How using the right font on signs adds to a city’s character

It’s everywhere. In Sydney, Paris, Los Angeles, Cape Town. It’s on buildings, in taxis, on hoardings, and all over your computer. Some people are affected with a physical, visceral response: a shudder, and a sinking feeling. Its spread is seemingly unstoppable, far more virulent than bird flu. And it affects our precious eyes.

The plague of Times New Roman is the unspoken disease of our age.

Stanley Morison, a talented designer, brought this Jekyll-and-Hyde font into the world in 1931. He thought the Times newspaper needed a modern, serif-heavy typeface that improved the legibility of its small, densely packed columns of newsprint. Morison’s font suited its purpose, and the newspaper did wonders for the font’s popularity (through five versions), but when Microsoft made it a default font for Windows 3.1x in 1992, and Apple followed suit, the seeds were sown.

Information technology makes us instant technicians without having done the apprenticeship that structures our knowledge and sharpens our judgment. How easy to just type away and – bingo! Automatically spaced text that, decades ago, letter-setting printers would have spent hours placing as blocks, concerned about kerning, and ... well, whatever they did. Why should we worry? It’s a free world and desktop design is democratising. Just ask a signmaker and they’ll download text to a laser cutter for instant architectural signage – any colour you like – often defaulting to Times New Roman letters, hundreds of times larger than its proportions were originally intended to suit.

Equipped as they are, many signmakers don’t feel the need to go to design college or draw and arrange letters by hand. But they should, because everyone on earth is the audience for their work. On buildings of different dates and qualities, order, context, harmony, elegance, and clever discordance can play out through signage – and the last of these requires not just knowledge but wit. Every branch of art and design has this code. The arbiters of environmental typography should understand the discipline they deal in, have a vocation they truly command.

More surprisingly, given a visual training, some architects have fallen victim to the plague. Times New Roman is often incised into new buildings in major cities, unrelated to the essence of their architectural character. Before the TNR outbreak, beautiful signage was normal, whether a take on a classic of architectural typography, or a font pushing the progressive zeitgeist of the building style. Those were the old times. Now a 1930s newspaper font is a default setting for monumental inscription. It’s one that we must switch off.

The results of automated typography are all around us. TNR’s crisp characters are unwittingly installed back-to-front (A, M and V are popular), or upside-down (C). Another fallout of unthinking environmental typography is that it replaces fonts specific to time or place, slowly affecting the character of cities and turning their grandeur into “blandeur”.

Imagine Paris without its art nouveau fonts so expressive of the erotic-organic, all flirtation and street markets, of the sort Gene Kelly danced about.

New York would be diminished without the platonic perfection of Helvetica bold, designed by Max Miedinger in 1957. It’s the font that speaks of efficient mass transport and vast corporate systems.

Rome is much more at home with versions of the Trajan font that emulates the Pantheon’s inscription in imperious classical capitals.

But the classical Mediterranean is no candidate for the Gothic black-letter font that complements the turreted medieval trading cities of the foggy north.

And what would you choose for Miami’s exuberantly colourful, streamlined Deco buildings? Be creative!

I’m not arguing that typography on buildings was perfect in the past. But city planning authorities might consider a code of typography through which to augment the character of place. The suggestion of a typographic genius loci may strike some as more loco than genius. But the dynamism of our cities lies in clever, particular design. So why do so many architects and signmakers submit to the automated, the ubiquitous? They’re a peculiar type.

Dr Jonathan Foyle is chief executive of World Monuments Fund Britain

Agony uncle Sir David Tang is on holiday

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