Fonts and You

| Sun Nov. 15, 2009 5:53 PM EST

A few years ago I was reviewing an installation app with some engineers.  We were going from screen to screen, with me occasionally commenting on something, and on one screen I told them everything looked fine except for the font in one of the sentences.  It needed to match the others.

They looked at me strangely.  They're all the same.  No they aren't.  Just look.  Sure they are.  No they aren't.  Etc.  They said they'd check and we moved on.

An hour later one of them came up to me and said, "You were right! I can't believe you noticed that."  But I couldn't believe no one else noticed it.  They might as well have been in different colors to me.  I don't remember the fonts in question, but they were about as similar as, say, Times and Palatino — not wildly different to someone who doesn't care about such things, but still, pretty different.

But even I have a hard time with this from Alice Rawsthorn:

Dirt. Noise. Crowds. Delays. Scary smells. Even scarier fluids swirling on the floor. There are lots of reasons to loathe the New York City subway, but one very good reason to love it — Helvetica, the typeface that’s used on its signage.

Seeing the clean, crisp shapes of those letters and numbers at station entrances, on the platforms and inside the trains is always a treat, at least it is until I spot the “Do not lean ...” sign on the train doors. Ugh! There’s something not quite right about the “e” and the “a” in the word “lean.” Somehow they seem too small and too cramped. Once I’ve noticed them, the memory of the clean, crisp letters fades, and all I remember are the “off” ones.

A couple of comments here.  First, Helvetica is a fine font, but hardly something to swoon over.  I mean, come on.  Second, the "e" and the "a" in the subway sign look fine to me.  Am I just not observant enough?  Are there some bad signs and some good ones?  Did the offending sign have some crude repairs on it?  Or what?  I'm a little stumped here.

On the other hand, Rawsthorn also includes some interesting stuff about the misuse of typography on Mad Men, which prides itself on period authenticity.  Who knew that all the office signage was done in Gill Sans?