By Simon Garfield
On June 12 2005, a fifty-year-old man stood up in front of a crowd of students at Stanford University and spoke of his campus days at a ‘lesser institution’ – Reed College in Portland, Oregon. ‘Throughout the campus,’ he remembered, ‘every poster, every label on every drawer, was beautifully hand calligraphed. Because I had dropped out and didn’t have to take the normal classes, I decided to take a calligraphy class to learn how to do this. I learned about serif and sans serif typefaces, about varying the amount of space between different letter combinations, about what makes great typography great. It was beautiful, historical, artistically subtle in a way that science can’t capture, and I found it fascinating.’
At the time, the student, who would later drop out of college, believed that nothing he had learned would find a practical application in his life. But things changed. Ten years after his college experience, that man, by the name of Steve Jobs, designed his first Macintosh computer, a machine that came with something unprecedented – a wide choice of fonts. As well as including familiar types such as Times New Roman and Helvetica, Jobs introduced several new designs, and had evidently taken some care in their appearance and naming. They were named after cities he loved, such as Chicago and Toronto. He wanted each of them to be as distinct and beautiful as the calligraphy he had encountered a decade earlier, and at least two of the fonts – Venice and Los Angeles – had a handwritten look to them.
It was the beginning of something – a seismic shift in our everyday relationship with letters and with type. An innovation that, within another decade or so, would place the word ‘font’ – previously a piece of technical language limited to the design and printing trade – in the vocabulary of every computer user.
You can’t easily find Jobs’s original typefaces these days, which may be just as well: they are coarsely pixelated and cumbersome to manipulate. But the ability to change fonts at all seemed like technology from another planet. Before the Macintosh of 1984, primitive computers offered up one dull typeface, and good luck trying to italicize it. But now there was a choice of alphabets that did their best to re-create something we were used to from the real world.
Chief among them was Chicago, which Apple used for all its menus and dialogs on screen, right through to the early iPods. But you could also opt for old black letters that resembled the work of Chaucerian scribes, London, clean Swiss letters that reflected corporate modernism ‘, or tall and airy letters that could have graced the menus of ocean liners New York. There was even San Francisco, a font that looked as if it had been torn from newspapers – useful for tedious school projects and ransom notes. IBM and Microsoft would soon do their best to follow Apple’s lead, while domestic printers (a novel concept at the time) began to be marketed not only on their speed but for the variety of their fonts. These days the concept of ‘desktop publishing’ conjures up a world of dodgy party invitations and soggy community magazines, but it marked a glorious freedom from the tyranny of professional typesetters and the frustrations of rubbing a sheet of Letraset. A personal change of typeface really said something: a creative move towards expressiveness, a liberating playfulness with words.
And today we can imagine no simpler everyday artistic freedom than that pull-down font menu. Here is the spill of history, the echo of Johannes Gutenberg with every key tap. Here are names we recognize: Helvetica, Times New Roman, Palatino and Gill Sans. Here are the names from folios and flaking manuscripts: Bembo, Baskerville and Caslon. Here are possibilities for flair: Bodoni, Didot and Book Antiqua. And here are the risks of ridicule:
Brush Script, Herculanum and Braggadocio. Twenty years ago we hardly knew them, but now we all have favourites.
Reprinted from Just My Type by Simon Garfield by arrangement with Gotham Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., Copyright © 2011 by Simon Garfield.