I know, I know, I sound as though I came out of the Ark! I was still working at Collins in the mid 1970s when the first computer-set dictionary was achieved, and I remember the excitement in the office when it happened. Proofs changed though – soon we were getting stinky ozalids rather than the elegant pull proofs.
Roll on another decade and I was found myself sitting next to a computer specialist at the University of Edinburgh as he tried to lay out a small brochure for me, using a piece of software called PageMaker on a tiny-screened computer called a Mac Classic. 'It'll never catch on,' I said as I squinted at the screen and tried to follow what he was doing. (Soon afterwards I got a Classic of my own. I still have it.) From being an editor, I found myself also becoming something of a designer, because soon I was designing and laying out books and magazines for a large variety of clients. The early lessons in typography began to stand me in very good stead and I became very interested in what typeface to use when, and why one typeface might be better than another for certain purposes.
I was understandably interested, therefore, in a recent piece in The Week entitled 'How typeface influences the way we read and think – and why everyone hates Comic Sans MS' This fascinating article started by pointing out that the announcement of the discovery of the Higgs Boson – one of the most expensive and fascinating experiments in history – was made using a typeface called Comic Sans MS. In the opinion of the writer, gravitas was thus seriously undermined and the reaction was not one of awe, it was simply to laugh.
Serious stuff, then. But can our views really be so deeply affected simply by how words look on a page? Again, the article continues by outlining an experiment where a serious article was presented in a number of different typefaces, from the aforesaid Comic Sans to Baskerville. The results, from analysis of the 40,000 responses, was that if you want people to take your work seriously, you should use Baskerville. Not Georgia, or Times New Roman, which are very similar, but Baskerville.
Why is Comic Sans seen as funny? It looks like a childish scribble, for a start, but to get technical, it's apparently something to do with 'the management of visual weight'. There's a lot of science behind typopgraphy. Why do serifs (those little trailing edges on fonts like Times but not on Arial) arguably make a font easier to read in large quantities? Why is italic more difficult to read – and capitals almost impossible in quantity?
Fascinating stuff and I could bore you with it for hours. But I won't. Instead, I'd like to ask you a question: Are you ever put off by the size of the typeface or the type style when you pick up a book and open it?
I am. Sometimes I put a book right back on the shelf if the type is too small, even though I feel I'd like to read it. Something in my head tell me this is going to be too intense, maybe a bit boring. I could be very wrong, but that's the message I get.
Remember all those Joanna Trollopes published in the 90s? They used a typeface called Melior, which was in common use for a certain kind of book. It got to the stage that if I picked up a book in that type I put it straight back down because I felt I knew exactly what I'd be getting and I'd already had it.
So, that brings me to another, related, subject. When we buy an e-book (certainly on Kindle), we can read it either in serif or sans serif, bigger or smaller, with more spacing or less spacing – but other than that, we have very little control over how it appears. How does this make us perceive the book? In one way we have ceded less power to the typographer, who could in former times have influenced our reaction quite considerably. In another way, we have lost all power ourselves.
And, in reading most books in one format, one typeface, will everything we read in time become simply one homogeneous, misshapen lump in our minds? We remember the look, feel, and heft of a printed book. We remember whether the paper was rough or smooth, yellow or white. We remember it was fat, or slight. We remember the cover. If we try hard enough, we probably remember the typeface too.
Are these losses important, at the end of the day, or are they offset by convenience?
Over to you!