October 07, 2008

Font Elitism

"The meaning is in the content of the text and not in the typeface, and that is why we loved Helvetica very much." --Wim Crouwel

A couple of nights ago I watched Helvetica, the documentary of the typeset that (they rather ably demonstrated in image after image) has quietly taken over the world. Oh, I wanted to like this movie! And I did for some stretches, particularly in the beginning, when there is an element of sleuthing as to the exact origins of the design. But the rest of the film lacks narrative thrust, and what should should have been an interesting extension into the Helvetica backlash, "grunge" typography, just felt like filler.

It doesn't help there is very little variation in the rhythm of each chapter. Namely:

-->Exterior shot of modernist building
-->talking-head (talking-white-guy-head, no less, though Leslie Savan and Paula Scher were both rich additions)
-->jump-cut to street scenes (oooh...Helvetica in its natural habitat)
-->cue synthesized music (think Postal Service gone strictly instrumental)
-->next exterior shot!

The movie did inspire a fair amount of reflection of days at journals when we open slush-pile envelopes or attachments and...I hate to admit it, but I don't think I'm the only one...have a gut-level response to font choice that sometimes reflects poorly on the poet. Imitation cursive script? Arial in all bold? Never good signs. I confess a resistance even to Courier, which--though sturdy, traditional type--always has the connotation of "let me inflate my page count," thanks to college days. On the other hand, a classic and serifed font (Palatino, Garamond, Georgia), consistently used in both the cover page and submission, is likely to make me think that this a professional: someone who takes themselves and their work seriously.

There's really no excuse for letting font determine the fate of a submission. None. Style and content are separate. And I can safely say that I always read the poems regardless, and in same cases revise an earlier inward groan. On the other hand, if an author feels so insecure about their work that they need a visual support of the intended emotion, then is it that unlikely they may have less-developed maturity, a literalist mindset, with a correlate in the quality of the work itself?


Margaret said...

I've had the same reaction to fonts full of poeticalness, though, back in the day, I had a good english teacher who had a typewriter that typed cursive. That worked for some reason.

It would be interesting to take a poem you like it but it in a font you hate, and see what effect it has.

On the other hand, with a good font, there's the danger that a poem will look "finished," when it's far from ready. It looks great, just like a poem!

As for documentaries, you have to see Marker's Sans Soliel. I'll even lend it to you.

Anne said...

One of my revision tricks is to throw a draft into a wacky font and look at it for a while. Anything to get a little distance from it, I guess.

I wouldn't send it out that way though! Eek. :) I used to use Bookman Old Style or Garamond, but lately I've gotten lazy and just put everything in Times New Roman... I guess that seems like the blandest, most "invisible" font to me. Nobody really loves it, but I don't think anybody really loathes it either. Hope not anyway.

M. C. Allan said...

Crap ... I've been sending out all my material in 16 pt. Comic Sans. Are you saying that's NOT a good idea?

In all seriousness, in college I was so inspired by the discovery of Bookman Old Style I wrote about ten new poems just to see them in that font. One of them was even a halfway decent piece.

Steven D. Schroeder said...

Font posts always get good response. I'm a Book Antiqua guy in my submissions, but I like Garamond as well.