Choose your font carefully

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This is pretty obvious, now that we have so many fonts to choose from, but it makes me wonder how fonts arose in the first place.  In the earliest stages of writing, the characteristics of the individual symbols would be highly dependent on the media employed:  the writing surface and the instrument used for writing — stylus and clay, sharp / pointed blade / tool and bone, brush and silk / paper, knife / chisel and wood, molten metal and bronze moulds, etc.  Only later would other desiderata come into play:  esthetics, mood, serif or not, speed, efficiency, economy, and so on.  Has the development of digital fonts liberated writing from hard media?  Or are the variables of digital fonts yet another set of constraining factors in typography?  In the end, perhaps it is only graphic design that enables the writer / scribe to escape from the restrictions of fonts into the realm of art, but then each iteration of a letter or glyph is a new creation, not an endlessly repeatable reuse of a fixed set of symbols that constitutes a font.


Selected readings

[h.t. A. Lopez Banderas]


  1. Laura Morland said,

    August 22, 2022 @ 3:46 am

    As someone who creates a variety of documents for publication (from newsletters to banners), I see the point behind your question,
    "Or are the variables of digital fonts yet another set of constraining factors in typography?"

    However, I would argue that, while I am indeed *not* touching the "realm of art" (I am not a graphic designer), the current variety of font choices is so deep that I feel the opposite of constrained.

    If I'm not happy with the selection provided by, e.g., Microsoft, I may spot a font I like on the web, copy (or make an image of) it, toss it into a "What Font is This" site, and eventually locate and download the new (to me) font for a nominal fee.

    The Internet has become my font toybox!

    (Back in pre-computing times, I owned an array of IBM Selectric "golf ball" fonts, including an Icelandic font, requisite for typing Old English.)

  2. Victor Mair said,

    August 22, 2022 @ 4:11 am

    @Laura Morland

    Thank you for mentioning the IBM Selectric typewriter, which I remember fondly. I'm a very fast typist, and I always marvelled that I could never defeat or confuse that whirling, twirling ball, no matter who fast and furiously I typed. The electrical and mechanical engineering behind it was mindboggling. A flawless, versatile typing instrument!

  3. KeithB said,

    August 22, 2022 @ 8:25 am

    I am also a fan of the selectric. It 's carbon ribbon was used by Columbo to show that someone had written a note on a particular typewriter.

    Don Knuth – the computer scientist – wrote a book discussing every verse 3:16 in the bible. He had famous typographers illustrate each one. Here is Zaph's version of Knuth's translation of John 3:16:

  4. Craig said,

    August 22, 2022 @ 9:07 am

    Since this is a blog about language, maybe we should start by distinguishing between "font" and "typeface", which are often used incorrectly. A typeface is a design that can be implemented by many fonts. Helvetica or Times Roman are typefaces; Helvetica Bold Condensed 20pt is a font. Or at least that's how I understand it.

    As to "how fonts arose in the first place": Typefaces as a formal design may have their early origin in architecture, carving, or calligraphical styles, but I would guess that they really got going after the invention of the printing press. People probably carved their own letters at first, and eventually a trade developed around the design and manufacturing of letter-blocks for printing. This then progressed through the era of metal type on into the digital media we use today.

    On the one hand, it's certainly nice to have a wider choice of options than just whatever font was built into your typewriter, but given that most people aren't typographers and don't design their own letterforms, the options available for most people are whatever files came with your computer or the software that you use. You can buy TrueType/OpenType fonts online, but I would guess most people don't. The next question is how you choose what fonts to use. For most people, it's probably just whatever the default is, or whatever they happen to like. Most people aren't graphic designers any more than they are typographers, so I imagine that if asked why they chose a particular typeface for a particular document or design element, they would just say they liked it. A trained designer could probably go on for hours about why you should choose one typeface over another for a given situation.

  5. djw said,

    August 22, 2022 @ 9:48 am

    Craig, I'd also love to claim there's a difference between a font and a typeface because I'm pretty old-school, but I'm afraid that boat floated a long time ago, and we're stuck with "font" when we mean "typeface." Could we call that a pseudosynonym?

