author page for “dot-font” column
Nothing that we did in my tenure as editor created as much of a stir as changing the logo. Readers were outraged. Many of them had been reading U&lc since their student days, and in their nostalgic eyes the old logo had become one of the eternal verities. Some even referred to it as “classic” – though that description might have caused Herb Lubalin to laugh. Lubalin had been an iconoclast, someone who shook things up; our remaking of U&lc was entirely within that changeable tradition. Nonetheless, the new logo (though appreciated by some) was a bone of contention to the end.
Getting the right look in the type on a newspaper page is a hard task. It not only has to convey the actual information, it has to promise the kind of reading experience that the reader expects and that the paper does, in fact, deliver. Nothing is more disruptive of reader loyalty than a redesign that changes the terms of the transaction between paper and reader: that promises something different from what it delivers. The Times Classic typefaces, and the redesign that they were a part of, had to deliver, in essence, “more of the same, only better.”
Despite the dominance of English in the world today, and especially its preponderance on the Internet, only a portion of that global communication is done in English, or even in the Latin alphabet. The distribution of languages around the world is uneven, and any attempt to map them must of necessity lie, through oversimplification. People speak more than one language, whether well or badly; people move around, and learn or forget; people play with their language, making jargon and inventing new terms; people hear new words on television or radio, or in the local marketplace, and adapt them to their own use. Almost all the languages in the world today can be written, even those that were once purely oral; and once a language is written, there develops a constant back and forth between its written forms and its spoken forms, each influencing the other. In order to communicate in our many tongues, we need type.
Is it possible that the reason people talk so eagerly about the death of paper and the rise of electronic books is that so many of the books they see are badly made? Most paperbacks are impossible to read, and even some of the hardbacks that you pay fancy prices for are so poorly constructed that they’re physically painful to read. You have to hold them open with a brick, or by the constant pressure of your fingers and thumbs. The type curves into the gutters and disappears, so you’re never able to read a line of type on a flat surface. No wonder people look forward to reading off a flat screen that they can control, one page at a time! Who would worship the “tactile feel” of reading a book when that feel consists of sore thumbs and abraded fingers?
The moment when the design of nametags really matters is when you’re stumbling about at an opening reception, trying to spot familiar names without rudely staring at people’s chests. That surreptious sideways glance, trying to catch a glimpse of a person’s name without being too obvious about it, certainly has a better chance of being inconspicuous if the name on the tag is typeset in a large, clear typeface, in upper and lowercase letters (not all-caps), against a background that doesn’t clash with the type. Even 24-point Helvetica Bold will do, if there’s nothing around it on the card; far better would be something like 40-point Meta Bold Condensed, or perhaps 36-point Meta Medium. Given the distance at which these names will be read, you might even try a typeface that would normally be reserved for use at very small text sizes – Bell Centennial, for example. The idea is clarity, above all.