In the past two days I decided to go all-in on a Windows 10 installation to see what it’s capable of and how it can support my workflow. While that experience may be worth another blog post it got me thinking about what is essentially my first operating system.
When Windows first entered my life it was in the very early versions. I remember poking around through MS Dos on our old green and black monitor. What I didn’t know until recently is that the terminal typeface was actually considered a font (although an ugly one in my opinion) called Fixedsys.
Fixedsys is a family of rastermonospaced fonts. The name means fixed system, because its glyphs are monospace or fixed-width (although bolded characters are wider than non-bolded, unlike other monospace fonts such as Courier). It is the oldest font in Windows, and was the system font in Windows 1.0 and 2.0, where it was simply named “System”. For Windows 3.x, the system font was changed to a proportionalsans-serif font named System, but Fixedsys remained the default font in Notepad.
Looking at it now the fonts seems terribly dated. It’s not pretty or elegant, but back in the day it certainly did get the job done. Today I still use the terminal (at least I did on Linux before I nuked it to try Windows 100%) and one of the neat things about modern terminal apps is the ability to customize the look and feel of the terminal. You can change the font! When I do Fixedsys is not one of the choices I go to. I have no sense of nostalgia that encourages me to use this in any of my applications.
What I do instead is appreciate that our computers have evolved, and I’m grateful for the elegance we enjoy today.
For producing documents inside of Microsoft applications I will often choose Calibri or Calibri light. While I have my frustrations with Arial’s creation, Calibri is one font that Microsoft got right.
Researching Calibri is also fun. It’s got a great backstory (Wikipedia), and was even responsible for someone in Pakistan going to jail.
The Microsoft font Calibri is now a key piece of evidence in a corruption investigation surrounding Pakistan’s prime minister. Investigators noticed that documents handed over by the prime minister’s daughter, Maryam Nawaz Sharif, were typed up in the font Calibri. But the documents were dated from 2006 — and Calibri wasn’t widely available at that point, making a good case that they were forged.
The Express Tribune says that Pakistan’s court-appointed investigators sent the documents off to a lab for examination. The lab noticed the discrepancy, with one of its experts saying that since “Calibri was not commercially available before 31st January 2007 … neither of the originals of the certified declarations is correctly dated and happy [sic] to have been created at some later point in time.”
Highway Gothic is, as the name suggests, one of the many fonts used across the world for road signs. What I didn’t know is how many countries use this road sign font. Wikipedia reports the sign being used in the U.S., Canada, Ecuador, Venezuela and Chile with its influence being felt on other signage across the world.
The font is sans serif and reasonably unobtrusive. Ted Forbes is credited as the lead designer and the introduction to his research reads:
DURING THE LAST TWO YEARS IN THE CALIFORNIA DIVISION OF HIGHWAYS HAS EXPERIMENTED WITH THE DEVELOPMENT AND USE OF LOWER CASE LETTERS FOR OVERHEAD DESTINATION SIGNS ON FREEWAYS. RECOGNITION OF WORD PATTERNS IS KNOWN TO BE FUNDAMENTAL IN CLOSE READING OF ORDINARY PRINTED MATERIAL AND IT WAS THOUGHT THAT HABIT AND PATTERN FACTORS MIGHT ALSO MAKE THIS FORM OF LETTER DESIRABLE FOR HIGHWAY SIGNS. OPINION AS TO THEIR EFFECTIVENESS HAS BEEN VARIED, HOWEVER. THE PROBLEM THEREFORE WAS TO MEASURE THE DISTANCE AT WHICH LOWER CASE SIGNS COULD BE READ AS COMPARED TO ROUNDED CAPITAL LETTERS. EXPERIMENTS WERE UNDERTAKEN TO DETERMINE THE DISTANCES AT WHICH SIGNS OF EACH KIND OF ALPHABET COULD BE READ. LETTERS FROM 5 IN. TO 18 IN. IN HEIGHT WERE MOUNTED ON A BRIDGE 17 FT. ABOVE THE GROUND AND A TOTAL OF 75 OBSERVERS MADE 3939 INDIVIDUAL OBSERVATIONS UNDER DAYLIGHT AND ARTIFICIAL ILLUMINATION.
This font emerged from a serious requirement for clarity of expression in all types of conditions. Imagine some of our more eclectic fonts being used in its place. Papyrus would have created a huge series of obstacles in its adoption. Not only is it hard to read from a distance, but imagine how easily it would peel off as it went through extreme temperatures.
Comic Sans might work, but who would take a stop sign written in comic sans seriously?
Considering the temperature, ability to see the lettering in adverse conditions (fog anyone) reflective requirements and all the slew of considerations for manufacturing and installing a font there’s a lot Ted Forbes and the team got correct. We’ll have to explore in future editions the fonts for the autobahn and the brew ha ha that happened when someone suggested replacing highway gothic.
Over used fonts are easy to spot in part because they’re everywhere. One of the greatest offenders is the font Papyrus. Originally written to satisfy the design idea of “what would English have looked like written 2000 years ago written on papyrus?” The typeface is an answer to that question.
When this happens we don’t mock the designer. He did a good job, but it’s perfectly OK to mock the use of the font–or better phrased the overuse of the font. At one point SNL got involved to do just that. It’s not often I’ll share an SNL clip, but this one is an absolute gem!
Sometimes people from unexpected places in the world create beautiful things. I’m amazed at the font designers and where their work comes from. Alegreya is from Argentina. Caslon is an homage to British design. Helvetica is from Switzerland.
When one thinks of the Art Deco movement one thinks of the buildings and design in the 1920s and 30s in the United States and Western Europe. It’s amazing that while most of the movement’s artifacts are enshrined in those countries one of the greatest monuments to them in print was created by designer Denis Masharov–a native of Russia.
Poiret One was added to the Google Font library some time ago and is a rather popular font with served over 40 million times in the week this post was written. It epitomizes the Art Deco movement. And so, if you’re feeling a bit like a flapper this might just be your cup of tea.