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The booming interest in bad writing

I don't expect a lot of quality from cheap journalism in low-end newspapers, but when the subject is near and dear to me, it almost causes me physical pain to know that someone got paid to look through Google results for an hour or so and then write up a report that reads like the work of a 14-year-old slacker.

The booming interest in fashionable fonts
Jenny Wilhide, 09.11.09


There are about 62,000 young designers in London, according to the Design Council, sprinkled across many different disciplines.

But be they shoe designers or furniture designers or any other kind, the chances are they will all have strong views about one aspect of design: typefaces or fonts.

Many of the world's most exciting type designers can be found in edgy parts of London such as Shoreditch and Hoxton.

Acme Fonts in Curtain Road makes impressively hip fonts.

FontSmith foundry in Bermondsey does a warm take on Plain English for the BBC, Channel 4 and Virgin.

Dalton Maag in Brixton has a new designer called Lukas Paltram, whose Grueber typeface looks set to go far. Studio Zwei in Hatton Wall is interesting, and Alias foundry, which started making record sleeves for Neneh Cherry and Soul II Soul, is based in Hackney. The marvellous Jonathan Barnbrook and Associates is in Soho.

One London type designer based out in the suburbs is Rian Hughes at Device Fonts in Richmond, who is also an amazing illustrator of mid-century style comics. Beyond London, in Cambridge there's Jeremy Tankard, creator of many fonts including Bliss.

And in Cambridge Massachusetts lives London-born type superstar Matthew Carter, who designed Verdana and Georgia for Microsoft. He's been called the most important type designer of our time, so we should claim him as a Londoner, no matter what.

What kind of fonts are these wizards creating now? Sans serifs remain popular for large bodies of text.

There's a focus on reviving old fonts - a hint of history lends gravitas and emotion. Vanessa Fristedt, graphic designer for the Art Car Boot Fair in Brick Lane, likes the new handwriting fonts.

"Like when you write with a Biro, or a nice script based on calligraphy," she says in her Swedish lilt.

This year's Liza by Underware foundry is a retro-style handwriting font making an impact, and the brilliant Islington-based Sebastian Lester's Beautiful and Sexy As Hell are great, too.

Other developments include Ecofont, designed to use 20 per cent less ink when printed, for economical and ecological reasons.

Fonts that are legible in very tiny point sizes are also at a premium for reading on iPhones.

Fonts are descendants of ancient Mesopotamian cuneiform, which in italic or bold or sans serif convey a world of meaning in the flick of an "h" or the slant of a "t".

Tiny variations communicate powerful messages, impacting on everything from brand identity to sales figures, to love and war and the health of nations.

If you think that’s an exaggeration, think back to the authentic black-letter font used by M15 in the Second World War to forge official German documents.

These days digital fonts have become massively popular across the net and people buy them by the bucketload (making it, incidentally, a strange time for the priceless Type Museum in Stockwell to be indefinitely closed to the public).

Many fonts have a history, a philosophical perspective and provoke strong passions. The infamous Comic Sans was innocently dashed off with no great ambitions in a week by one of London's best typographers.

It spread across a million surfaces like a rash, and is now so hated that there is an international campaign to ban it.

Helvetica Neue is a Swiss Style font that has its roots in the Bauhaus movement: profoundly worked theories infuse its universal voice, its every rational, geometric, inclusive line.

Now that we're all becoming bloggers, fonts have become of great interest to an ever-widening group beyond the design community.

Suddenly we realise that the shape of our letters imparts a layer of meaning to what we write.

To avoid melting into the cyber crowd and feeling overwhelmed by technology, new bloggers need fonts with personality: out goes Times New Roman and the search is on for something more expressive. As the crowd catches up with the style leaders, the appetite for new fonts escalates.

Contemporary artists seem to admire typefaces, too. At the recent Richard Long exhibition at Tate Britain, the Gill Sans Serif lettering (developed by the engraver and sculptor Eric Gill in 1926 and used on the London and North Eastern Railway) added a nostalgic sense of place, a unique Jack-and-Jill Britishness as visceral as the whiff of a long-forgotten scent.

From Robert Indiana's cubed LOVE of 1964 to Peter Blake and Tom Phillips, and Damien Hirst's Last Supper, typefaces are vital to many artists.

Currently the Rabih Hage gallery in Sloane Avenue is showing Susan Shup's new works painted with letters, called Painting Out Loud, until Christmas.

Becoming aware of fonts has been compared to riding a bicycle - once you get it, you never look back.

Everybody has a different eureka moment. For many it was gazing at the age-defining typefaces by maestro Neville Brody in The Face magazine, back in the Eighties.

Then came the grunge fonts of the Nineties, which still retain a huge appeal. Bleeding Cowboys looks like something stomped on by dusty boots on a saloon floor, and Abusive Pencil is an Edwardian hand all mussed up like a bed head.

Titles of grunge fonts usually sound like rock 'n' roll bands (you can almost hear the guitars on Broken Ghost) and have plenty of attitude to match - often cross-hatched like a rebellious schoolbook doodle.

Newer messy fonts like the delightful Spud AF, based on the homespun potato print, are sweeter and better behaved.

"A grunge font for display might only take a day but most fonts take a long time to design - months even," says Carol Kemp, a book cover and packaging designer based in Sussex.

"A full-text typeface family could take years to design." The general public's new awareness of the subliminal power of typefaces makes her job more challenging.

So where can you get hold of these fashionable new typefaces? Many can be downloaded free, or bought for about £30 for a single or £150-£200 for a family of fonts with symbols.

Several websites offer fonts from a large number of international foundries, and services like "what the font" for identifying mysterious lettering.

For custom typefaces or to get your own handwriting made into a font, it's best to go direct to the foundries.

Actually, the more I read this the more I think it was just generated by a search-result-processing robot of some kind.

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