tech tuesday: fonts fonts fonts!

One of the secrets of being an interesting person is trying to learn a little bit about everything. How much is “a little bit”? I define it as about five minutes worth of conversation, which includes answering any questions that come up. I came up with this highly scientific number by observing that the internets have addled pretty much the entire world’s attention span, to the point where a single topic of conversation hardly even lasts three minutes, let alone five, so if you can handle five minutes on something, you’re good … SQUIRREL!!1!

[The other secret of being an interesting person is being able to listen for a solid five minutes. There are seriously few people out there who seem capable of this seemingly basic skill. But I read Dale Carnegie’s book and bestow upon you the secret of being a great conversationalist. You’re welcome.]

Today’s post will probably get me in trouble with actual graphic designers, but the whole point of Tech Tuesday is to get you to the magical five minute mark on whatever random thought happens to be zinging through my brain at the moment. This is the part where I thank my computer nerd friends who’ve been reading for the past two weeks and have graciously not poked too many holes in my posts, being that they were designed to be 100 and 150-level intros.

But enough with the meta, onto the actual content!

Fonts are everywhere, and like plumbing, they’re probably something you haven’t devoted too much mental effort to beyond thinking “thesis = Times New Roman” and “flyer for ice cream social = Comic Sans”. So here’s a little survey of the aspects of fonts that I happen to find interesting.

First, some technical terms.

kerning: refers to how pairs of letters are spaced. This term is often confused with tracking, but they’re entirely different concepts.

In the above example, the first line’s letters are tracked. Think of tracking as constant spacing between each letter. In the second line, the “V” and the “A” are kerned differently than the “S” and the “T”. Note how the “V” and “A” are closer to each other compared to spacing between the “S” and the “T”. Kerning only applies to variable-width fonts, and helps increase legibility.

That one little tidbit puts you somewhere in the 2’30” conversational range. Not bad!

em: a unit of measure, usually related to the width of the capital “M” in a given font.

en: a unit of measure which is half the width of the “em”. It turns out that it’s usually the width of the lower case “n”. Go figure.

x-height: another unit of measure that describes the height of the font from the baseline to the median line. Named for the height of the lower-case “x”. Starting to notice a pattern here?

ascender: the part of a lower-case letter that is taller than the font’s x-height.

descender: this one should be obvious by now.

Typography Line Terms.svg

Of course, there are lots more terms, but knowing those few terms will carry you pretty far when a real type nerd starts talking about typography.

We now pause for a little side grammar lesson. If you’ve ever used LaTeX, you already know this, but there’s a difference between an em dash and an en dash. The em dash is three dashes and is how you represent the grammatical notion of a parenthetical remark. The en dash is two dashes and is used to represent a range of things, usually numbers. Typographically, an en dash is half the width of an em dash. A single dash is just a hyphen, and you use that for adjectival modification or to break up a multi-syllable word at the end of a line. So if you’ve ever received an email from me and saw lots of dashes in a row, now you know why I put them in there. Old LaTeX habits die hard. (One final note, the name of the program is pronounced “la-tech”, not like the rubbery substance.)

Ok! Now that you can speak the basic vocabulary of fonts, onto the fun stuff.

First, I recommend the movie Helvetica. It’s a really well-done documentary with a few genuine laugh out loud moments. I won’t spoil anything for you, but one of my favorite scenes was when a designer was explaining how he chose which font to use to print a rather boring interview.

Helvetica was invented in 1957, and if one is to believe in Laver’s law of fashion, it’s now considered quaint, but it’ll be charming again in 2027. Just you wait.

Next, up is an interesting article with Bruno Maag about his Helvetica killer, Aktiv Grotesk.

Bruno’s interview was interesting in and of its own right, but I was especially interested since he has been commissioned by Canonical to design the free Ubuntu font. I saw Bruno speak at UDS in Belgium, and thought he was a great speaker — passionate, entertaining, and impeccably Teutonic. Check out the talks in that previous link. They’re well worth your time if you’re a font geek, as he goes into quite a bit of design detail.

And finally, no discussion about fonts would be complete without hating on Comic Sans. But because this blog is fair and balanced, we give Comic Sans a chance to respond.

So there ya go… close to a thousand words on font nerdery. I lead an exciting life.


Oh, and if you were wondering, the word cloud at the top was generated at wordle.net. I dumped out every single post I’ve written since 2002 and pumped it into wordle. It turns out that I really use a lot of adjectives in my writing. Or more likely, wordle probably only looks at the first few thousand words you enter. Oh well. And in case you’re interested — or even if you’re not — dumping a wordpress’s contents will be the topic of a future Tech Tuesday; it’s way more annoying than it should be.