journal: think

The Lumberjacks of Design

Font designers are the lumberjacks of the world of design.

It occurred to me that font designers are the lumberjacks of the world of design.  Font design is an incredibly important industry, yet it is highly underrated and overlooked.  Most designers are graphic designers, or web designers, or multimedia designers, etc.  But what ties all of these together (besides shaping the visual medium) is choosing the right typeface for the right design, which can be more difficult than it seems.  And it is quite important to choose the right fonts.

Wood is everywhere.  It is not quite as prevalent as it used to be, with modern cement, plastics, plaster, and other materials born of industry.  But it holds our walls up, it provides a floor beneath our feet, a chair beneath our toochis, a desk beneath our children’s education, a fire to warm our hands on a cold night in the campground.  It is important, therefore, to have high quality wood when building the walls, crafting the chair, etc.  And who provides the good quality wood we use?  The good quality timber companies, arguably corporations of lumberjacks.  If the wood they produce is insubstantial, the walls crumble, the chairs splinter, the desks warp and the fire smokes like a chimney.  The world as we know it starts to die in a subtle, often unconsidered way.

Similar is the story of the font.  In the world of design, they are everywhere.  They provide the typefaces for headlines, taglines, credit lines, and everything except the fishing line.  They are big and bold when they need to get your attention, and they are soft and sensual when they want to invoke a feeling of love.  They are tall and skinny, short and fat, elegantly serif-laden and plainly sans.  They provoke recognition of a famous or important brand.  A good font conveys the mood of the text it composes, and when one is rushing to meet a deadline, it must look perfect.  There can be no compromises when styling a font’s curves and straight edges, or the font designer will lose his customers.

As Mark Simonson wrote back in June, a good font must have everything done right, including overlooked aspects like the italic face.  It is not enough to simply give the normal, straight face a slant; the ligatures must (frequently) be individually tweaked to achieve the correct consistency and flow.  This is a time-consuming but rewarding process; it ensures strong, sturdy beams of wood will be made from high-quality, dependable logs.

This is why it is disappointing to see someone like the International Typeface Corporation screw up ITC Avant Garde Gothic Pro’s italic form.  Just by looking at the font’s page, one can see the prevalent problems with the italics.  The “O” and other round letters are somewhat elongated, as if they are somewhat bottom-heavy.  The problems are subtle, and not apparent to the untrained eye without a good one-to-one comparison like on Mark Simonson’s site.  But they are there nonetheless, and signal a carelessness about the quality of work the ITC puts into its hallmark products.  Maybe the next release will have a proper slant, maybe ITC was rushed to release this and so took the easy way out.  Or maybe they’ve lost their focus and have forgotten what made them a household name among designers.  Only time will tell.

Font design, like any creative art, is a tedious process, though it can be quite rewarding to see your strokes and loops on the silver screen, in the pages of a magazine, or anywhere.  However, like a good beam, a font must be crafted properly, or the design will fall apart like a house of cards.  Thus it is up to the font artists to hone their craft and, like a respectable lumberjack, produce a quality product that can withstand the pressures of everyday scrutiny.

More Info

Fake vs. True Italics
Ain’t What ITC Used to Be

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