    I also loved the old Selectrics I used, but I found that they weren't any better at typing the right letters when I hit the wrong ones than the old Royals were. I mostly appreciate spell checkers.

  6. Philip Taylor said,

    August 22, 2022 @ 10:10 am

    The very first computer on which I worked (a Clary 404, with 4KB of core memory and a serial processor) used an IBM Selectric as its output device (the input device was a magnetic card reader or a teletype). Needless to say, the colleagues with whom I shared an office were not very impressed when I needed to generate more than a minute or so of output, as the Selectric, whilst an amazing beast, was not the quietest printer in the world …

  7. Philip Taylor said,

    August 22, 2022 @ 10:12 am

    Sorry, PDF page link broken in preceding — it should read "Clary 404 (".

  8. Karen Lofstrom said,

    August 22, 2022 @ 3:43 pm

    I edit book reviews and scientific articles. Sometimes books and cookbooks. I know that whatever I edit is going to be changed downstream. Font and format or into HTML or into journal style by a graphic designer. Hence I edit in a font and format that seem easy to my eyes. Verdana 12, left-justified, single-spaced. Clients never complain. They can tweak my plain-vanilla formatting however they choose. Word (publishing standard) makes that easy.

  9. RfP said,

    August 22, 2022 @ 5:17 pm

    I am far from being an expert on the history of letterforms (and I hope someone more knowledgeable will jump in) but as I understand it, Victor is correct in stating that technical considerations have played a big role in the historical development of the various manual methods of written communication.

    And as time went on—at least in the history of Latin-based European writing—efficiency emerged as a key driver in the development of rounded, “uncial” letterforms which further evolved to use ascenders and descenders, all of which innovations made it a lot easier for scribes to write quickly.

    When Gutenberg printed his first books, he used the blackletter styles that were familiar to his German-speaking audiences, but within a few decades, as printing spread to Italy, and then throughout Europe, printers developed new typefaces that were based on the humanistic handwriting that had developed in the Renaissance.

    Ever since, printers have either tried to print more cheaply or more artistically or with greater legibility, and in each new technological environment these efforts have been influenced both by the history of letterforms (especially those that use the Latin alphabet) and by the various artistic currents swirling around at the time.

    Jan Tschichold is an example of a twentieth-century typographic radical who started out as an extreme advocate of sans serif types used in asymmetric page layouts, but ultimately became a champion of serif typefaces set in traditional symmetric layouts.

    The designs of the digital fonts we use today are of course rooted in the design of past typefaces, but where technical considerations of how things looked in newsprint—or on the fine paper used in high-quality books—drove earlier typeface development, what we have today is increasingly driven by what looks good on a phone or a tablet or a laptop.

    And so it goes.

  10. Chips said,

    August 22, 2022 @ 6:18 pm

    As a graphic designer for over 50 years (though confess my first poster used hand lettering!), the use of fonts has always been an obsession. I tend to be quite a conservative sans serif bloke, but not always.

    For an interesting serve on fonts named after places in the USA:

    And perhaps more to the point, and perhaps Victor can add to this in terms of font renderings in Chinese topolects, here is a fabulous site I have used when I have worked with Arabic fonts:

  11. DMcCunney said,

    August 22, 2022 @ 11:33 pm

    @ Victor Mair

    I spent time on Selectric typewriters, and they were indeed engineering marvels. Aside from the ability to handle really fast typing. they had the wonderful ability to change the typeface you used bye replacing the type ball. Need to switch from standard to italic? It was th work of a moment.

    As a PC user from the days of the original IBM PC, I also recall the disbelief and outrage over the PC keyboard design. A genera5tion of typists learned on IBM Selectric, but the folks designing the PC apparently never talked to the folks on the typewriter side about keyboard layouts, and touch typists used to Selectric typewriters had to redo their muscle memory, as some keys were no longer in the same place.

    The fun continued when IBM later changed the PC keyboard layout from two columns if five Fkeys down thew left to twelve Fkeys across the top. Users of the then dominant WordPerfect word processing program were accustomed to hitting an Fkeys with the little finger of the left hand and never moving their hands from the Home row. WP used regular, shifted, and Ctrl and Alt Fkeys to perform editing operations. Once again, productivity plummeted.

