Daily Features

A Field Guide for the Intrepid Font-Spotter

Call them typenuts or typochondriacs, a growing number of typography enthusiasts are looking to the everyday visual landscape.

By Anne Quito, Superscript October 8, 2013

They're out there. Call them typenuts, typochondriacs, or just plain typography enthusiasts, a growing league of font spelunkers are mining their cities, streets, record collections, even their cupboards, for notable typographic variations in the visual landscape.

Pages from British typographer Peter Dawson's The Field Guide to Typography: Typefaces in the Urban Landscape (Prestel)

The London-based Design Museum holds a popular weekly Twitter contest called Font Sunday. With themes like “Door Numbers,” “Fonts on Food,” or “Fonts on Album Covers,” the museum invites its more than 800,000 followers to snap and tweet photos. The photos are then aggregated into a crowd-sourced smorgasbord via Pinterest, giving an illuminating visual gulp of the diversity of fonts that populate our environments.

Sushi Type via @laBatave, an entry from the London Design Museum's Font Sunday "Fonts on Food" Twitter contest

In the same vein, British typographer and lecturer Peter Dawson offers a guide for the emergent font-spotter in his recently published book, The Field Guide to Typography, Typefaces in the Urban Landscape (available from the Prestel booth at the Online Design Book Fair). Photographic references grounded in historical context and technical details aim to increase the reader’s typographic quotient. Online tools like “What the Font” and “Identifont” equip the intrepid enthusiast’s yen for naming the specific font based on subtle telltale variations in letterforms. From “Friends of Type” to “I Love Typography,” there is no shortage of blogs, books, and fan groups on the topic.

The Book

So what’s the big deal with cultivating our ability to distinguish between Palatino from Times New Roman; Meta from Din; Bodoni from Baskerville? How did we grow such a collective disdain toward Comic Sans that not only countless memes but also a Kickstarter-funded short film and an Onion parody are devoted to unpacking its absurdity?

An installment of “TypeNuts,” the ilovetypography.com comic strip

Perhaps it stems from our love of trivia, or perhaps a critical response to the glut of readily available commercial typefaces. When everything is a mish-mash, we have an innate instinct to group and classify. Stephen Banham, canonized a “typographical evangelist” by Eye Magazine, sees typography, especially that found in vernacular signage, as core cultural output, crucial to an understanding of our evolving history and culture. By placing them in context, fonts come to evoke specific personalities—authority, levity, scholarship, history, modernity—the discerning observer and designer will know how and when to deploy them. Like the hard lesson for the guy who formats his résumé in Comic Sans, typefaces are loaded with subliminal and overt associations that can serve to amplify or foil our best intentions.

Pages from British typographer Peter Dawson's The Field Guide to Typography: Typefaces in the Urban Landscape (Prestel).


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