don’t come with an instruction manual. Although type designers can
produce fonts designated as display types, or package their products
with a set of implied hints—the right proportions of the
characters for each size—they have little control over their work
once it’s released “into the wild,” as type designer
Mark Simonson puts it.
We thought we’d ask type designers
whether they had noticed their work used in surprising ways. Some say
they’re flattered just to see their fonts in use, no matter how
they’re displayed. Others can barely look at their typefaces when
they are scaled in ways that change the original composition. But still
other designers, such as Max Kisman, revel in seeing tacky designs:
“Amateurism and bad taste have often been a source of
inspiration,” he says.
A strong typeface is only made better
when applied to a thoughtfully considered composition. But sometimes,
a good typeface becomes an accessory to a design crime. Here are a few
examples. MONICA RAČIĆ
Mark Simonson: Mark Simonson Studio
TYPEFACE: Felt Tip Roman, 1992
DESIGNER: Mark Simonson
SCENE OF THE CRIME: Junk mail
Maybe I’ve just been lucky (or have
low standards), but I can’t really think of any “bad”
examples of my fonts in use. I have lots of examples of mediocre uses,
but nothing I would call “bad” (knock on
Although …there was one thing that was bad, but it was only
“bad” for one person in the audience: me. Creating a
typeface—Felt Tip Roman—based on one’s own handwriting
can make the world look a bit surreal, especially if the typeface
becomes popular. I’ve seen my “handwriting” on TV,
billboards, ads, logos, magazines, books, movies—everywhere.
Occasionally, I even receive mailings “hand addressed” to me
in Felt Tip Roman. It doesn’t fool me for a second.
I’m thrilled whenever my fonts get used, even if the design
isn’t that great. But it’s even better when the design is
great, because that makes the font more desirable by association when
it’s seen by other graphic designers.
Cyrus Highsmith: Font
TYPEFACE: Loupot, 1998, based on the 1938 logotype for St. Raphaël aperitif wine by Charles Loupot
DESIGNERS: Laurie Rosenwald and Cyrus Highsmith
SCENE OF THE CRIME: Highsmith’s wedding invitation
I am pretty detached about
the way my typefaces are used, though I do like to whisper a friendly
“hello” whenever I come across one.
I have seen my
typefaces stretched and squeezed almost beyond recognition, but that
doesn’t get on my nerves too much. Slight scaling, however, can
ruin my day. I might see one of my typefaces scaled at 95 percent so it
doesn’t look awful, but just off enough that I get confused.
Thoughts like, “Did I draw it that way? Oh no, that looks
terrible. No, wait. I wouldn’t have done that. Or did I?”
will loop in my head, sinking me into suicidal depression, until I can
get back to the office and check that things are okay.
There is one
example of bad type that really sticks with me, though. There is no one
to blame but me—I designed it myself. It is the invitation to my
For some reason, I thought it would be a good idea to use
Loupot. It is a traditional script, but Loupot is really more suited to
a drag race than a wedding. I even had it printed in red at the cheapest
offset printer I could find. The result looks more like the business
card for a third-rate race-car driver than a wedding invitation. I
should have added stripes. Fortunately, the wedding still went ahead and
my wife and I remain very happy together.
Leslie Cabarga: Flash
TYPEFACE: Magneto, published by Font Bureau, 1995
DESIGNER: Leslie Cabarga
SCENES OF THE CRIME: Majestic Car Wash, Los Angeles; Coca-Cola ad, Portugal
I always feel a mix
of pride and horror when I see my fonts [used ineptly], but I recognize
the designer’s right to experiment as she or he sees fit.
It’s like a composer listening to a Muzak version of his song.
You’re happy for the royalty, but you wish the user had a clue!
Still, every time I see a font of mine, I get a kick out of it.
The Majestic Car Wash in Los Angeles, right down the street from
where I live, uses Magneto. It’s so large that it’s
embarrassing. Aside from the fact that it adorns a car wash, the font
was horizontally scaled narrower, which tends to lessen the slant and
bastardize the letter shapes. Designers usually do this to make the
letters fit within a given width, but they should reduce the point size,
or choose another font instead. We all like to tweak fonts, though, and
poor William Caslon must be turning in his grave over some of the things
I’ve done to his fonts. I guess I owe Majestic Car Wash to bad
The other use came from a photo sent to me from
Portugal. If mixing different serif fonts is awful, mixing two different
script styles—in this case, the Coca-Cola lettering and
Magneto—has got to be the ultimate no-no. And yet, the
juxtaposition—with the carefully done thick-thin
graffiti—makes a weird mix that is so offbeat it may just be
Occasionally, I see my font used as it should be, and
that’s really exciting. For example, Pixar’s logo for the
movie Cars employed Magneto with two alternate characters, the
r and s, and also adapted the dingbat from the font. This
is when I know a good designer is at work.
Nick and Adam Hayes:
TYPEFACE: 21st, 1999; Panic, 1998; Monark, 2000
DESIGNERS: Nick and Adam Hayes
SCENES OF THE CRIME: DJ magazine, London; Calexico Street Cart, New York
typeface 21st was designed for logotypes and magazine headlines, but we
were quite shocked to hear from someone who had spotted it in an adult
magazine. If it were Playboy, I wouldn’t have minded.
