Columns / Typography

Typographic Hate Lists

Tirades, Tantrums & Truths

Allan Haley
“I hate Papyrus!”

You can replace “Papyrus” with any number of other typefaces—from Arial to Zapfino—and find a bevy of graphic and type designers who embrace the animosity.

In fact, typophiles have a long and well-documented history of hating various typefaces. Fred Goudy’s designs were maligned by the typographic cognoscenti of his time. Baskerville’s peers and printers of his day reviled his designs—and fifteenth-century scribes probably despised Gutenberg’s 42-line type.

Today, type hate has taken on pandemic proportions. Myriad blog posts and YouTube videos by the score condemn hapless designs. Whole websites have been created to revile specific fonts. There's an “I Hate Rotis” site, a “Ban Comic Sans” site, a Facebook page dedicated to haters of Papyrus and a Flickr group looking to wipe Arial from our hard drives. The list continues to grow—an anti-Arial app is probably already in development!

It’s easy to find font haters, but a bit harder to figure out what inspires their animosity. I’ve done a little research into this condition, and have come up with some conclusions. There are nuances to each but, basically, there are four reasons why typophiles hate various typefaces: 1. The design is overused. 2. It’s a copy of another typeface. 3. It’s considered poor quality. 4. It’s just hateable.

ABUSED AND OVERUSEDComic Sans has probably been at the brunt of designers’ scorn for as long as any typeface in history. Interestingly, it wasn’t hated when it first appeared in the pop-up balloon help guides of Microsoft 3D Movie Maker, or even when it became part of Microsoft's Windows 95 Plus! Pack of fonts. But when Comic Sans dared to show up in Microsoft Publisher and Internet Explorer, it attracted the ire of graphic designers. A dozen years later, Comic Sans is still at the center of an odium-filled maelstrom. Although designers cite a litany of reasons supporting their distaste, the overwhelming opinion is that it is overused. Answers to a recent web poll that queried designers about their dislike for Comic Sans typically pointed to the typeface’s virtual ubiquity.

“It’s because anyone can use it, so it looks unprofessional. It’s a web font now for goodness sake!”

“Comic Sans: too available, overused; most often used by individuals with no design skills.”

“It’s because it’s so ubiquitous and a font that untrained people used incorrectly.”

If Comic Sans is disdained because of its popularity, what about typefaces like Frutiger, or Franklin Gothic or Trade Gothic? These designs have consistently been at the top of the “best seller” list of fonts for decades. Newer arrivals—such as Interstate and the recent revival of din—also seem to show up everywhere. If typeface popularity is a sin, surely these designs should also be listed among the transgressors, but they are not. Graphic designers love Trade Gothic and certainly consider din more than a passing typographic fling.

So, why do designers hate Comic Sans and adore Franklin Gothic? Maybe the former is just, well, hateable.

DEEP DISTASTE FOR THE CRIME OF COPYINGThe lion’s share of hate mail directed at Arial admonishes it for being a copy of Helvetica. According to a posting by Mark Simonson on his blog, “Most people who hate Arial do so because it is a complete and total rip-off of Helvetica. The changes that were made so that it would pass on copyright issues just stand to make it uglier.” His analysis continues, “Monotype was a respected type foundry with a glorious past and perhaps the idea of being associated with these ‘pirates’ was unacceptable. So, instead, they found a loophole and devised an ‘original’ design that just happens to share exactly the same proportions and weight as another typeface. This, to my mind, is almost worse than an outright copy.”


ITC Souvenir used on a 1979 book cover, designed by Robert Anthony, Inc.

Simon Garfield, in his book Just Your Type, also zeros in on the much-maligned Arial, and makes the point that it has proved difficult to protect fonts in court, since an alphabet can be regarded as being in the public domain. He adds that, for anyone with the patience and wherewithal to do so, each letter, number and glyph can be individually copyrighted. And Arial, in Mr. Garfield’s opinion, turns out to have enough tiny deliberate changes from Helvetica to make the two as different “as pineapple is from mango.” Although he maintains that Arial is rightly regarded as a “cheat.”

