Good Type Gone Bad

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By: Monica Racic | June 17, 2009

About the Author

Monica Racic is a contributing writer at d/visible, the online international design magazine, and works at The New Yorker. This article appears in the August 2008 issue.

Typefaces 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 Studio

Mark Simonson: Mark Simonson Studio

TYPEFACE: Felt Tip Roman, 1992

DESIGNER: Mark Simonson



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 wood).

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.

Honestly, 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 Bureau

Cyrus Highsmith: Font BureauTYPEFACE: Loupot, 1998, based on the 1938 logotype for St. Raphaël aperitif wine by Charles LoupotDESIGNERS: Laurie Rosenwald and Cyrus HighsmithWEBSITE: fontbureau.comSCENE 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 own wedding.

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 Fonts

Leslie Cabarga: Flash FontsTYPEFACE: Magneto, published by Font Bureau, 1995DESIGNER: Leslie CabargaWEBSITE: flashfonts.comSCENES 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 “car-ma.”

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 good.

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: Identikal

Nick and Adam Hayes: IdentikalTYPEFACE: 21st, 1999; Panic, 1998; Monark, 2000DESIGNERS: Nick and Adam HayesWEBSITE: identikal.comSCENES OF THE CRIME: DJ magazine, London; Calexico Street Cart, New York


typeface 21st was designed for logotypes and magazine headlines, but wewere quite shocked to hear from someone who had spotted it in an adultmagazine. 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!

For DJ 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 leading).

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 our favorites!

Max Kisman: Holland Fonts

Max Kisman: Holland FontsTYPEFACE: Jacque, published by Fontshop International, 1991DESIGNER: Max KismanWEBSITE: hollandfonts.comSCENE OF THE CRIME: Record Palace, Amsterdam

The 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.

After 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.”

Steve Matteson: Ascender Corporation

Steve Matteson: Ascender CorporationTYPEFACE: Truesdell, a digital revival Of Frederic Goudy’s 1931 Truesdell, published by Monotype, 1993DESIGNER: Steve MattesonWEBSITE: ascendercorp.comSCENE 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.

Sami Kortemäki: Underware

Sami Kortemäki: UnderwareTYPEFACE: Bello, 2004; Sauna, 2002DESIGNERS: Bas Jacobs, Akiem Helmling, Sami KortemäkiWEBSITE: underware.nlSCENES 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 campaigns.

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 computer.

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.

Sauna 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 toget
her and to cook up the ultimate extra-Happy Meal logotype!