Beyond Times New Roman: Let’s talk about fonts

  • David Jonathan Ross Contributed photo—

  • A font created by David Jonathan Ross called "fortune." Contributed photo—

Recorder Staff
Sunday, December 10, 2017

CONWAY — Creating new fonts isn’t exactly the same as reinventing the wheel, but it’s pretty close.

“How do you find a new take? Finding a fresh approach is super tricky,” said David Jonathan Ross, a professional typeface designer who lives on South Deerfield Road, talking over coffee recently at Baker’s Country Store.

Most of his ideas come from everyday life — street signs, advertisements, manhole covers. Other designs come from reviving old fonts that’ve fallen out of use. These days, as computers become increasingly prevalent, typeface is used more than ever because people no longer write by hand.

“The power of type is putting personality back into the hand that wrote it,” Ross said.

Font creation is a lifestyle for Ross, a Hampshire College graduate with a degree in humanities, originally from Los Angeles. He became interested in fonts during senior year of college, and now attends font conferences, runs his own “font foundry” full-time from djr.com, operates a blog and posts a “font of the month,” plus, freelances for various font businesses. While in Los Angeles with his life partner, Emily Richardson, they created Retro Script L.A. (retroscriptla.com), a blog documenting script on buildings throughout the city.

“God bless the internet for bringing nerdy people into one place together,” Ross joked, noting there’s another font designer in Franklin County, Eben Sorkin.

There are tens of thousands of font families out there. And each font style is composed, by hand sketches and a computer, of between 500 and 600 individual characters — upper and lowercase, symbols, numbers, punctuation, etc. But the average Microsoft Word user doesn’t know many more than Times New Roman, Comic Sans, and Helvetica.

“Once you get into it, there’s all this terminology. It’s a wall that keeps people from learning about fonts,” Ross said. “I actually made a font for computer programmers, just to take two nerdy things and smash them together.”

Used well, fonts can be a powerful communications tool. As a local example of a business that uses fonts well, Ross noted the logo for Adams Donuts, which projects a retro vibe by utilizing simple letters.

What makes a good font?

Choosing a good font is a nuanced practice. Good font usage shouldn’t be noticed, or should be noticed in a subconscious way. On the other hand, poor font use is always noticed.

“Yes. It can get very bad. When your average reader is noticing things in a bad way, that’s wrong,” Ross said. “A lot of bad typography is choosing a font and using it in a way it’s not intended to be used.”

Ross compared fonts to a pair of shoes. For example, selecting a pair of dress shoes wouldn’t be suitable for an outdoor hike. But they would be acceptable to attend a wedding. Neither shoe is necessarily bad.

“There are people who are naturally good at things. But it’s also very learnable — using type well,” he said. While there isn’t a formula to finding a good font, there are some noticeable guidelines such as a typeface’s alignment, contrast, repetition and complexity. All fonts are built for functional and aesthetic purposes.

A more complex font, such as a serif (like Times New Roman), might not be as easy to read as a sans-serif (such as Helvetica). However, it might look better for a headline or logo. If used in the wrong way, he says, a simple font might come across as boring.

“Different styles have evolved into different connotations. Is this actually comfortable to read? And does this style match what I’m trying to communicate?” Ross said.

As practical advice, Ross encouraged everyone to expand their font repertoire beyond what’s common.

“There is more out there than what’s on your font menu. As long as your font menu is, there’s a whole world beyond it,” Ross said.

You can reach Andy Castillo

at: acastillo@recorder.com

or 413-772-0261, ext. 263

On Twitter: @AndyCCastillo