Wednesday, January 25, 2012

A short note about a typeface (Caslon, specifically)

I just received my copy of the Commonweal Associates Newsletter, an occasional publication for supporters of Commonweal magazine. In amongst the other news items was the following:
After redesigning the magazine in 2005, we fielded a good deal of compliments--and complaints. Reader response was mostly positive, but even fans of the revised look wondered whether the new typeface wasn't a touch too light. Well, as Jesus taught, ask and you shall receive, within at least six years. Our new new typeface, which debuted in the fall, is Caslon. It replaces the thinner-cut Goudy in headlines and body copy. You may recognize it from a little-known periodical called the New Yorker. If you haven't noticed, don't panic--the change is subtle. But important. A magazine as weighty as Commonweal ought not be printed in too light a typeface.

This assertion--that a "weighty" magazine demands a "weighty" typeface--is likely one we don't often think too much about. It brought to my mind a wonderful little book by E.R. Wendland and J.P. Louw, Graphic Design and Bible Reading,wherein they remind us that, "in the end, format does have meaning and people will assign a certain sense to the lay-out of a text according to how they happen to perceive it and interpret it" [37].

A typeface communicates more than just the words for which it is employed. It communicates a character, added-to those words. Erik Spiekermann, in his foundational Stop Stealing Sheep & Find Out How Type Works,makes clear that this type-character is expected to be a good match for the genre and purpose of the printed text. "Just as business people are expected to wear a suit (plus, naturally, a shirt and tie), text set for business has to look fairly serious and go about its purpose in an inconspicuous, well-organized way" [65]. Following this logic, it is only natural that "weighty" magazines are expected to sport "weighty" fonts. Serious is as serious does, after all.

Needless to say, I found it quite delightful that a magazine staff would actually come out and admit the rationale for choosing one typeface over another. While these decisions are invariably made with deliberation and care, it is not so often we get a glimpse behind the scenes into the machinations.


S Brent Plate said...

Great comments! Glad some smart people like you are taking this seriously!
-Brent Plate

dault said...

Thank you for reading, and commenting, Brent! Great to hear from you!