Yesterday, Tom and I moseyed along to the ICA to witness a discussion between legendary Canadian author Douglas Coupland (Generation X, jPod, Microserfs among others), and Rick Poyner, founder of Eye Magazine. The topic for discussion was ‘What Words Look Like’ and centred around fonts, and typefaces – for some a geeky obsession and for others a never-thought-of triviality, just something that is inherent in modern life and which they don’t have an opinion of either way.

Coupland has an opinion though, he has many, especially around the Helvetica font, which he loves because, well, it’s so inexpressive that it doesn’t get in the way of the word. It betrays no emotion and so doesn’t influence what you’re reading. It’s an interesting point – to what extent does the font you’re reading impact the context of what you’re reading? Interestingly, over in the States, apparently all movie scripts are written in Courier New, as it too is an ‘emotionless’ font, and thus does not affect how an actor interprets a script.

Additionally, there’s the instance of Wired magazine in the States going round the editorial desks and removing the Times Roman font from all the machines, so no-one could type in it – it’s hated that much and is such a bland font, that they demanded it never be used. And don’t even get me started on Comic Sans. There’s a great phrase I once saw which simply read ‘Comic Sans – isn’t’. It’s a typeface developed to replicate writing in graphic novels and comics, but out of this context it becomes a hateful, ‘jolly’ font people use when putting up signs for the village fete, as if using Comic Sans instantly makes the event more fun for all the family. It doesn’t of course, it just makes people (okay ‘me’) think “wow, this event is being run by people who won their brain at last’s year’s fair”.

There’s also an interesting corporate element – at a previous agency, our emails were randomly checked to ensure everyone was using font x in size 12. A bit extreme we all thought and the Font Nazi was soon dropped, but the issue raised its head recently when a…” target=”_blank”>woman was fired for sending emails which were ‘confrontational’ due to them being typed in giant red capital letters. Now, whether you think this woman is mental or not is beside the point, as she won her employment tribunal claiming there was no company style guide and therefore she’d done nothing wrong.

Fonts cropped up again recently, when it was announced IKEA was shifting from Futura to the (slightly hateful) Verdana font for its catalogue and magazine. The impact of the font change is actually more significant than one might think – look here at the examples and tell me you don’t think the new style looks a little cheaper, tackier than the previous.

There’s also the issue of handwriting which was briefly touched upon (Coupland claiming his own is ‘shit’), and he made the point that if you receive a handwritten letter from someone these days, who isn’t an elderly aunt, your first instinct is to pick up the phone to a mutual friend and say ‘hey, is such and such okay?’ We just don’t write any more in communication and rely on text instead – yet much of the time we lose focus on the ‘handwriting’ of this text and what it means for the message we’re sending.