Reading Blog 2 (History 697): Negotiating the Typographical Jungle

Until I read Ellen Lupton’s and Robin Williams’s “essentials” for typography, I had no idea how much thought and effort went into selecting the right font for any written medium, not just the Web.  In fact, I always thought that the drop-down menu in Word offering scores of unique fonts were simply there to give people a chance to be creative and to play around with their documents. I never realized how critical a selected font could be to communicating more effectively and, in some cases, more convincingly.  But I’m not fully sold on  the example Errol Morris used in his New York Times piece in which a Canadian student, Phil Renaud, believed that his grades improved solely because he changed his font choice for all subsequent submissions — unless the contrast between his two fonts was remarkable. In this sense, I am more likely to believe Morris’s contention that a font like Baskerville would receive a more favorable response from a reading audience than Comic Sans, principally due to the contrasting nature of the two fonts and the implied aura of seriousness versus frivolity.  But now that I have made that statement, I realize that I, too, have always understood the importance of the right font — albeit subconsciously.

In reflecting on past font choices for written products that I have produced for the  Army, for publication in journals, and for publication in books,  I realized that the right font did in fact make a difference. Back in the day, the Army hammered us into using Times New Roman as the “approved” Army font because it ostensibly saved paper and was easier to read.  Like most of us emerging Word users back in the early to mid-1990s, we just shrugged and followed the guidelines. But over time, many of the documents I encountered written in Times New Roman were just plain tough to read. My eyes became tired after reading a few pages, and I began to dread reading anything in that font.  Many of my colleagues felt the same way.  When I took over the Army’s Inspector General (IG) School in 2003, I made a unilateral decision to switch to a font that was easier to read and more inviting to the eye: Arial. Granted, Lupton, Williams, and company have all panned Arial as an unwelcome stepchild in the font world, mainly because it scores low on the Lupton scale (legibility, flexibility, readability, etc.) (Lupton, 20).  However, when my school began producing procedural guides in Arial for IGs to use in the field, we found that those IGs were actually using them.  I can claim with great certainty that the guides’ “readability” — as well as internal design features we employed that channel many of Robin Williams’s guidelines — made our Army IG system more productive and effective.  In other words, IGs stopped free-lancing their approaches to problem-solving and instead stuck to the procedural guidelines in the texts. Readability and design were significant factors in the feedback we received from our field IGs, but I never realized until now the true importance of selecting Arial for those guides.  I did it simply because of my own personal preference. And now I feel compelled to revisit my school’s use of Arial and to apply what I learn in Clio-Wired II  to enhance the effectiveness of my school’s doctrinal publications. Maybe another font will prove to be even better?

Selecting a font for readability is one thing; selecting a font to evoke a specific time period is another.  I want my Web site to capture the time period that encompasses my dissertation topic: media and memory on D-Day, 6 June 1944.  Searching the Web for fonts that will capture the period and the seriousness of the war have proved daunting for me. Many of the fonts aligned with the 1940s seem to evoke that art-deco, nightclub motif with a vertical stress, much like the example for “Modern” used as an example by Robin Williams (Williams, 177).  I thought that I finally hit the mark when I ran across Gotham, which is a slab-serif font that seemed to suggest bold power and authority. Yet the more I looked at it, the less it worked for me. And then I realized that, since my topic would focus on the media’s impact on America’s memory of D-Day, I should try and capture both the 1940s as an era and the way print was presented in the media during that time — or was at least produced by war correspondents in the field.  These war correspondents used portable typewriters for everything. For that matter, the Army produced all of its orders, combat journals, and the like in precisely the same way. So I stumbled upon a unique font that seemed to fit the bill: JohnDoe. This font looked precisely like the type produced by those portable typewriters of the 1940s and gave a feel for both the media and military side of the war. But for headings, I found one that, in keeping with Robin Williams’s design principles,  contrasts  perfectly with JohnDoe: Headliner. Headliner captures perfectly the bold headlines splashed across the mastheads of most major newspapers on D-Day, many of which proclaimed in super-large letters “Invasion On!”  At least for now, I feel that I have settled on two good candidates to evoke the period of D-Day on my Web site. The real test will be to see if they accord with the design and typography principles outlined in our readings. I can’t wait to test them out!

Steve Rusiecki

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