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A humble blog by M. Scott Smith

From the Less Mature Files: A Review of Fonts 🔗

As an undergraduate at Drexel University in the mid-90's, I served as a columnist, contributing weekly bits of satire in an effort to amuse others or at least myself. I'm dusting off some of those columns and reprinting them here, in raw, unedited form.




I recently read a statistic that stated that the average person reads movie or book reviews 1400 times a day. Admittedly, most people probably only read a handful of reviews a month, but Lester keeps reading the same one over and over again and he screwed the statistic up.

Now you might wonder, who is Lester? But that's really not important. What's important is that critics from all over the nation have continually ignored the font medium, instead choosing to review movies and books and songs and television shows and O.J. Trial hairdos. Where is the excitement in that?

I will concede that most Americans need the assistance of Siskel and Ebert to determine what movies to watch. For example:

Siskel: Pocahontas brought out my inner child in ways that only a Disney movie can. Once again, the amazing animators at Disney have succeeded in transforming countless pages of painstakingly, hand-drawn cells into a stirring panorama of life - a perfect reflection of humanity, really - which can be viewed and enjoyed by any person who is not legally blind, of any age. It is not often that a movie trailer is this good. I expect the actual movie will be worth seeing too.

Ebert: I thought it stunk. You're ugly.

(A scuffle ensues.)

Ebert: That hurt.

Obviously, the movies we watch are greatly influenced by two bitter people who always poke at each others' eyes with their thumbs, but what guidance do we have, really, when trying to determine what font to use in our next school report? I thought it was high time somebody did an in-depth review of fonts, and damn it, I was going to be the one to do it, mainly because I didn't have anything better to do at that particular point in time.

For my review, I carefully selected eight fonts which should come preinstalled on every Macintosh computer, unless you bought your computer from a guy named Bubba or the Equipment Support Group. (If you have a PC-compatible, you're confused. Get a Mac.)

For years I have blindly used these eight fonts in everything from research papers to ransom notes, without ever paying much attention to the fine nuances which separate them and give each its own character.

Helvetica has traditionally been my font of choice. It is a font which is dressed casually, but ready to roll up its sleeves at any time and get to work. It is not concerned with formalities, and isn't afraid to have a little fun once in awhile.

Times, on the other hand, is a no-frills font which continually wants to get down to business - it has no time for fooling around. It benefits from a solid, timeless reputation, and its resume is impressive - what other font can claim to have served time at elite newspapers such as the New York Times? Times can sometimes come off as being snobbish, and other fonts typically don't like to associate with Times, and pick on Times behind its back time and time again. But it's hard to ignore the impressive experience Times has amassed over time, and don't forget this is one timely font.

Geneva suffers an identity crisis, because it is very similar to Monaco, except that Monaco is an equal-opportunity font, ensuring that every character is the same width.

The New York font has always been attracted to Times, and as such has usually been too distracted to ever get anything done. But one shouldn't overlook the importance of New York. Used in combination with subtle marginal and spacing adjustments, it can be a valuable tool in turning a 2-page report into a 4-page report.

And on that note, here's a technique I've devised which also works well: footnotes. If you use any really big words in your report, like "magnaminous", footnote them, and in the footnote include a long description, complete with sample sentences illustrating the use of the word and translation of the word into a dozen or so different languages. Your teacher will appreciate this and when done liberally, it will greatly extend the size of your report. Also throw in an illustrative graph or two, being careful not to label anything if the graph has nothing to do with your paper.

Chicago - here's a font which is flashy and proud. Its curves, somewhat forced, like a smile on a cashier's face as she says "have a good day." Chicago is bold even when it's not. Reading a title in the Chicago font is nothing like watching drunk birds continually ramming themselves into the patio door - it's indescribable.

Courier brings me back to my days of using a mechanical typewriter. Ah, the memories. The smell of white-out. The exciting experiments that could be performed with typewriter ribbon and squirrels. Who among us hasn't left a mechanical typewriter in the forest to see what exciting stories the squirrels would write?

Trying to write a paper with the Symbol font is like trying to eat Frosted Flakes in orbit - it can't be done, although it's awfully fun to try. Technical people have come to rely on the Symbol font. Scattering occasional Greek characters throughout a technical paper gives it an air of legitimacy. Clearly, no equation containing Greek letters could possibly be wrong, and no colleague would be foolish enough to question it, at least not on national T.V.

Even if your paper isn't technical, don't underestimate the power of a Mathematical Equation with Greek Letters. Economists have mastered this, learning to translate simple concepts like "profit equals money you make minus money you lose" into complex mathematical sentences like "{[^x^2/4 alfalfa dx," usually accompanied by graphs which, when stared at long enough, begin to form 3-dimensional images.

For your next paper, why not utilize a combination of fonts, capitalizing on the benefits each provides? This is what I'm doing with my next paper, "Stress incurred on river sediment during meteor showers." The title will be in Times.

Byline: M. Scott Smith is a junior majoring in Computer Science. Sometimes, he has too much free time.


- By M. Scott Smith, July 27, 1995. All rights reserved.

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