Arts

@LARGE

How the fonts we choose speak volumes

Lucy Naland/Globe staff

No list of stupid things that happened in 2017 will be in proper order without prominent mention of #Fontgate, the hot, memey new scandal out of Pakistan.

The shorthand is that investigators probing the finances of Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his family have alleged that a 2006 document submitted by his daughter (and successor) Maryam Nawaz was a forgery, based on its use of Calibri, a default Microsoft typeface that “was not commercially available until 31st January 2007.”

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With its melange of distance, hubris, human error, technological snafu, telltale esoteric detail, and iffy accuracy (debates raging over the true path and provenance of Calibri have even sucked in its creator, who insists any use of the font before 2007 would have to have come from beta versions of the kind only employed by true “computers nerds” and fawning font freaks), #Fontgate arrived memeworthy, with everything it takes to hit TWIT (Temporary Worldwide Internet Timewaster) status.

But perhaps the most novel thing about this whole #Fontgate scandal is the way it highlights typefaces doing what they always do — saying things beyond what they spell on the page.

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Or the screen, for that matter. The first wave of the digital revolution found most of us firing up our fancy new word processors with the idea of liberating ourselves from the tyranny of paper, only to submit to the singular voice of Times New Roman (or Courier New, if you were trying to pad out a paper for a professor).

But over time, as text itself grew more social through SMS and social media, and as the bodies of words altered themselves to accommodate the spirit of intention and the pressures of convenience (“k thx bye”) our connection to type also deepened.

You know well the importance of typographical nuance if you’ve ever posted a public note addressing a messy microwave (the enragingly chummy Comic Sans has become the de facto typeface of intra-office passive aggression), or chosen a frilly script option from a drop-down menu while drafting a thank you note (I, for one, treasure your old-timey manners), or, say, designed a fraudulent news website.

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Formatting options (as well as, you know, writing) may do most of the work in terms of conveying a writer’s tonal shifts (bold, italics, and for the truly angry about the microwave, underlining). But a typeface is more like the speaking voice you start out with. As such, a font choice is more than a mere stylistic choice. It’s a way of identifying yourself.

Much like the cracks or hesitations in another’s voice, the finer points of a typeface allow our brains to sort and sift for that which we trust. Recall the collective groan of the Internet over Hillary Clinton’s custom “I’m so relatable!” typeface Unity, and the American OCD meltdown that was triggered by the Trump/Pence logo rollout? That anguish was due to type’s uncanny knack for making us care about it: It makes clear when there’s too much trying, and even clearer when there’s not enough.

“I think subconsciously there are design filters our mind goes through,” Samuel Berlow, CEO of the design company Type Network, told Quartz last week. “We scan the URL, and then we look at the color scheme and the logo, and then . . . we absorb the typography.”

This may be why news publications like The New York Times, The Boston Globe, and The New Yorker, among many others, have extended long-forged typographical standards, tactics, and habits from their pages to their pixels.

Go back to your block list of fake news sites from election season and revisit them with an eye tuned to type: You may see janky serifs, iffy kerning, typefaces that scan like unpressed shirts. While many of these sites may dress the part of truth, their type betrays the troll within.

The shape of type to come is hard to read from here. On one hand, the emojification of language is either revolution or devolution depending on your taste for the stuff, and it certainly seems like a challenge to the longevity of letters themselves. On the other hand, type is becoming a valuable digital plaything in the toyboxes of virtual and augmented reality, like Facebook Spaces, where comments appear as props you can move around the environment, and on experimental VR type apps like Typography Insight. Type may become a lot more hands on — the font we choose as uniquely correspondent to us as the avatars we create.

Can a typeface modeled after President Trump’s penmanship (and named “Tiny Hand”) grant us a closer understanding of the man within? Maybe not. But as more and more of our interactions with one another are mediated through technology, the subtleties (or lack thereof) in type can serve as a reminder of the human hands hitting the keys — a quiet cue to look and listen more closely, so that we might read between the strokes.

Michael Andor Brodeur can be reached at mbrodeur@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @MBrodeur.
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