Monday, September 14, 2009


Let's talk typefaces, or more specifically "display typefaces" -- in other words, decorative fonts, like those a book designer or illustrator might choose for the cover of a book. Some readers may think display typefaces are straightforward and benign, quietly serving their purpose: to attract the attention of potential book buyers. But this is not always the case. Fonts, while appearing to live lives of quiet representation, can actually be hiding a secret, insidious agenda. Beneath the demure facade of a display typeface there may lurk a seedy underbelly of turmoil and deceit!

OK, I'm being hyperbolic. And silly. (It would not be the first time.) But still, sometimes a typeface is more than just a typeface, and things get ugly. Professional designers can carry a deep disdain for certain styles. Comic Sans is generally reviled -- for its lack of sophistication and overuse, I presume. Who knew that such an innocent, friendly typeface like Comic Sans could rile up even the most mild-mannered of typographers?

There are probably hundreds of display typefaces out there (Incidentally, there is a difference between the terms "typeface" and "font" although they're often interchanged.), and some of them are meant to invoke an immediate connection in the viewer's mind. As one blogger puts it, they are "shortcuts, visual mnemonic devices" meant to trigger meaning. Here's an activity that demonstrates my point. Can you match the typeface of this pretend children's book Lazy Dog with its connotation? The first one has been done for you:Pretty easy, right? I took those typefaces directly from Photoshop, so they're fairly common, I suspect. The first is Rosewood Std (circus), then Herculaneum (gladiators), Giddyup Std (cowgirl rodeo), Edwardian Script (afternoon tea), Lucida Blackletter (jousting), OCR A Std (robots), and Curlz MT (slumber party). You'll occasionally find examples of these out there on children's book jackets, though not often. I think designers avoid them, since they're so common and available to the general public. I've been looking for display typefaces on children's and young adult novels that immediately invoke something specific. I just read Annette Curtis Klause's Freaks: Alive on the Inside which makes use of a version of Rosewood, for obvious reasons. Whales on Stilts, by M.T. Anderson, employs a typeface that invokes the pulp comics of yore:

When typefaces are used to identify an ethnic group, some designers, understandably, cringe at the sight of them. It's stereotyping--almost literally. Take a look at Mandarin (one of many faux Asian fonts out there), Inuit, Shalom, Latino!, and Neuland. These are stereotypes in one of the earliest senses of the term. The designer for Micol Ostow's Emily Goldberg Learns to Salsa chose a Salsa-like font for at least one edition, and I think it's appealing:

Is it OK to use a visual shorthand to signify a certain group, to turn artistic styles identified with a certain culture into Latin-alphabet lettering for use as a display typeface? Some typographers are dead-set against it, it seems. It's a murky area. Sometimes the ethnic group embraces a typeface. For example, Asian character look-alike lettering (sometimes referred to as a "chop suey" font) was often used on Chinese restaurant signs and menus, at least it used to be--and it was presumably selected by the Asian restaurateurs themselves for its immediate association with the Orient. So does that mean it's OK? Dunno. You don't see those "chop suey" typefaces much anymore, and certainly not on book covers. You may remember The Five Chinese Brothers by Claire Bishop, illustrated by Kurt Wiese. Perhaps a classic example of a chop suey typeface there--and that book has had its share of condemnation for several reasons. I can't think of a more recent children's book that uses a chop suey font. Can you?

The Neuland typeface, which is often associated with Africa, has a long and convoluted, but fascinating, history--and no relationship to anything African whatsoever. But its ability to invoke an African/safari/jungle feel still persists; however, this may be only in the United States. Here's the British cover of Alexander McCall Smith's Tears of the Giraffe (no Neuland), followed by the U.S. version (Neuland):

What's wrong with Neuland is its apparent lack of sophistication, its clunky-ness--and the implication that these traits apply to Africans or African-Americans. This thorough article from Giampietro+Smith about the history of Neuland uses the words "lower-class", "inelegant" and "garbage type" to describe this typeface and its "bastard children." So using it to suggest African culture is, whether we realize it or not, an insult. For more about the unpleasant history of Neuland, I recommend taking a few minutes to read that G+S article. Way more is going on with Neuland than meets the eye. For example, the article mentions the film Jumanji, and sure enough, that movie's artwork uses a version of Neuland. But to Chris Van Allsburg's credit, perhaps, the original children's book does not:Lots to think about. I know I'll never look at a book cover again without thinking about the choice of typeface for the cover. And now, for your viewing pleasure, I leave you with this video, in which typefaces are personified:

Sources and further reading online:
Typeface Inspired by Comics Has Become a Font of Ill-Will
Gaimpietro+Smith on Neuland
Chop Suey Fonts
Special thanks to Ralph Brendler for the video link and the tip about Comic Sans.


  1. And as a comment to the "Mandarin" typeface, take a look at this Chinese fake "Tibetan" typeface on the poster to the movie Kekexili.

    The Chinese characters have been modified to look like Tibetan letters.

  2. All of these are cover designs, and while no less valid, what strikes me are the uses of unusual fonts and font sizes inside of picture books. With some books the font used on the text cheapens the overall effect of the book, or makes it difficult for younger readers to "track" what they are reading because they are still learning how to read letterforms, much less understand the difference between bold or growing texts.

    Gosh, I wish I had some ready examples. I'll see if I can track a few down, but they have mostly been books I wouldn't recommend to anyone and thus have tried to push out of my memory.

  3. Whoa--that poster is interesting, Chen. At least the lettering maintains a certain beauty even after modification. Some of those chop suey fonts are pretty inelegant, losing the beauty of the Chinese calligraphy it was meant to suggest.
    David--I remember struggling with things like that when I was a new reader, like what italics was for. I was especially confused by parentheses.

  4. David - the classic example of an inappropriate font used inside a kids book is BABAR, where the font is cursive. I'd like to have been at the table when that decision was made. Has anyone ever heard an explanation for why they would leave new readers (or even slightly more sophisticated readers - 1st & 2nd graders, for sure) out of the loop like that?

    For anyone who wants to explore this issue of typeface being a somewhat political tool, watch the movie (out on DVD now) called HELVETICA. Who knew typeface could cause that kind of agitation or be used in such authoritarian ways! It's a fascinating look at an icon of global visual culture. There are clips at this link: