Slip Madonna’s Erotica into your high-tech CD player and the first thing you hear is the all-but-forgotten sound of a phonograph needle scratching its way around the outside of a vinyl LP. Take a look at the liner notes and you’ll find a disclaimer reading “Notice: All surface noise on the song ‘Erotica’ has been included intentionally.” The most powerful woman in pop music opts to use a new technology to replicate the defects of an old one.
That was a few years ago now and, as usual, it seems Madonna was ahead of the curve. These days, hundreds of graphic designers are using computers to set type using faces similar to those their grandmothers were stuck using in their 9-to-5 office work: typewriter fonts. To be a bit more precise, the vogue isn’t merely for fonts that look like they came from a typewriter; rather, it seems that any monospaced or fixed-pitch or uniformly-spaced font, where each and every character occupies the same width, is all the rage.
But there’s more to this trend than designers simply “liking the look.” Typewriter fonts are nostalgic: The first type ever manipulated by many designers now in their thirties or older was found on the dusty old typewriter in mom’s attic. These days, hip club kids with disposable incomes have taken to wearing bowling shirts emblazoned with names like Ray or Mavis (often the real thing in genuine polyester, bought from thrift shops and the like), doing so with a kind of retro hipness that says “I don’t like this shirt – I get it.”
By the same token, well- educated designers with degrees from prestigious institutions (or, worse, with no qualifications other than owning a Macintosh) are using state-of-the-art desktop publishing tools to produce layouts using typefaces that wage slaves two generations ago, most of them female, stared at day after day in the typing pool. (“I don’t like this font – I get it.”)
Allied with this pretense is the artifice of using typewriter fonts as a means of signalling ironic computer metaliteracy to other designers: “Macintosh computers let me use any font I wish, and I, a free-thinker, elect to make a 1984-like statement decrying mechanization and the dehumanization of modern technology by using the prototypical fonts of mechanization and dehumanization.” In particular, anyone who uses Courier – the prototypical typewriter font – is playing with fire given its vernacular among designers: it’s the font your printer spits out when it can’t find the right font.
Typewriters were invented because handwriting can be illegible; the standardized look of typewritten text connoted professionalism. But times have changed. Just as derivative graphic designers in the 1980s cloned Neville Brody’s typographic esthetic, doing so again in the ’90s with David Carson’s grungy designs, it seems that many designers are using monospaced fonts without always considering their suitability for the job. If "good" type is like a well-tailored suit that you barely even notice, in too many cases monospaced fonts are the flower on the lapel that squirts water in your eye.
Monospaced fonts come in so many variations that the feeling they impart varies all over the map: immediacy, intrigue, corrosion, officialdom, simplicity, antisepsis. For better or worse, most monospaced faces are vernacular fonts – type that immediately conjures an image or feeling of time and place. The term “vernacular” is almost pejorative, and with good reason. As explained by Jeffery Keedy in Lift and Separate: Graphic Design and the "Vernacular" (the slim book with the famous velour cover), “The most familiar ‘use’ of vernacular is to reproduce nostalgia. The problem with the nostalgic vernacular is that it steals from the past to deny the future. The past is robbed of its authenticity and historical context... as if it were an episode of Happy Days.”
Reassuringly, designers of monospaced fonts are more thoughtful than many users. The king of the hill in modern typewriter fonts- the queen of the hill, really-is Dutch designer Erik van Blokland’s 1991 typeface Trixie. It’s the font that ate Manhattan (and half of Hollywood). The X in the X-Files logotype – the most famous single letter on earth – is a Trixie X. Now Trixie is used to promote everything from chocolate bars to pickup trucks to animal rights.
“[After we designed it] we showed it to people and they all laughed,” van Blokland remembers. “They thought it was a joke, really; you have a very expensive computer and a very expensive printer and you make stuff that just looks like old typewriter material. We thought... Trixie it would be interesting for a year, and the joke would wear off, and people would move on to other things, but the joke wears on. It’s a steady income.”
