Buffalo, N.Y. — “Where did you say you’re going again?” asked the customs official at the Peace Bridge as we sat in the car, idling at the U.S. border outside Buffalo.
“A font conference,” said my editor. “TypeCon 2008.”
“You mean, like, words?”
“No,” I said, leaning over. “Like Arial and Helvetica!”
“Uh, right, OK,” he said, handing back our passports. “Well, good luck with that.”
It’s true, a font conference in Buffalo doesn’t exactly sound like a thrilling way to spend a weekend in July, but for those who’ve already joined the Ban Comic Sans campaign, seen the documentary Helvetica and know their Tahoma from their Times New Roman, it was the event of the year.
This very specific demographic, which for decades consisted almost entirely of European men with black wardrobes and brushed-titanium glasses, now includes tech-nerds in high-waisted denim and plop haircuts, middle-aged women who compare fonts to symphonies and swoon at the mere mention of Century Schoolbook and young hipsters in zip-up hoodies that say “KERN” on the front (with the zipper running between the E and R so the lettering is effectively kerned every time it’s done up – yes, it’s a type joke).
Conversation topics generally skipped back and forth from, say, the quality of the Chardonnay at this year’s venue, the Hyatt Regency Hotel, to how those folks at Monotype, a typeface design company, really know how to throw a party.
“It used to be that designers created 255 letters and symbols and that was that,” said Dutch writer Jan Middendorp in between lectures, while a man with a “Font Savant” button inspected the apple cobbler on a nearby snack table. “Now, you have to do 65,000 symbols and they have to intercut with one another and be in different scripts like Hebrew and Arabic, so things are really changing. Designers rely much more on technology.”
The importance of understanding advanced technological systems in the font world was, indeed, a hot topic at the conference, with many of the lectures addressing such specific issues as OpenType — new font-design programming especially well-suited to different languages — and screen-based or online typography.
Then again, the schedule also included such tongue-in-cheek lectures as Verdana is Good, Mine is Better; Will the Real Times Roman Please Stand Up?; Calligraphy Boot Camp; and one workshop called Help, I Wanna Make Fonts But Can’t Tell FontLab from Burger King.
“I find the conversation here is really revolving around OpenType with extra characters,” said Veronika Elsner, of Elsner+Flake Type Consulting in Germany – she was the first woman to digitize type back in the ’70s. “Character layouts used to be limited, so if you typed the letter ‘e’ on your keyboard, you always got the same e. Now, with this technology, you can introduce a hundred different e’s, which means you can then start to imitate handwriting.”
“The other big trend is typeface families,” says Shelley Gruendler, who runs a Type Camp program, taking place next month on Galiano Island in B.C. “So you’ll see serifs and sans-serifs, five-weights and seven-weights, all together in the same family.”
But aside from font families, technological innovations and Mac-vs.-PC talk, there remained one pressing question: What will be the next big font? Would anything be able to usurp Helvetica’s place in branding and advertising, or Times New Roman’s stranglehold on all word-processing documents?
“I think it will be Calibri,” said Gruendler, “one of the Microsoft ClearType fonts. Anything that’s a default in MS Word is going to be big – and honestly, the more I use it, the more I love it.
“However, that’s not necessarily my favourite font,” she added. “That would probably be Centaur, or maybe Auto by Underware – I crave that one, too. I might get it as my Christmas present.”
Speaking of favourite fonts, at one point during the conference a group of designers sitting at a bar table suddenly pushed aside their drinks, grabbed a pen and paper and began to make a list.
“We’re trying to figure out,” explained one of them, “if you were stuck on a desert island and only had 10 fonts, what would they be?”
This provoked a lot of heated debate. Eventually, though, the list was narrowed down to:
• Gill Sans
• Helvetica Neue Light
• Century Schoolbook Condensed Light
But just then, Erik Spiekermann – a renowned German typographer who founded FontShop and has created typefaces for Audi and Volkswagen – walked by and scanned through the list.
“Trebu-f—ing-chet?” he said. “Who put that on here?”
Although he wasn’t impressed with this decision, the outspoken Spiekermann did reveal a smile upon seeing Meta on the list; after all, he created it.
And yet, while the man is passionate about fonts and takes pride in his work, he doesn’t believe a typeface is a reflection only of its designer.
“Creative genius is about 5 to 10% of typography,” he said. “I mean, an A has to look like an A, and a B like a B, and if it looks much different, it won’t be read in the mainstream.”
According to Gruendler, this is because much of what makes a font successful is its functionality.
“A lot of people say, ‘Fonts are the clothes that words wear,’ and that’s true,” she said. “But type is about more than just making things look pretty on a page. It’s about making it so the meaning of the word comes through.”