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Be bold with Bodoni

Giambattista Bodoni is my man. The elegant and dignified late-eighteenth-century serif* typeface that bears his name, with sharp contrasts between bold and thin strokes, like calligraphy, was the headline typeface at The Cincinnati Enquirer when I first worked there in the 1980s. It still looks elegant and dignified to me, and I regret that publications have drifted away from it.

But it is only one of a multitude of fonts in Simon Garfield’s entertaining book about typography, Just My Type (Gotham Books, 356 pages, $27.50). Well worth your time and attention.

This blog, for example, is in Arial, a highly readable sans-serif typeface that is nevertheless scorned by many in the trade** who see it as a Microsoft rip-off of the modern classic Helvetica (the only typeface about which, to date, a film has been made). I chose Matthew Carter’s Georgia, a variant of Times New Roman, as the font for You Don’t Say during the [cough] hiatus [cough] because it’s a highly readable serif typeface on a computer screen and coincidentally bears my older sister’s first name.

Mr. Garfield covers the technical aspects of typography—stonecutting, calligraphy, metal punches and casting, up to and including contemporary computer-generated design—clearly and succinctly. He also, in the course of describing the technological changes, sums up the styles that prevailed during historical periods and supplies information about creators of the more notable typefaces.

But his is also a book about aesthetics, the individual tastes and judgments that influence the choices of one font typeface over the other options, tastes and judgments that can be highly variable, and sometimes unfortunate. Now that anyone with access to a computer also has access to a multitude of typefaces allows those judgments to run riot. And the continuing development of new fonts suggests that nothing will soon limit the range of choices.

If you want to examine variations of typefaces before choosing, type them in the word Handgloves. That will highlight the distinctive qualities. Mr. Garfield quotes Stephen Coles of FontShop: “It’s got the straights in the h, it’s got the a and the g, which are the most distinctive part of any typeface, it shows the way a curve meets a straight in the n and the d, and it’s got the round with the o and the diagonals with the v. It’s got ascenders, descenders and it feels good as a shape.”

Just, as you make your choice, stay away from Comic Sans, and, hey, it wouldn’t kill you to give Bodoni a look.


*A serif, if you’re unacquainted with the terminology, is a finishing stroke on the tip or foot of a letter. The typeface called Trajan, named after the carved letters on Trajan’s Column in Rome, indicates how old the serif tradition is.

**Though nothing like the scorn heaped daily on Vincent Connare’s Comic Sans.



Posted by John McIntyre at 1:28 PM | | Comments (30)


It's a shame that Comic Sans has become such a laughingstock, when really the issue is that people use it for things that the Connare probably never intended. Any typeface can be abused -- if nothing else, you can simply choose 8 of them for a single document. The widespread scorn for Comic Sans is not really about the face at all, but a way for the self-annointed aesthetes to proclaim their superiority to the design-world proles.

I was quite tickled when Microsoft introduced the Constantia font.

Mike: I've heard that argument before—that the problem with Comic Sans (and Papyrus too) is simply that it's misused and overused—but I'm unconvinced.

I think Comic Sans is the typographical equivalent of a Twinkie. There's nothing wrong with a little indulgence every now and then, but Twinkies are still gross.

Similarly, I think that Comic Sans is just not that great of a typeface. Even when it's appropriate, I don't think it looks very good. It's kind of chunky and poorly spaced and doesn't show the attention to detail that better fonts have.

Yes, there's certainly some snobbishness when it comes to typefaces, but I don't think it's groundless.

I heard Simon Garfield talking about his book on NPR and was enchanted. He attributes Obama's victory (in part) to his campaign's font choice, which was a novel insight (to me, anyway).

I agree with mike that different fonts are appropriate in different circumstances. I just came from my needlepoint shop, where I left a canvas to be painted with a little girl's name. We chose the "Girly" font--perfect for this application. It will be stitched in purple, of course.

As a former professional editorial cartoonist, it behooves me to defend the oft-maligned Comic Sans font. Cartoonists of the World, cast off your 'dialogue balloons', and unite!

Yet I would admit that this rather simple, breezy, informal san serif type style has probably been slightly overused these days, precisely because of its hand-drawn, uncomplicated, easy feel, which clearly doesn't really work in all its sundry applications.

Nonetheless, I would have to agree w/ the thrust of blogger mike's earlier argument that basically the wide-ranging antipathy to Comic Sans largely comes down to questions of aesthetics, where the typographic 'highbrows' (as mike put it, "the self-anointed aesthetes"), who could spend months intensely honing and refining a new font, look smugly askance at the Comic Sans "prole's" type face, that on the face of it (Groan), looks to have been whipped out in a mere day, or two. I would argue that sometimes appearances can be subtly deceiving, particularly in matters of design. Simple doesn't always equate w/ easily attained.