And yet Mr. Simonson and Mr. Garfield are both oh, so wrong. Arial wasn’t developed for Microsoft; it didn’t originally share common character widths with Helvetica. And it wasn’t drawn as a clone of Helvetica.

Arial was originally drawn for another computer giant. In the early 1980s Xerox and IBM introduced the first big laser-xerographic printers. These were huge machines, closer in size to a Mack truck than to their diminutive offspring that we use today. In addition to typefaces that emulated customary mono-spaced all-cap strike-on data-processing fonts, Xerox and IBM also wanted “typographic” fonts for their new machines.

The two type companies that bid on the contracts to provide fonts to Xerox and IBM were Linotype and Monotype. At the time, the most popular typefaces in North America were Times New Roman and Helvetica. Linotype and Monotype shared rights to Times New Roman from its introduction 50 years earlier, but Monotype did not have rights to Helvetica. Linotype won the contract with Xerox. Monotype pursued IBM. To be successful, however, Monotype would need a viable competitor to Helvetica.

Monotype’s solution was based on Monotype Grotesque, a type design first drawn at the turn of the last century. The goal was to create a competitor to Helvetica, not to copy the design. Arial was drawn more rounded than its rival. Its curves are softer and fuller and its counters more open. The ends of the strokes on letters such as “c,” “e,” “g” and “s,” rather than being cut off on the horizontal, are terminated at the more natural angle in relation to the stroke direction.

Was Arial drawn to compete with Helvetica? Sure. Does it look a lot like Helvetica? Right again. But then, Helvetica itself was an “updating” of New Haas Grotesk and that, in turn, is a pretty close cousin to Berthold’s Akzidenz Grotesk.

Now that the truth is out about Arial (actually, Arial’s backstory has been available for some time), will designers stop maligning the design? Probably not.

Do graphic designers hate Interstate because it is a copy of highway signage? No. How about the many interpretations of Garamond, or Baskerville—or the obvious design send-ups of Century Gothic and Silkstone Sans? Nyet. So, why do designers harbor animosity toward some emulations and not others? Maybe it’s for the same reason that so many Bostonians hate the Yankees: They just do.

UGLY INCURS HATREDThe Rotis family is another suite of typefaces that is reviled by designers—but not because it’s popular or a clone. The problem with Rotis is that many think that it is not a very good design and, thus, undeserving of its popularity. Erik Spiekermann even went so far as to claim that Rotis isn’t even a typeface. According to him, “[Rotis] has some great letters, but they never come together in one typeface. Otl Aicher [the designer of Rotis] wrote a great theory about how one would have to make the most legible typeface ever but then proceeded to prove with Rotis that a theory does not make a typeface.” Spiekermann continues, “As many designers seem to lack critical faculties, they judged Rotis by the theory cleverly provided and not by the evidence in front of their eyes.”

Gerard Unger, the designer of typefaces such as Vesta, Swift, ITC Flora and Demos, echoes Spiekermann’s concerns—albeit in gentler words. “The problem with Rotis is that some of the characters, like the ‘e’ for example, don’t belong there. They fall over backwards. And I do not understand why there are so many designers who like it and like to use it.”

The interesting thing is there are thousands of really bad type-faces that designers do not go out of their way to hate. There are also a flock of typefaces that are used, admired and praised by designers—which are also less than perfect. Paul Shaw wrote an article on his blog about a dozen well-liked—if not loved—typefaces that are flawed by the designs of particular characters. Among these are ITC Galliard, Bembo, Centaur, Univers and Gill Sans.

BECAUSE, WELL, WE JUST HATE 'EMRationality does not have to be a factor when it comes to despising typefaces. Michael Bierut, in his essay “I Hate ITC Garamond,” admits that he does not hate ITC Garamond for any rational reason. He writes, “I hate it like I hate fingernails on a blackboard. I hate it because I hate it.”

