Tuesday, 3 March 2009

Down with corporate fonts

I note with dismay the growing trend for enforcing what are called ‘corporate fonts’. This means that companies and organisations have a set font, usually something dreary like Arial or Univers, and even a set font size like 12 point, and they insist that everyone uses it for all official documents, even internal trivia like memos and minutes of meetings.

This is a shameful assault on our typographic liberty. One of my modest and harmless pleasures is experimenting with new fonts. It’s how I bring a bit of excitement into my humdrum life. For a long time I was a Verdana loyalist – that’s the font invented by someone at Microsoft because it looks good on screen. Then I went through a Courier phase, a font apparently loved by older admin staff who have an atavistic longing for typewriters. My favourite font at the moment is Georgia, which is fortunate as it is this blog’s favourite font as well.

I have noticed that I can be working on an incredibly pedestrian and puddingy piece of writing, and just by the simple act of changing the font I can make it seem really urbane and sophisticated. I think it has something to do with getting rid of what printers call ‘widows’ – stray words in a line on their own.

In his rather gripping history of fonts, Type, Simon Loxley suggests that there are basically two typographic traditions: the European one which is interested in scientific questions of legibility, and the English one which sees type as a form of creative expression. No prizes for guessing which side I’m on – even if the English typographers were all a bit bonkers. Eric Gill, creator of the classic Gill Sans, once wrote a book called Trousers and the Most Precious Ornament, which argued that ‘the restrictions of the garment in question dishonoured the male sexual organ’.

My love of fonts is really a displaced love of stationery. When I was at school, particularly at the start of each academic year, I used to think that if I could just find the right rubber or the perfect pencil case, all the other things in my life would slot into place. For a while I was the Imelda Marcos of pens.

I’ve long since given up on the idea of a perfect world created out of stationery. But I’m still holding out for the coming of the great font utopia. In this beautiful year zero, in which I will be king of the typefaces, no one will be allowed to impose a font on another human being. Everyone – even the dull, unimaginative users of vanilla-type fonts like Arial and Times New Roman – will be treated with magnanimity.

Except, of course, for the erstwhile enforcers of ‘corporate fonts’. These people will be shown no mercy. They will be hunted down and called to account for their terrible crimes against taste and beauty. Their punishment will be a life sentence of using WingDings, the infamous font which turns every letter into an impenetrable series of hieroglyphics. There will be no hope of parole.

Mundane quote for the day: ‘I went to join the revolution but I couldn’t find a parking space’ – Song on National Public Radio in the US


  1. Mmmm Georgia. My favourite for the past couple of years. For most printed stuff I use Arial, but the serifs on Georgia make it ideal for sermon notes - much faster to read with a quick glance let's you keep eye contact.

    Before that I, like you, used Tahoma. Or the slightly funkier Trebuchet.

    All good. Except Comic Sans.

  2. Your typographical knowledge appears to stem entirely from the default list of computer fonts that are supplied with Microsoft Windows/Mac OS X.

    Can I suggest that you take yourself down to St Bride's Library in London and engorge yourself on the most extensive type library in the world, and discover the world of serif, sans-serif, egyptian and all other various forms and come to an educated conclusion why corporations use typefaces like Univers (for its perfect legibility) and Helvetica (NOT Arial - which was a cheap rip off by Microsoft so as to avoid the large royalties) as they have become the ubiquitous choice of type design in the world – a point I have reason to take up on and combat as a designer myself of said corporate (and non-corporate) clients.

    Failing that, just read the "Crystal Goblet" by Beatrice Warde and realise you can be British and have a clarity of mind towards rationality and legibility (without being too Swiss about it).