As a 30-plus-years resident of L.A.'s San Fernando Valley, I have witnessed the evolution (some would argue, the devolution) of public graffiti script, and have been struck by how many of these so-called 'street artists' tend to favor letters that are generally big, bold, cartoony, curvy, bordering on Botero-esque*----very much like those fun balloon creature forms popularized by clowns and itinerant street performers.

These massive, balloon-like letter shapes, for me at least, have a real visual appeal, although occasionally the forms are so majorly abstracted that they become almost unreadable, but manage to retain their graphic oomph, nonetheless.

In my view, (and I don't believe I'm alone here), many of these tagger/ graffiti 'artists' are truly gifted graphic designers, even though they have chosen aerosal enamel spray paint as their medium, and our public wall spaces, freeway overpasses, signage, and concrete river beds as their ad hoc canvas. The graffitiers' major, most vocal detractors often don't deny their artistic talent, but argue that it is grossly misdirected, and an affront to our neighborhoods, adding to L.A.'s ever-mounting visual pollution.

Interestingly, here in 'The Valley', graffiti 'artists' often gravitate toward freshly displayed commercial billboard ads. I've observed that many of their painterly graphic 'additions', design and color palate-wise, are almost seamlessly, and most cleverly, integrated into the existing advertising imagery, so that the viewer has to almost do an immediate double-take to realize that it's been tampered with, or altered. Some of these 'augmented' ads, from my jaundiced perspective, look even more graphically appealing w/ the added graffiti. Go figure.

This tells me that these 'taggers' do have an innate aesthetic sensibility, and their intentions at making public statements, writ large, are not entirely geared to breaking the law. Perhaps just breaking the law w/ style, and flair? But I've digressed.

*Fernando Botero is the highly successful veteran Columbian figurative artist who populates his canvases and drawings almost exclusively w/ pleasantly plump, dare I say obese, subjects, but in a very colorful, engaging manner.

A few years back, he painted a number of very intensely emotive, controversial works centering on the atrocities perpetrated at the Abu Gahb (sp. ?) prison in Iraq. Even here, the depicted abused prisoners were fairly corpulent, looking like they hadn't missed a square meal.......... although in reality, I'm sure they had.

Botero's wonderful sculptures, mostly in black-patinaed cast bronze, exhibit his consistent proclivity for full-formed figures. That even includes chubby birds, and bulky bovines. HA!


Hmm........ I could have sworn Simon Garfield wrote "Font Over Troubled Water "? (Groan)

Oops, sorry. That would be tunesmith Paul Simone, and his haunting, "Le Pont Sur L'eau Troublé", non? (Apologies for the fractured French. Ugh!)

Okay. Enough with the silly stuff.


-----Spelling Alert!!!

That would be the infamous "Abu Ghraib" prison in Iraq. Folks, I managed to thoroughly butcher that one in my earlier post. Even omitted the "r" in "Ghraib", let alone the "h". My Arabic clearly leaves a lot to be desired.



Mike and Jonathon, I tend to agree with you. There may be times to use an inferior typeface, but it can still put your teeth on edge. For example:

For websites I design, I want
To let each teacher choose their font.
But now it looks like snobs may taunt.

So do I go enforce the bans,
Deny the first grade teacher's plans,
to use her favorite - Comic Sans?

I guess I'll take her choice to heart,
(although it looks like first grade art)
In elementary, play the part!

And I must borrow every changing shape to find expression...

To quote a passive-agressive office sign I've seen around the internets, "Please don't use Comic Sans. This is a Fortune 500 company, not a lemonade stand."

CS just isn't appropriate for business use.

As Alex said in his capable defense of comic sans, it is appropriate when used for informal messages. Thank you also to Garrick for the lemonade stand reference and to Dahlink for the "girly" story; I would not expect to open up a work email and see comic sans any more than I would expect one of the more highfalutin fonts to show up on a child's birthday banner.

Falutin lower than most,

Admirers of Didones such as Bodoni should check out TypeTogether's Abril.


It's been carefully optimised for use on the web (the contrast between thick and think strokes being carefully reduced so that the thin strokes don't disappear entirely on the current generation of relatively low-resolution displays).

These are exciting times for lovers of type and the web. Workhorses like Arial, Verdana and Georgia are no longer the only text options available to web designers. And the iPhone I carry with me in my pocket displays with much greater fidelity than any standard computer screen the craftsmanship necessary to create beautiful type.

Oh Tim, you just made me look up "falutin". Thank you!

You may want to check out the Periodic Table of Typefaces:


A pleasure as always, Laura Lee! (After all, what good's esoterica if you can't trot it out once in a while?)


Has anyone heard from Picky lately? I'm surprised he hasn't weighed in on this thread.

Of course, there's this:
"Behind the Typeface: Cooper Black."