Although some claimed that Goudy’s typefaces were flawed, many of his contemporaries disliked his designs because they disliked him. Goudy was one of the first type designers to promote himself, which was seen as roughly akin to Veg-O-Matic sales tactics by typophiles of the early twentieth century. They thought his populist touch impressed what were deemed to be “under-educated” minds. Daniel Berkeley Updike, the eminent printer and type historian of the early twentieth century, wrote of Goudy, “I have never seen anyone with such an itch for publicity, or who blew his own trumpet so artlessly and constantly.”

In Just My Type, Garfield also takes a stab at sorting out this issue of typeface insufferability. He follows the popular thesis that we dislike certain typefaces because of misuse and overuse—but adds to these offenses “memory.” “Fonts may trigger memory as pungently as perfume,” he writes. “Gill Sans can summon up exam papers. Trajan may remind us of lousy choices at the cinema.”

A PERSONAL PERSPECTIVEI may be overly sensitive to this hating typefaces thing. That would be because I've had close relationships with many typefaces that are on the list of reviled designs. I worked at International Typeface Corporation when ITC Souvenir was both loved and hated; I consulted to Agfa’s type group when Rotis was in its prime; and I now work for the people who own Arial—and Papyrus.



Epic Shaded

To top it off, I’ve even had one of my own typeface designs listed among the scorned. Des Edmonds, British type designer, typographer and typographic studio owner of the 1970s, was vociferous in his disdain for my design, Epic Shaded, in Robert Norton’s 1993 book, Types Best Remembered/Types Best Forgotten. The problem wasn’t, however, that Epic Shaded was overused (I wish it were) or that it was a rip-off, or even that it was particularly ugly. It was just damn difficult to set. According to Edmonds, “Setting Epic Shaded requires manual dexterity, a fit and supple body and the reactions of a ferret after a rabbit.”

TIME HEALS ALLI’ve also discovered that, after a period of time, typeface animosity turns to benign acceptance—and, in some cases, downright admiration. Take Baskerville, for instance. Even though Benjamin Franklin (yeah, that Benjamin Franklin) openly praised the fonts of John Baskerville, contemporaries complained that the typeface's marked contrast in stroke weight, exacerbated by the intensity of the black ink and shininess of the paper Baskerville used, would (quite literally) make the reader go blind. Today, Baskerville is generally accepted as handsome—and certainly harmless.

When I was a lad, ITC Souvenir was ranked right up there with root canals and paper cuts on the bête noire scale. In fact, I’ve lived through a succession of “I hate this typeface” sagas, and the ill feelings ITC Souvenir inspired back in the ’70s pretty much still eclipse all that have followed—even toward Helvetica and Comic Sans. Today, ITC Souvenir is hardly used—but neither is it reviled. In fact, Joe Clark, in an article titled “Reviled Fonts,” writes, “I found a usage of Souvenir from 1979 that’s winsome, calligraphic, and fully appropriate: The cover of the Simon and Schuster hardback of Margaret Atwood's Life Before Man.” Jacket design by Robert Anthony, Inc.

THERE IS NO SCIENCEPerhaps trying to put words to why designers hate certain typefaces is fruitless. Matthew Carter has pointed out that a great typeface is identifiable before we can distinguish the words—and this is also probably true of the hateful ones. Just as we can identify people we know well by their walk or the way they stand, so can we tell typefaces by their color on a page—and by other qualities that we cannot articulate. Sometimes we hate typefaces just because we hate them. ca

Allan Haley is a storyteller and a consultant with expertise in fonts, font technology, type and typographic communication. He held the position of director of words and letters at Monotype for fifteen years and has six books and hundreds of articles to his credit. He is a past president of the Type Directors Club and was executive vice president of International Typeface Corporation. 

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