Friday, February 8, 2013

How to Kill a Typeface

There are some typefaces so classic that they'll never die—Bembo, Caslon, Garamond, Bodoni, and others. But what makes a typeface so unpopular that it is, effectively, killed? What makes a typeface unusable? Here are three ways to destroy one, whether deserved or not.

I. Demonize it
Souvenir was designed in 1914 for Morris Fuller Benton, who also designed Franklin Gothic. But it didn’t take off until 1971, when ITC released it with additional weights. Then, it was everywhere, from advertisements to Playboy. It became associated with the pre-punk 70’s, the height of bad taste and worse decisions, overused to exhaustion.

But I would argue what really killed it is the number of designers who teased and denigrated it as an ugly relic of the decade, and not so much its overuse. Frank Romano in particular despised Souvenir, and seems to have spent a considerable amount of his writing career just on trashing the typeface. He said, “There’s nothing wrong with Souvenir that a complete redesign wouldn’t cure” and “We could send Souvenir to Mars, but there are international treaties on pollution in outer space.” Mark Batty called it “a sort of Saturday Night Fever typeface wearing tight white flannel pants.” After all that, who would want to use a typeface that would cause people to think of platform shoes and porn star mustaches in a not-joking context?

II. Overuse it
Comic Sans is the typeface everybody loves to hate. Vincent Connare originally designed the face in 1995 for a Windows program, to make it look less intimidating and user-friendly. Like Souvenir, it became wildly popular and used for everything, usually in the least appropriate context. Thanks to Windows 5’s inclusion of the typeface, anyone with a desktop publisher could use it. And boy, did they.

Some people ask how Comic Sans could ever be popular, but if you look at trends from the 90s it actually makes total sense. Lots of interesting things were popular and acceptable in that decade, like frosted tips, and the Macarena. And yet, almost 20 years later, people still can’t get over Comic Sans.

It’s certainly not the most beautiful typeface, but it is also definitely not the ugliest. It was made to look fun, accessible, and easy to read, and in that respect, it’s a successful typeface. Today, people swear off the use of Comic Sans as though it’s an accomplishment to avoid it. Comic Sans got killed by overuse, but also by two decades of bad jokes about it—although, it doesn’t seem to care.

III. Destroy the only copy
Finally, the best way to kill a typeface is to destroy the only version of it in existence, like Thomas James Cobden-Sanderson did to a typeface called Doves. 1900, Cobden-Sanderson founded Doves Press with partner Emery Walker. The typeface, cut a few years earlier by Edward Prince, was the press’s official typeface and was used to set the famous Doves Bible in 1902.

            Unfortunately, Coden-Sanderson and Walker had a falling out, and Doves Press dissolved in 1908. The ex-partners created a contract that stated Cobden-Sanderson would own all of the matrixes and punches (the physical typeface) until his death, at which point it would pass to Walker. Fearing its misuse and driven by his hatred of his former partner, Cobden-Sanderson began throwing the typeface into the Thames in August 1916.
            He worked rather quickly for a 76 year old man carrying lead and wooden blocks of type, making over a hundred trips over five months. The disappearance of the typeface wasn’t discovered until after his death, at which point all of the copies were lost to the water. It hasn’t been reproduced for the digital age, which is a shame. For now, Doves survives only in the Doves Bible. 

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