Fontography term or pretentious blather?

Fontography is like wine. The connoisseurs speak in a language that only superficially resembles English.

Here's a list of words. Which of them are terms used in fontography, and which are just pretentious blather?

  • aloof
  • assertive
  • cold
  • cuddly
  • humanist
  • international
  • neutral
  • no-nonsense
  • open
  • quirky

If you aren't familiar with font speak, here's a sample I stole from an old article on the evolution of the Internet explorer logo:

In The Elements of Typographic Style by Robert Bringhurst, "this typeface is described as a heavy un-modulated line and tiny aperture (which) evoke an image of uncultivated strength, force and persistence."

Bonus link: Cheese or Font?

Comments (25)
  1. John says:

    "Which of them are terms used in fontography, and which are just pretentious blather?"

    Is this a trick question?

  2. Brian says:

    I'd really love to see how Robert Bringhurst would describe Comic Sans.

  3. alegr1 says:

    After reading audiophile-speak, fonto-phile-speak is almost as direct, as API documentation.

    At least the typography industry is not trying to sell super-expensive power and USB "magic" cables for the printers.

  4. Miff says:

    I thought the only descriptions that mattered in typography were "Is Helvetica" and "Is not Helvetica". ;)

  5. Humanist is a real one.

    I'm getting very used to using "Humanist 777, or Arial where unavailable"

    Brian, the first rule of typography club is don't talk about… Comic Sans.

  6. DWalker says:

    I would guess that all of those words have been used to describe fonts.

  7. frymaster says:

    complaining about Comic Sans is the sign of a fontography wannabe ;)

    It's a perfectly good font that just happens to have been used in a ton of places that weren't appropriate for it.  It's still really good for its intended use.

  8. Merganthalersaurus says:

    Hah! Real old-time type snobs mock Souvenir, not Comic Sans. There was a Zippy comic strip from the 1980s that did this, I recall, though it incorrectly assumed that Souvenir was not only obnoxious but new.

  9. Ken Hagan says:

    I use Comic Sans on principle.

    We have a moral duty to annoy people who get pretentious about fonts.

  10. Drake Wilson says:

    You mean “cheese or typeface”?  c.c

  11. Anonymous Coward says:

    Humanist stood out a little too much from the others to be challenging, although international came close (there is a font family called Eurostile). Maybe I'm biased however, since I know the history behind that name. But you could have thrown in some more like antique, grotesque, insular, prestige and rotund to blur the boundary a bit. (Gjb ner pybfr ohg abg dhvgr: nagvdhr fubhyq or nagvdhn naq ebghaq ebghaqn.)

    @Miff: There is actually some truth to that. Helvetica has been used so much that simply not being Helvetica is becoming a plus.

    @Merganthalersaurus: I personally don't like the (to my eyes) slightly uneven baseline and mean line, but other than that it's actually not a bad font.

  12. Simon Buchan says:

    I know typography uses humanist and open, and I'm guessing neutral, assertive and international as well. I'm pretty they don't use aloof, cuddly and no-nonsense, but I'm not sure about cold or quirky.

    @frymaster: "perfectly good" is overly strong, but the hate it gets is misdirected, you're right.

    Now to (attempt to) highjack the thread! Are the only reasons typographer's dislike Arial due to the idea it's ripping off Helvetica? Or are there real typographical reasons Helvetica is considered better? (I ask because I prefer Arial where they differ significantly)

  13. Anonymous Coward says:

    @Simon Buchan: there are historical reasons behind Helvetica's popularity. When it was released, not as varied a selection of fonts was available, and companies liked Helvetica because it has a rigid appearance (with which I mean that it prefers axis-aligned elements to slanted ones, and centres to off-centres) and this was taken to convey seriousness rather than playfulness. Companies wanted to express that they were business like, organisations that you can trust.

    A whole generation of typographers (especially in the marketing segment) has more or less grown up on Helvetica. Use something enough and you become an advocate. It's why the Windows versus Mac flames exist, why Muslims never extol the virtues of Shintoism, and why people cling to Emacs and VI in a world with dozens of (depending on your use, probably better) editors. And don't forget that fans tend to be a lot more vocal than others.

    Now, I don't hate Helvetica, and one argument against Arial does hold some water. Arial is based on a rather different family but takes on the metrics of Helvetica for non-aesthetic reasons. Turns out that the impact of that decision on the font's overall look is minimal to non-existent, but it is true. Other than that, Arial is well-designed and the differences between it and Helvetica are a matter of taste and perhaps context.

    One last bit of advice: a widely distributed Helvetica True Type font (I won't say which one because this blog has a policy against that) is extremely badly hinted. If you, as a web designer, use Helvetica, there is a good chance that it will look very beautiful and solid on your screen, but simply horrid for most end-users.

  14. Andrew says:

    @Simon Buchan: Just search for "Arial vs Helvetica". There has been much written on this topic!

  15. Dave says:

    It is a shy white font, with typical characteristics of light spices, red berry, raspberry, cigar box and mint with a hint of plum.  The gentle colour of this font indicates the intenseness of flavour lurking within.  The complex nose is a combination of pistachios and pine smokiness with a hint of sweet vanilla.  These in combination with crisp citrus aroma of the sans-serif taken from our exclusive typesetting portfolio enhance the length of flavour on the printed page, which is exceptional and exhibits an exquisite sweetness that is surprisingly full and dry.  The 2008 vintage imports solid ligatures ensuring longevity and suggesting aging should be for at least 5 years.  Ideally suited to cream-coloured 100gsm paper.

  16. Steve says:

    Simon Garfield's recent book 'Just My Type' is an entertaining populist survey of fontography. I'm sure font pedants would find much to disagree with on every page of the book, because that's what that type of personality does on principle, but I found it fascinating.

  17. Anonymous Coward says:

    @Andrew: Yes. Much of it utter tish.

    @Dave: ♡‿♡ haha oh wow. Bis.

    @Frank: How about by actual characteristics of how the font looks?

    I'm pretty sure that if you were to take ten fonts with descriptions in the style Raymond criticises and jumble them up, no one could link up font to description with any degree of reliability.

  18. Frank Wilhoit says:

    All right, then, tell us how fonts *should* be characterized, in your view.

  19. Dave says:

    @Frank Wilhoit:

    >All right, then, tell us how fonts *should* be characterized, in your view.

    I've already indicated it, by bouquet, nose, vintage, etc.

  20. Andrew says:

    @Dave: Bravo! You have a new calling…

  21. Random832 says:

    @AC "Humanist", at least, has an actual definition (as do "Grotesque" and "Geometric"), regarding sans-serif fonts. I don't have the google-fu to look up the others.

  22. MikeBMcL says:

    I want to understand fontography to avoid making any stupid design choices and, more generally, because I want to understand everything I can. But at the same time I cannot help but laugh at this mildly NSFW article:…/im-comic-sans-*** .

  23. Anonymous Coward says:

    @Random832: Geometric is a good one; I should have included it.

  24. JB says:


    "complaining about Comic Sans is the sign of a fontography wannabe ;)"

    I'll second that :)

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