On the more utilitarian end of the spectrum are Lucida Typewriter and Lucida Sans Typewriter, designed by Charles Bigelow and Kris Holmes, two early big names in California’s digital type design demimonde. The Lucida fonts, quite pleasantly readable under difficult conditions, are more than a decade old now and are a well- kept secret. The faces, Bigelow explains, found their first home in the corporate world, “where they were used for mundane purposes that needed fixed-pitch fonts: printing out computer-program code, E-mail, inventories, databases, directories, and parts lists, and so on. Adherents of the Macintosh religion may cringe, but Lucida Typewriter variants ship with every copy of Windows NT and with most computers bought with Windows 95 pre-installed. In short, tens of millions of Windows users have a subtle, viable alternative to Courier readily at hand.
“Kris Holmes has designed far more elegant and graceful faces,” Bigelow continues, “[yet] the humble typewriter design is far more widespread, being distributed in tens of millions of copies worldwide. And, a dozen years after it was first released, it shows no sign of going out of style. Maybe because it was never in style; it was merely useful.”
And ironically, as David Michaelides of FontShop in Toronto notes, now "some type foundries, notably FontFont [the FontShop in-house label], have tried to give the designer more flexibility by producing typefaces that are traditionally nonproportional in a range of weights and with other typographic niceties such as italics or small caps or – and this will seem even more absurd – ligatures, in order to allow them to be used... as typefaces outside of the context of whatever they were originally designed for.” Yes, kids, in a sure sign of apocalypse, now you can actually buy a proportional version of Letter Gothic.
There’s a resolutely practical, reader-friendly rationale behind this, the logical extension of monomania into the realm of fine typography: “By giving a slight proportional spacing to the otherwise-nonproportional letterforms,” Michaelildes says, “you retain that feeling of ’typewriter’ or ’computer printout’ or whatever it is that you’re trying to get the feeling of without it actually being so hard on the reader.”
A more pronounced design sense is found in the work of another Dutch typographer, Luc(as) de Groot. (That’s the exact legal spelling of his name.) De Groot has achieved the equivalent of writing War and Peace II: The Sequel with TheSans Mono, a monospaced variant of his vast Thesis typeface family, currently available in more than 240 separate faces. (And he’s not done yet. De Groot plans to double the number of available fonts, by adding condensed versions and the like, by the end of 1998.) TheSans Mono per se comes in eight full weights – in itself a reason to forsake Courier and Letter Gothic forever.
The popularity of Thesis has reached saturation; you can’t walk past the newsstand or glance at a billboard without being assaulted by it at every turn. Old standbys like Helvetica and Univers seem to be dying off in a universe overrun by Thesis. And if you need a further litmus test, even Wired is using TheSans Mono promiscuously – a sign either that the monospaced typeface has reached the heights of hipness or is already passé.
The even-more-delightful Trixie Cyrillic (1993) was based on an actual Russian machine’s smudgy typescript, and the decidedly untypewriterlike reversed variant of the original face, Trixie Cameo, imparts a certain MI6/KGB intrigue.
Designed by Howard Kettler in 1956, Courier is to typewriter fonts as Jeep is to off road vehicles: The exemplar. But not all Couriers are equal. In the days of the IBM Selectric, the design of the fonts used in its type-ball "elements" followed the practices of two centuries ago: Ten- and twelve-pitch variants of the same face (i.e., sizes allowing ten or twelve characters per inch) were separate designs. The differences among Courier 10, Courier 12, and Courier 12 Italic were notable (particularly in the letter Q), with the latter two emerging as much more pleasant and readable designs.
The original Courier built into PostScript laser printers was an abomination, a so-called stroked font in which every stroke had the same width (most apparent on accented characters – compare them to IBM Selectric Courier’s flared-wedge accents). The roman was unusably light, the bold unusably bold. The Bitstream version of Courier is more nearly true to the original, and Adobe says the Courier cut installed in new laser printers is much improved, but before you spend good money on either of those, ask yourself why you need the oxymoron of a really nice version of Courier.
ITC American Typewriter, designed by Joel Kaden and Tony Stan in 1974. This font was an homage to typewriters, not a ham-fisted cloning. All the traditional features of real typefaces are available ≠ proportional spacing, full accents, different weights and widths, alternate versions of characters, and even (come 1989), an unheralded italic version drawn by Ed Benguiat ≠ but it still efficiently evoked the look of the dusty old machines that went clickety-clack and dinged a bell at the end of each line.
Originally published 1998 ¶ Updated here 1999.07.19, 2007.03.19