we don't even register. That is why it was so effective and why it was chosen, he said.
"Good type is something you hardly notice," Garfield said. "Fonts can either enhance the message or get in its way. You can break it down, but only so much. Ultimately, it just works for you or it doesn't. It's the way we respond to songs as well. It's hard to talk about fonts in isolation."
The impression created by a typeface can also be affected by its size and its color; there are many variables.
Type should be seen and not heard
"Anything that makes you look at the type and the message works for me," Garfield said.
For business, the key to the successful use of typography is selecting typefaces that are appropriate to the business. "Businesses use a huge amount of Helvetica because people have come to trust it," he said.
Steve Jobs liberated the inner graphics artist in all of us with his pull-down type menu. Should businesses exercise that ability and go it alone when it comes to design?
"We have all these tools, but it depends on how you use them," Garfield said. "There's a tendency inevitably to use the default font, which in the Microsoft world is Calibri. Fortunately, Calibri is rather nice and it works well."
Ultimately, font choice becomes a business decision, not a debate about aesthetics, he said.
"If you're business depends on it, don't think you're a typographer," Garfield said. "Get a designer on it. It's a bit like Web design. You can tell the ones that have been designed at home and you can tell the ones designed professionally. If you were setting up a new business, you'd get a very good Web designer to make it work for you."
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Reach BusinessNewsDaily senior writer Ned Smith at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @nedbsmith.