    I'm going to my proffered computer retailer tomorrow for a replacement keyboard among other things. My specs, in order are large bold capitals on the keys, to make it easier for older eyes to distinguish them, keys with letters that don't gradually wipe away with repeated typing (with the E key a special pain point), wireless, and backlit so the keyboard can be seen at n8ight with the lights off. I do not expect to get all of those in the same keyboard, and will settle for specs one and two.

    I *like* a white keyboard with large black letters on the keycaps. They appear to exist for gamers, but not at a price I'm willing to pay.-

    (I did years back convince a friend who could talk off the top of his head, but had a block against writing, to try the Dragon Dictate program, and just say what hewn wanted into a microphone and the the software make it words on a page. It worked for him for a bit, but other technical problems bit instead, and that software seems to be gone.)

  12. Laura Morland said,

    August 23, 2022 @ 4:59 am


    Victor Mair thanked me for bringing up the beloved IBM Selectric, and now it's my turn to thank *you* for the following paragraph:

    The fun continued when IBM later changed the PC keyboard layout from two columns if five Fkeys down thew left to twelve Fkeys across the top. Users of the then dominant WordPerfect word processing program were accustomed to hitting an Fkeys with the little finger of the left hand and never moving their hands from the Home row. WP used regular, shifted, and Ctrl and Alt Fkeys to perform editing operations. Once again, productivity plummeted.

    Word Perfect? Be still, my beating heart! Typing on WP for DOS was a fabulous experience. It looked as if I were "playing an organ," someone once remarked to me, and it felt like it, too. (Admittedly, I've never having played a pipe organ.)

    The only problem is that — unlike Victor's experience on the IBM Selectric — DOS often wasn't fast enough to keep up with me, causing me to face the "blue screen of death" multiple times a day.

    And then… came faster computers! Windows 3.1. (Ha!) The sad irony is that the Windows version of WordPerfect was *never* as good as the DOS — gone was the joy of "never moving [my] hands from the Home row." Productivity plummeted indeed.

    Finally, Dennis: you surely recall [F11] – "Reveal Codes"? MS Word has never managed to recreate it. Again, productivity plummeted from the hours spent trying to divine what invisible formatting bug is hiding behind the text.

    Microsoft's bundling of Word with its earliest versions of Windows was a heinous act. (Unsurprisingly, as soon as MS achieved its goal — reducing WP's market share to a dribble [it was retained mostly by law firms] — they ceased to bundle it.)

    @ Philip Taylor, my first experience in word processing also used "the IBM Selectric as its output device" – one was flying blind with those "mag cards," and indeed, it was noisy! Still, it was a thrill, in those pre-computer days, to watch the Selectric type my bidding on its own, like a player piano.

  13. Rodger C said,

    August 23, 2022 @ 9:53 am

    And today, SMBC is using "font" to mean "manuscript hand." Not the first time I've seen this.

  14. Killer said,

    August 23, 2022 @ 10:18 pm

    That's Don McMillan, "the PowerPoint comedian".

  15. DMcCunney said,

    August 24, 2022 @ 1:56 am

    #Laura Morehead:

    I used, but never really liked WordPerfect. (And I don't criticise MS for burying WP. WPCorp shot themselves in both feet by waiting far too long to develop a Windows version. I used to work for market research firm specializing in high tech, with IBM, Unisys, and Lotus Development among our clients. WPCorp was a client, and firmly convinced there were oodles of WP for DOS users still out there. Well, among home users, perhaps, but we surveyed business usage, and every business we called was moving to Windows 3,1 and Windows apps as fast as they could. Yes, WP hld on at law firms for the same reasons a lot of other software clung to life. It was easier and less expensive to stick to old software till you couldn't any more that to go through the trouble and expense of throwing out the baby with the bathwater and migrating all users to a whole new platform. (Done wrong, that could kill your company.)

