Comments on a cultural reality between past and future.

This blog describes Metatime in the Posthuman experience, drawn from Sir Isaac Newton's secret work on the future end of times, a tract in which he described Histories of Things to Come. His hidden papers on the occult were auctioned to two private buyers in 1936 at Sotheby's, but were not available for public research until the 1990s.

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Best Before the Font Date

The statues of Prospero and Ariel by British artist and font designer Eric Gill outside Broadcasting House in London sparked questions in the British Parliament in 1933 over the size of the sprite's genitalia. Image Source: BBC.

Those who consume mass media content passively may not notice that the explosion of information has spawned a huge industry in font design. Of course, computers have spurred on this industry.

You can see a great libre font site here and a list of paid fonts sites here. Google Fonts offers beautiful libre fonts. There are classic pairings which shape how we see information in an aesthetic and visual sense. Almost always, the combination is a mix of classical Roman and plain modern. We are surrounded by typeface pairs which constantly talk to us of the past and the present, the ancient and the new: Garamond and Gill Sans; Helvetica Neue and Baskerville; Minion Pro and Super Grotesk. Fonts are organized into superfamilies. If designers don't choose the classic serif / modern sans serif mixture, they pick fonts which belong to the same superfamily. Fonts turn letters into glyphs, living illustrations, which provide a visual message inside the textual message.

The 2003 font Goldenbook is based on a font used in a late 1920s'-early 1930s' literary magazine, The Golden Book. Images Source: pinterest.

Every font embodies historical ideas and conveys messages about art and time. I recently chose Mark Simonson's Goldenbook for my author's website. It is a serif font that is almost sans serif, a perfect blend of past and present. Like all fonts, it has a fascinating provenance. As explained by Simonson:
"Goldenbook (2003) is based on the logotype of a literary magazine from the late 1920s called The Golden Book Magazine. It’s an art deco take on the classic Roman letterforms, kind of an art deco Trajan, but with lowercase."

The use of Gill Sans on Penguin book covers. Image Source: Leah Henrickson.

The BBC's favoured font is Gill Sans. It is also used by Penguin Books, British Railways, HM Gov, and the Church of England. Since 1928, that font has become synonymous with a rational and international British voice, and the entire UK establishment. This is unsettling when you consider the history of the font's designer, Eric Gill (1882-1940), who sexually abused his own daughters. Gill also designed the Johnston font, which is used in the London Underground. Other official UK government fonts are Georgia, Helvetica, and Transport. The rules for font use with regard to UK government matters are here.

Gill Sans as used by the C of E and the UK government. Images Source: Face of Type.

British Railways uses Gill Sans. Image Source: Wiki.

The Keep Calm and Carry On poster (1939) uses Gill Sans. Image Source: wartimeposters.co.uk via Wiki.

Gill Sans as used by the BBC. Image Source: Face of Type.

Typefaces express authority. In 2014, a Pittsburgh schoolboy calculated that the US federal and state governments could save USD $370 million per year if they switched to Garamond, a font designed in 16th century Paris, with 15th century roots in Venice. Despite debate on the topic, the great Republic will not depart any time soon from its favoured fonts: Source Sans Pro and Merriweather.

An example of the US government's use of the font, Merriweather. Image Source: Wired.

Merriweather example. Image Source: Font Squirrel.

And so it goes for other countries as well. The Government of Canada states: "Helvetica is the official typeface for the visual identity of the Government of Canada." The 'Canada Wordmark' is covered by the Federal Identity Program and the rules for using it are very strict. The Wordmark is a modified version of Baskerville, which was designed in the 1750s by John Baskerville (1706-1775) in Birmingham, England.

The Canada Wordmark modifies Baskerville. Image Source: Canadian Design Resource.

In 2015, the Canadian government commissioned Raymond Larabie to develop a national typeface, Canada 150, which celebrated the country's 150th birthday in 2017; Canada 150 supports the English, French, and aboriginal languages. Built on Larabie's original font, Mesmerize, Canada 150 absorbed the look of fonts commonly used by many Canadian businesses. Larabie acknowledged that his original typeface resembles the font used in the game, Monopoly.

Interview with Canada 150 designer, Ramond Larabie. Podcast Source: CBC.

Every government on earth - even North Korea (so speculates Foreign Policy) - has an official font. Germany uses Demos and Praxis, as well as DIN 1451. You can see a list of government typefaces for transport purposes, here: everything from the Prague Metro, to Manila International Airport, to the Saint Petersburg Metro, to the roads in Chile. Typefaces wed art to power, and they are anchor points in time.

In 2017, the government of Pakistan faced scandal because it emerged that a 2006 document produced in court was printed in Calibri. But Calibri, developed for Microsoft from 2002 to 2004, wasn't released to the public until 2007. The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists describes #fontgate:
"After we revealed the offshore holdings of the offspring of Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, the Pakistani supreme court opened a corruption probe into Sharif and two of his children. His daughter, Mariam Nawaz Sharif, submitted a document to the court that claimed she was not the owner of an offshore company under scrutiny. The document was reportedly written in the Microsoft Calibri font and dated February 2006. Microsoft Calibri only became available in 2007, leading to online ridicule of the proffered evidence under the hashtag #fontgate. Nawaz Sharif was eventually disqualified as prime minister in July 2017. His case continues in the nation’s top anti-corruption court."
The next time you look at a Website, or official signs and documents, consider that every curlicue matters. Every angle and serif is sending you a historical message about identity, authority, and culture. In some cases, those messages come with a legal timestamp.

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