You, Me, and Typefaces

July 2, 2006

I’m a bit of a type afficionado. Not a very good one, and certainly without the time to get really into the business; but I know my Janson from my Garamond, my Bookman from my Bodoni, and as they say, I know what I like. Even for physicists, fonts are important. Here follow some ramblings…


There are two classes of high-energy physicists in this regard: those who write talks in Powerpoint or similar programs, and those who write talks in (La)TeX. (Disclaimer: I do my talks using the LaTeX Beamer class, in Computer Modern Sans, sometimes with Euler for math.) The latter are a small minority, and I suspect are considered certifiable by the former. The LaTeX users pretty much restrict themselves to Computer Modern (Regular or Sans), though Helvetica and the like have been seen from time to time.

The offenses against typography tend to come from the Powerpoint folk. I must admit that some people do great things with the tool. B.L.’s Futura-themed talks are spectacular, and J.N. and students have an inspiring commitment to Gill Sans. There’s nothing wrong, exactly, with Arial or Times New Roman in presentations, although Times’s serifs get in the way, and the insistent overuse of Arial these days makes Univers seem dangerously radical. R.B. uses Textile throughout every talk, giving them the impression of being entirely in bold italics — this counts as a minor infraction.

But no, the evil of which I speak is Comic Sans:

Comic Sans sample

a font supposedly inspired by comic books and which is regarded as so horrific by so many there is a society dedicated to its extermination, where its use is described as “analogous to showing up for a black tie event in a clown costume.” If nothing else, that bent middle stem of the “m” should set anyone’s teeth on edge. I can only hope that the otherwise savvy people who use it frequently are intentionally trying to create an undertone of silliness. (Sure, it’s nonthreatening and legible. So is Tahoma, which doesn’t look like a kindergartener was tracing BIG letters.)

The Horror of Papyrus

What really gets my goat these days is the overuse of Papyrus (especially in movie promotion). I’m sure you’ve seen it around:

Papyrus sample

It’s not actually a bad font, but it is so distinctive that any use echoes all previous ones. This is a typeface whose main role is to put the reader in mind of something, and that something is exotic and non-Western (and wholesome). Nobody would use it for a film about the Scottish fishing industry or mobsters in Japan, but morality tales involving animals on African grasslands or isolated Buddhist monks can expect to get the full fat “y” treatment. The use of Papyrus is usually transparently manipulative, extremely cloying by your fifth exposure, and can’t even claim to be original.

And a Final Note

Speaking of manipulative fonts, there’s a booming business in typefaces intended to suggest the good life. Things like Trajan can be seen easily on any sign advertising Olde Brooke Towne-type subdivision or luxury goods store. But now, Orange Italic have prepared all three fonts you will ever need to sell a $1500 handbag or a McMansion: the Luxury line.

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3 Responses to “You, Me, and Typefaces”

  1. Travis Says:

    While I do not have much knowledge of fonts I can relate to your feelings about these offenses. I’ve sat through some presentations, that while perhaps technically good, were typographical monsters, something I find rather distracting.

    I also am using beamer these days. I was introduced to it by my supervisor and have become rather attached to it.

  2. Chris Adams Says:

    I completly agree with you, something that also must be considered: while the average person will not be able to explain the difference between two fonts, they will be able to experiance the different emotions that each present.

    I have found that serif fonts produce a colder, more corporate reaction wheras sans fonts are generally more friendly.

  3. superweak Says:


    Thanks for raising the point that the impact of type is felt even if the reader doesn’t explicitly notice. One wants to subtly suggest the feelings you want to an audience without having them actually tell. In some sense, if the average reader does notice font usage, the choice of type has failed…

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