I’m the new serif in this town

Published

Sean Anderson

Good typography is mostly the result of things nobody but you and me care about. For instance, ink traps are gaps in certain fonts that allow ink to spread out on paper and maintain clean edges. When used at small sizes and usually on newsprint, detail would be lost without them.

The blue areas will fill up with ink when printed at small sizes, especially on porous paper. Check out the bodytext example in the print edition for a demonstration.

With this in mind, Matthew Carter was commissioned in the 1970s by American telecoms giant AT&T Bell to make a new font for their telephone directories. Published on their 100th anniversary, it was called Bell Centennial. It made extensive use of ink trapping and replaced Bell Gothic as AT&T’s phonebook font. This change allowed AT&T to print smaller text and get more information on each page. From geeky manipulation based on an understanding of ink behaviour, to a visible and useful result. Minor wins on an epic scale.

You might not have browsed an American phonebook, but the chances are you see Matthew Carter’s work every day. I’m drafting this article on a word processor using Georgia, which is also the body text font of the new Glasgow Guardian website. Tahoma, Verdana and other products of Bitstream Incorporated, which Carter co-founded (in much the same way that he has founded many typefaces!) will be familiar to anyone that uses a computer.

We chose Georgia for the website for a few reasons. Firstly, it’s a well-designed screen font with a large x-height. Check out the “Handgloves” diagram at the end of this post for an explanation of x-height and a lot of other cool stuff, like where to find the “ear” of a double-bowled letter “g”. This diagram was provided by FontShop, one of the first digital typeshops. Anyhoo, Georgia’s x-height is a factor in making the font clear at small sizes on digital screens, such as on a smartphone. Secondly, it’s one of the few fonts that is available almost universally on computers, so there is little risk that it will be unavailable and a poorer off-brand substitute will be used. Thirdly, it’s widely accepted that serif fonts are easier to read when there is a lot of text, so that’s why we used Georgia rather than other good screen fonts like Arial or Verdana. Last but not least, it’s a stylish font that chimes nicely with our print typeface family: Adobe Utopia.

Utopia is in the typography sense a “modern” font. Though unadorned with fancy swashes and features, it has serifs and a strong contrast between its thick and thin lines. The influence of the pen and the quill is clear. This all leads to a highly readable font that is not conservative in the way that popular newspaper fonts Kepler, Times or Mercury are. Neither is it a modernist and ultimately boring sans serif, like Glasgow University Corporate Communications’ use of Swiss 721 (a variation on Helvetica, the most slavishly overused typeface ever).

Ligatures are joins between two or more normally distinct characters. Most famously, the ampersand “&” symbol is a combination of the letters “e” and “t” which together form the Latin “et” meaning “and”. Utopia, as an expertly designed typeface, has a number of additional ligatures which increase readability and overall prettiness, such as Th and ffi. The “Th” ligature is a controversial one. Sometimes denigrated as an apparent mistake, it is a common feature of Adobe type designer Robert Slimbach’s typefaces. In the case of Utopia, I like it because it hints at the silent merging of those tee and eych noises into a buzzing thu, and because it’s one of those artistic flares that are a joy to see appear onscreen in the process of typing.

Utopia is assertive but not authoritarian like Times. An article written in Utopia is not saying “this is how it is”, more than it is saying “In my considered opinion…”. The Black Headline weight of the typeface should be quite fetching at the top of articles, and the caption weights (designed for use at small sizes) should be really quite legible on minutely printed infographics and captions.

Hopefully the overall effect of this is has an effect on how people read the Glasgow Guardian: a newspaper by humans, produced on computers.