Everyone has their favourite font (right? That’s not just me, is it?) and at least one they hate. In fact, people can get really cross about fonts. And by people, I mean me – I’ve been known to change a document I’m editing from Times New Roman into something more aesthetically pleasing (to my eye at least), then change it back before I send it to the client. But when you’re scanning through the list on Microsoft Word, have you ever stopped to wonder where they get their names from? Here are the origin stories of some of the most common fonts we use every day.
Let’s start with the big daddy of the fonts. As you’ll have gathered from the intro to this post, I’m not a huge fan, but it’s many people’s go-to typeface for everything. This is the oldest font on my list, and was born in 1931 at The Times newspaper, after the paper hired a typographer called Stanley Morison to create a new text font for them. He worked with a lettering artist in the paper’s advertising department named Victor Lardent to come up with the now ubiquitous TNR (as no one calls it).
Because it’s a newspaper font, it’s a bit narrower than others, which means you can fit more words on a page. Oh, and ‘Roman’ is a reference to the regular style of a conventional font (we use ‘roman’ as an instruction in copyediting when something’s bold or italics and it shouldn’t be).
Ah, Comic Sans. If it was a person, it would wear a Hawaiian shirt and describe itself as ‘a bit wacky’. This travesty of a typeface (a bit harsh maybe, but I like the alliteration) was created by one Vincent Connare, a type designer who worked for Microsoft and also created Trebuchet (which I used to like, but now I know they came from the same brain I’ve gone off). The name’s not particularly imaginative – it’s so-called because it was inspired by comic book lettering. Comic Sans was originally invented for Clippy – that irritating little paperclip b*stard that used to pop up on MS Office (remember? ‘It looks like you’re writing a letter. Would you like some help with that?’ NO, BECAUSE I’M NOT AN IMBECILE).
There’s a house sign in a village near me that’s in Comic Sans, and it irritates me every time I drive past it. And it seems I’m not the only one – according to this experiment people are less likely to believe a statement when it’s written in Comic Sans.
Maybe because I’m an old-fashioned girl at heart, I’m a fan of Courier. If you’re of a certain age then you’ll know that Courier looks like typewriter text (any millennials reading – ask your parents). It was designed by a man called Howard ‘Bud’ Kettler (most American name ever) in 1955, and later redrawn by Adrian ‘Not Bud’ Frutiger (also a font) for an IBM series of electric typewriters. When asked where the name came from, Kettler said that he was originally going to call it ‘Messenger’, but he chose Courier instead because: ‘A letter can be just an ordinary messenger, or it can be the courier, which radiates dignity, prestige and stability.’ I think Mr Kettler possibly had too much time on his hands.
Courier’s a monospaced font, which means each letter takes up the exact same amount of space on a line (something which actually makes it more difficult to read than other proportionally spaced fonts). For reasons I can’t quite fathom, it’s the preferred font for screenplays.
Georgia’s a relatively young font, and was created in 1993. It was designed to be easy to read on computer screens. And the name? When I looked this up on Wikipedia, I thought someone unauthorised had got in and started mucking about with the page. But I’ve found it on a few different sites, which means it must be true, right? So, according to at least three different web pages I looked at, they named it after a tabloid headline, ‘Alien Heads Found in Georgia’. Unfortunately this isn’t a real newspaper headline – it was one of several sample sentences they were using while they worked on the design.
Tahoma and Verdana were invented by the same person who came up with Georgia (one Matthew Carter). Tahoma was named after Mount Rainier in Seattle, which is called Tahoma by native Americans. And Verdana is a combination of the word ‘verdant’ and the name Ana, after Ana Howlett, daughter of Virginia Howlett, one of the first designers at Microsoft. I wish someone would name a font after me.
Helvetica is a font which had an identity crisis. It was created in 1957 by Swiss designer Max Miedinger and was originally called Neue Haas Grotesk (yuck). It’s a neo-grotesque style, apparently (I won’t even attempt to tell you what that means – if you’re really interested, have a look at Wikipedia) and was renamed in an attempt to make it more marketable across the world. The new name comes from the Latin name for Switzerland, ‘Helvetia’. But with an extra ‘c’. I don’t know why.
The rebranding definitely worked, as these days Helvetica is everywhere. Lots of organisations use it for their logos (BMW, Panasonic and IBM to name three) and apparently the American government uses it for all its official forms. It’s also the font used on the whole of the Brussels transport system (although it’s not a patch on Johnston, AKA the London Underground font). Oh, and in 2007 somebody made a whole film about Helvetica. That. Is. Commitment.
As mentioned above, Trebuchet was also invented by Vincent Connare, the man responsible for Comic Sans. Much less controversial than its sibling, Trebuchet is a sans-serif typeface (i.e. it doesn’t have serifs, which are those little lines which appear on some fonts like TNR) that Connare designed in 1996. As you probably guessed, it is named after the medieval siege engine. And the reason for it is quite nice. The name came from a puzzle question Connare heard at Microsoft HQ: ‘Can you make a trebuchet that could launch a person from main campus to the new consumer campus about a mile away? Mathematically, is it possible and how?’ (Those Microsoft guys know how to party.) Connare thought ‘that would be a great name for a font that launches words across the internet’.
I feel like I can forgive him for Comic Sans just for this image.
So there you have it. Feel free to leave me a comment about your favourite font, or even a defence of Comic Sans. I won’t read it, but I’ll applaud your efforts.
PS A note on fonts vs typefaces
I’ve used the terms ‘typeface’ and ‘font’ interchangeably in this post. Technically this isn’t right – they’re actually different things. I’m hoping you’ll forgive me this, as they’re increasingly losing their individual identities and definitions these days. But I’ve added this note for any typographical experts who’ve accidentally stumbled across this blog post and are currently all red in the face and shouting at their screen at my ignorance.
So, in brief: a typeface is a particular design of type, and a font is a type in a certain size and weight. Still none the wiser? Here’s someone with much more knowledge than me explaining it.