Designers are, without question, an opinionated bunch but when it comes to typography, man you really see the sparks fly! Comic Sans has entire websites devoted to hating it, while Helvetica boasts a documentary film committed to its worship.
Recently, typography luminary Peter Biľak embarked on a fascinating project: to determine what exactly makes a typeface beautiful and what makes one ugly. He suspected that these two poles are in fact two sides of the same coin and his findings strongly confirmed this to be the case.
For his exemplar of beauty he chose Bodoni, a lovely modern serif defined by its high contrast between thick and thin lines. For his exemplar of ugly, he chose the infamous “monstrosity” Pica Italian.
Like Bodoni, Pica Italian’s defining quality is a contrast between thick and thin lines. But here’s the kicker: Pica is Bodoni’s inverse —thick in the places that Bodoni is thin, and thin in the places Bodoni is thick.
Bodoni (top) was Peter Biľak’s example of a beautiful typeface; Pica Italian (bottom) was his example of an ugly one
Could beauty and ugliness in type design really come down to the placement of weight? Biľak designed a typeface himself to test the hypothesis.
Called Karloff, it has three versions:
- “positive” – thick and thin in the conventional places
- “negative” – thick and thin in the reverse
- neutral – a mathematical merging of the two.
Sure enough, “positive” turned out to be a real beauty, while “negative” is hard to look at. And “netural” is, well, neutral.
Karloff positive (top), Karloff negative (middle), and the neutralized combination of the two (bottom)
Enthralled by Biľak’s discovery, we decided to tackle the even broader question of why some typefaces receive so much love and others, so much hate. The answers, we believe, are much more complex than simple aesthetic judgment.
Here are the hypotheses we came up with. First we’ll look at the hated, then the loved.
Why the hate?
The tar pit of history
People love to hate typefaces like Brush Script and Souvenir (“Real men don’t set Souvenir,” type scholar Frank Romano famously said), but are they really so terrible looking? Objectively, we wouldn’t say so.
The issue is that these typefaces both became extremely overused at specific moments in history; Brush Script in the 1940s-1960s and Souvenir in 1970s advertising.
As a result, it is now impossible to use either of them without bringing all of their historical baggage along too. Not a load you want to carry.
Brush Script (top) and Souvenir (bottom) are the opposite of timeless — they fell into the tar pit of history
The rattle of inauthenticity
Designs like Papyrus and Neuland Inline clearly try to mimic or evoke particular “exotic” cultures or regions; Papyrus goes for ancient Egypt and Neuland Inline — some sort of African tribal situation. This sort of contrived exoticism rings awfully false and is frowned upon with good reason.
Papyrus (top) and Neuland Inline (bottom) smack of inauthentic exoticism
The vice of gluttony
Let’s get one thing straight: at the end of the day, the purpose of a typeface is to be legible. Certain typefaces, however, overindulge in “design” to the point of becoming hard to read.
Jokerman and Matisse, for example, lose sight of their core purpose and justifiably incur the wrath of type nerds everywhere.
Jokerman (top) and ITC Matisse (bottom) are two examples of gluttonously over-designed typefaces
As Biľak demonstrated with Pica Italian, some design styles appear fundamentally ugly, simple as that. Many people found 2012 Headline, the typeface created for the London Olympics, rather unsightly.
Copperplate Gothic, in addition to not actually being gothic, fuses a stone-cut look with a Victorian display style to produce something that is simultaneously abrasive and dull — definitely one of our least favorites.
2012 Headline and Coperplate Gothic have gotten bad raps for being, well, ugly
The opiates of the masses
Comic Sans, Arial, Harabara. These typefaces receive by far the most hate mail of all. But really, calm down, take a deep breath and consider: are they really that bad? After all, they must have become popular for a reason, right? In fact, we think that’s exactly it: people like to hate these designs because they’re so popular.
When it comes to logo design, that’s a different story, as an overused typeface will actually decrease the design’s potential to serve as a unique, distinctive and effective branding. So lose Harabara, logo designers.
Comic Sans (top), Arial (middle), Harabara (bottom) have won the popularity contest but little else.
Why the love?
Test of time
Here are some of the typography world’s most beloved typefaces: Garamond (1540), Clarendon (1845), Times New Roman (1931).
If they’ve stuck around for this long at such widespread use, there must be something great about them — right? Otherwise, Darwinian type evolution would have weeded them into the rubbish bin of history long ago. Hard to hate on anything so resilient.
Garamond, Clarendon and Times New Roman have firmly stood the test of time
Some typefaces, like Didot and Bodoni, are just so damn attractive, you have to wonder if they were engineered to please our visual perception systems. Or, if you are of the nurture-over-nature persuasion, you might say we are socially programmed to find them immediately beautiful.
After all, sans serifs that we now find delightful were once considered grotesque (hence the term), so evidence does point to a necessary adjustment period.
Didot (top) and Bodoni (bottom) have had the typography world drooling for centuries
Gill Sans, Futura, Helvetica, Verdana and Myriad, despite being extremely common, manage to avoid the scorn of type snobs. To the contrary, this is perhaps the most worshipped set of all: the neutral.
All of these typefaces seem to strive toward the elimination of individualistic identifiers, which makes them extremely legible, versatile, and hence admirable.
Gill Sans, Futura, Helvetica, Verdana and Myriad are 20th and 21st century sans serif typefaces, beloved for their neutrality and versatility
Or this would seem like a plausible explanation, if it weren’t for the curious case of Arial. If neutral is the goal, then it seems Arial would be king, yet we see the typeface topping lists alongside Comic Sans as one of the worst!
Is it possible that Arial is too neutral? Is there is a sweet spot that it just barely misses? If so, the boundaries of that ideal gulch would seem to be beyond my powers of perception.
That’s a lot of factors, and this list surely doesn’t come close to exhausting all of the criteria that typography critics consider when evaluating a font. Which means, beyond baseline factors like legibility, any font’s reputation is up for discussion.
So in the spirit of active criticism, let’s reconsider a typeface whose fate has not yet been sealed: 2012 Headline. Contrary to popular consensus, we loved the London Olympics logo. We’re undecided on the typeface, though.
What do you think — beauty, or beast?