We’ve actually designed fonts for Maxim and FHM in
the past, so I was expecting the content to be similar. But the typeface
was abused as much as the subjects inside: There were drop shadows and a
disgusting use of color all over the place. They took our sleek and
modern typeface and turned it into a mess. We were totally embarrassed,
both with the font use and with the magazine itself!
magazine, our display font Panic was used for the body copy, and the
designers were quite annoyed with us, due to the illegibility of the
font, even though we clearly labeled Panic as a display typeface. To our
annoyance they went ahead and used it as body copy (8pt on 10pt
We’ve also found this strange use of Monark for a
street vendor selling Mexican food [in Soho, New York City]. They used
Monark for the menu and the logotype. I have no idea why a street vendor
would use Monark to promote their services, because it was a typeface
originally designed for a magazine. We love waiting and watching for our
typefaces to pop up in the strangest places. This has got to be one of
Max Kisman: Holland Fonts
TYPEFACE: Jacque, published by Fontshop International, 1991
DESIGNER: Max Kisman
SCENE OF THE CRIME: Record Palace, Amsterdam
type in this Record Palace logo is used as an outline, something that
wasn’t originally intended. Although geometrically constructed,
the typeface is supposed to express manual writing, in a solid stroke.
Here, an automated outlining of fonts was added to the outside of the
letters, and the letters were slightly vertically compressed, which
changed the proportion and balance of the shape completely.
inquiring in the shop, I found out that the logo was designed in the
early ’90s by designers from Fabrique, now a very successful
design firm in Delft. One of its founders, Jeroen van Erp, later became
a close colleague of mine. He was a friend of Record Palace’s
owner, Jan van Dorsten.
Van Erp e-mailed me, explaining, “The
man there is the key. He enthusiastically runs out of the shop with a
newly acquired record. The word RECORD behind him appears to be a
whirl of motion. By placing the letters in outline, they became more
airy and it keeps the man in focus. Solid letters would have been too
dominant. The ‘reasonable’ irresponsible use of the typeface
is done consciously. When you enter the shop, you’ll understand
why. Nothing there is fabricated or designed; things happen
coincidentally. We (the designers) knew the design was slightly
tasteless, but its likability, strangely enough, increased. The shop
owner was, and is still, very happy with it.”
TYPEFACE: Truesdell, a digital revival Of Frederic Goudy’s 1931 Truesdell, published by Monotype, 1993
DESIGNER: Steve Matteson
SCENE OF THE CRIME: Ad for the film Pocahontas
Truesdell is rustic, and it
has an inscribed look, which makes it an appropriate choice here. The
problem is that the critic’s review is set in all caps,
horizontally scaled to cram into the limited space. The effect of the
scaling causes distortions so that spacing becomes extremely tight, with
the serifs overlapping each other. The kerned pairs (such as the letters
AV) become overly tight, leaving big gaps where diagonals are set
next to upright stems (see the word HAVE), and the upright stems
become too thin compared with the cross bars. For example, the top of
T and the bars of E are almost the same thickness as the
upright. Design quirks become overemphasized (the top of the D
becomes very pronounced; and the terminals of G and S get
very big). They’ve used contrived small capitals, setting the
initial letter in each word at a slightly larger point size. This causes
these letters to be darker and overly emphasized. The lines are set with
so little leading that legibility suffers.
Things become distorted
when [people] start playing around with scaling and sizing type in their
layout applications. Of course, this is a widespread practice by even
the most prominent graphic designers. I met someone who made it a
practice to always condense their type by 10 percent, just because
that’s what their instructor always did.
TYPEFACE: Bello, 2004; Sauna, 2002
DESIGNERS: Bas Jacobs, Akiem Helmling, Sami Kortemäki
SCENES OF THE CRIME: Spring 2007 campaign for Playstation 3; 2008 McDonald’s Happy Meal packaging and advertising
Both PlayStation 3 and
McDonald’s Happy Meal use our typefaces prominently as logotypes.
Both fonts were originally designed to be used at large sizes, so they
should have been a perfect match. And these are worldwide
But what makes us unhappy? The Playstation 3 “This is
living” slogan squeezes and stretches Bello and adds a weak
underline stroke that doesn’t really correspond to the dynamic
curves of the typeface. Because Bello is based on personal hand
lettering, it’s very difficult for an outsider to keep the same
personality and rhythm in added elements. The look of “This is
living” is designed in the direction of Bello Words, a handmade
set of common English words that ships with Bello. Their intention is
good: to have a lively word mark that doesn’t look like a font,
but like a unique piece made by a lettering artist. But the way
it’s executed is very dilettantish. Instead of breathing the
natural sign-painting feeling, it looks squeezed and generated on a
The Happy Meal logo uses Sauna Black’s uppercase set,
with some letters that are slightly modified. We understand that an art
director wanted to make this logotype more compact by altering serifs
and spacing. But it’s done in a very halfhearted way.
Black’s capitals are designed to be followed by a lowercase
letter, so we would have used similar tricks to make this all-uppercase
logotype work. But we would have completely redrawn the overall body and
spacing, to make Sauna Black’s capitals run together and to cook
up the ultimate extra-Happy Meal logotype!