    I learned and used WordStar, which began on old 8bit micros under CP/M, and was ported to DOS. It was basically the second editor everyone learned, but you learned it because the editor you liked might not be on the PC you were required to use, but WS probably was. I stayed fluent because many other text editors either used WS key assignments or could be configured to do so. At one point, I had Gnu Emacs on Unix systems setup to use WS keystrokes to avoid retraining my fingers,

    WS reminded me of the original Unix vi editor. Vi was "moded".. In Insert mode, any key you typed was input into the edit buffer as text. In command mode, letter keys were commands. ":wq!", for example,
    saved your text and quite3 the 3editor. Vi was created when all manner of things were used as terminals on Un ix systems. Some of them didn't *have* arrow keys of FKeys. No matter, If you had a QWERTY keyboard with a Ctrl-key, you could use vi. WS had similar origins, as early CP/M systems on which it ran varies nearly as much as Unix dumb terminals. But like Vi, WS was system independent, and while it used them if you had them, WS did not require arrow or Fkeys.

    I was also fond back when of XyWrite, which was a programming language designed for editing text wrapped in an editor disguise. If you were fluent in XBL, you could get XyWrite to do just about anything. (A XyWrite spinoff aimed at the scholarly market called Nota Bene still exists, and runs native on Windows.)

    But I'm odd man out to some extent. I think of word processors as text editors with added functions to let you control the appearance of the printed page. I was a systems tech, and seldom *printed* anything. My end product was a text *file*, and my needs were the creation and modification of such files.

    I know folks who still run WP for DOS, and WordStar. In my case, I use a PC emulator program called vDOS Plus, which runs fine under Win10. It's a derivative of an open source PC emulator called DOSBox, interned to let you play old PC games on thi8gs that aren't PCs. (I had a WordStar clone for DOS running on an Android tablet using an Android port of DOSBox.) These days, I run a WordStar clone called VDE that originated under CP/M and was ported to DOS. It was shareware and is now freeware, but the author is still around and supports it. It's mostly yo keep my hand in. Day to day editing gets don;e with other things,

    People running WP looked down on WS with the "WordStar diamond" keyboard layout, and editing operations controlled by Ctrl-K, Ctrl-O, and Ctrl-P combos. Personally, I didn't see much difference between memorizing WS Ctrl-key combos and 40 different regular, shift, ctrl, and alt Fkey sequences.

    But there are people still joined at the hip to various old inte3rfqaces because of productivity concerns. Things like WS keystrokes are muscle memory for them, and they can fly. Switching to something else would be equivalent to putting leg irons on a sprinter.

  16. Philip Taylor said,

    August 24, 2022 @ 12:16 pm

    "But there are people still joined at the hip to various old inte3rfqaces because of productivity concerns" — which is why, long after DEC introduced EVE, I still used EDT. And I used EDT+, from Boston Business Computing, for many years as my preferred PC editor. These days I TeXworks for editing anything text-oriented (e.g., the 1000-line-plus Algol-68 program that I finished a few days ago), but I still miss the intuitive feel of the EDT user interface.

  17. DMcCunney said,

    August 25, 2022 @ 6:00 pm

    @Philip Taylor

    I logged time on DEC systems and remember EDT. If you had a VT-100 terminal, it was the cat;s meow. I also recall Boston Business Computing, and dealt with them. A former employer grew by acquisition. Different parts used different software, and IT was expected to support all of it.

    EDT was a special pain point because it expects to be used from a VT=100. with VT=100 keys, and mapping those to PC keys was a challenge. I had one user still locked into EDT, and spent more time that I care to recall trying to support her. I raised the question internally, as I was nominally the main Unix/Linux admin, with arguably;y more important things to occupy my time, and said "Where do we draw the line? At what point do we tell folks like that user we can no longer support them, and they must switch to something else?" I never did get a meaningful answer.

    Meanwhile, if this sort of thing interests you, take a look at It's what the name implies. If it's a text editor, they site tries to document it. I'm principal maintainer, and put some effort into the DEC section because I used to use various bits of of their kit.

  18. Philip Taylor said,

    August 26, 2022 @ 10:26 am

    Certainly EDT started life assuming that it would be used from a VT-100, but am I not right in thinking that it was also fully compatible with VT-220s when they emerged, Dennis ?

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