I remember somebody once making an analogy about singing the national anthem at the beginning of a Cubs game: it is a brief formality everyone observes before “all breaks loose”. Which is how I’ve always viewed choosing a font before I type up a document or design my website.
At least until I saw the documentary film “Helvetica” by Gary Hustwit and read the book “Just My Type” by Simon Garfield. Good designers create and select typefaces with tremendous care; they are not just accidents or afterthoughts. For some important projects, like developing the signage for the London Underground, the designer was in on the plans from the beginning and created the Underground font when no other seemed perfect for the job.
In the film and the book, there is some discussion about whether a font should be “invisible”; if you don’t notice it then it must be doing its job. In “Just My Type”, Garfield uses Comic Sans as a counterexample, a typeface despised by professionals and laypersons alike:
Comic Sans is a type that has gone wrong. It was designed with strict intentions by a professional man with a solid philosophical grounding in graphic arts, and it was unleashed upon the world with a kind heart. It was never intended to cause revulsion or loathing, much less end up (as it has) on the side of an ambulance or gravestone. It was intended to be fun. And, oddly enough, it was never intended to be a typeface at all.
I hate Comic Sans. Hate it. I think it looks unprofessional or unserious, and Garfield agrees, but he points out that it is misuse or overuse that makes it the wrong font, not that the font itself is badly designed. And if I saw it on a Bazooka Joe bubble gum wrapper it would probably make me smile with affection.
Both the filmmaker and the author argue that the font ought not be totally invisible, that it should contribute something besides legibility and readability, like beauty or meaning, to the text. Many consider Helvetica dated, trite, corporate, and establishment. But there is something clean and concise and strong about it that I like. Or at least the film and my design-minded wife have gotten me to appreciate it, and with my new Mac I get to see it in action more (I’m typing in Helvetica now). Windows doesn’t use Helvetica, but offers its ugly stepsister Arial as a substitute. I couldn’t describe to you the graphical differences (like with many fonts the differences are so subtle) but it’s a like a Kardashian sister that is not named Kim; if you weren’t aware of her pedigree you probably would not turn your head for another look.
I didn’t agonize over my selections of fonts for my blog. WordPress’s present default theme fonts are Helvetica and Georgia, but I don’t use them. Georgia I find a bit blocky-looking, though it and its sans-serif counterpart Verdana (another I don’t care for) are designed for readability on the Web. Windows doesn’t use Helvetica, so it would appear to their users as Arial or another of the browser’s default sans-serif fonts. I’ve used Trebuchet (for headers) and Palatino (for long texts) on this website for a few years. Both are “Web safe” (compatible with different operating systems) and highly readable, which are important to my accessibility goals for this site. And they’re pretty. Palatino has a classy, warm, old style charm and Trebuchet is quirky but compact and fluid.