I was told (can't manage a more precise source, sorry!) that serifs in stone inscriptions were not primarily a convention so much as a technical accident -- the effect you get whacking a chisel diagonally into a line, from one side then the other in order to get a swuared rather than tapered end to it. Because they were visually agreeable, they soon became exaggerated beyond mere necessity.

Thanks to Dave G for the link to the "Periodic Table of Typefaces." It nicely compliments the book I'm currently reading, "The Disappearing Spoon" by Sam Kean. It's an element-by-element look at the periodic table (of elements); very educational and entertaining.
Not sure what typeface is used in the book, but I'll compare it to the other table and see if I can identify it.

Dahlink, no need to be concerned about Picky. I sent an inquiry and have heard from him. He is traveling and doesn't have ready access to Wordville.

LL, Merriam-Webster Online didn't recognize falutin'but it suggested flatulent as an alternative. Thank you and big hugs to each and every one of you! Y'all don't even want to know how much I needed that laugh today!

Silly Alert!!!!

Hmm........ Comic Sans might be an apt type face for a ransom note from a desperate 'cereal' killer. The demand note might read thusly: "One standard large U-Haul trailer filled to the brim w/ boxes of Fruit Loops, and Coco Puffs......... or the toucan and the kid get it ! (Groan)

As the once infamous tennis bad-boy turned rather astute, engaging TV pro tennis color-commentator, John McEnroe, was once want to say, "You CAN'T be serious!".

Regarding the earlier lemonade stand/ Comic Sans 'conjunction', maybe we should call the crude, hand-inscribed signage on the enterprising Peanuts' Lucy van Pelt's quasi-lemonade stand/ "Psychiatric Help 5¢" booth, Schultz Sans. HA!

Further, since when is the great American tradition of neighborhood kids selling fresh, cold, home-squeezed lemonade to passersby on a scorching summer's afternoon NOT considered good old basic U.S. free enterprise at its pure best, i.e., a business?

For many a youngster, selling lemonade from their front yard, or driveway for pocket change could well have been the formative step on their road to a future Fortune 500 corporate career, as an enterprising adult. (Of this many a hedge fund manager's been made. HA!)

@ Eve. The word "flatulent"seems to be an instant chuckle inducer."Effluent", not so much, although the word "poop" has its own crude charm w/ the younger set. Did some sage once say that scatological humor was the basest form of comedy?

For adolescents, teens, tweens, and middle-schoolers, the mere mention of the word "fart" seems to induce guaranteed, almost instantaneous giggles. Although I gather the erudite Ben Franklin wrote a little treatise on the fart-----the very human, yet somewhat embarrassing for many, act of 'breaking wind'. I don't believe he tied it into his theory of generating electricity. HA!

Oh John, thanks for the Picky update. My earlier suspicions about him likely being on-the-road were apparently spot-on. Trust he's having a grand time where-ever
his travels take him, and surely sampling the various regional potent potables along the way. HA!

Picky, we miss you, old lad. Be safe.

Looking forward to your return.


P.S.: A little personal note----- Yesterday I happened to be a visitor at the Spring St. headquarters of the venerable L.A. Times, invited into their 'inner sanctum' by a close buddy who copy edits for the paper. Chatted a bit w/ one of their veteran Assistant Managing Editors (and my friend's boss), the amiable, and very mellow Henry Fuhrmann, who I've met on a few occasions at Hollywood Bowl concerts, but I wouldn't call us close 'buds'.

Kind of rhetorically, I happen to ask him if he was a fan of any of the sundry online grammarian/ lexicographic blog sites out there, and without any prodding, or cajoling on my part he said he often checked out, (among others), our You Don't Say site.

Immediately he blurted out, "You're not that Alex-guy that writes those lengthly commentaries? Lots of humor, but serious too? Geez, I read your stuff all the time. Very cool."

What can I say? Henry didn't know my last name, so he had no clue that the guy sitting a few seats over from him, along with a handful of other L.A. Times editorial staff colleagues at the Hollywood Bowl "Bollywood Night" a few years back, was, in fact, that longwinded, occasionally funny dude, Alex McCrae, who regularly posts on the You Don't Say blog. The blogosphere is truly a small, connected world, after all. HA!

Before we left his office, Henry was kind enough to give me a copy of Bill Walsh's book, "The Elephant of Style", which if I really liked it, he said I was more than welcome to keep. (I said he was a very nice guy.)

Walsh also wrote the book, "Lapsing Into a Comma", by the way.

(Hope I didn't come off as sounding like I was tooting my own bugle there, in this postscript.......... even though I likely was..... a tad. HA!)

Small world indeed, Alex.

Thanks for the reassurance about our friend Picky, Professor.

I heard from a friend that "Just my Type" is on the best-seller list. I find that cheering.

You're right, Dahlink, thank you, with reference to your earlier comment. Had I been in town I would have weighed in. A slice of Mr Garfield's book was published in the Observer last October, and I peeved a little about it on Language Hat.

In the extract, Mr Garfield commits, in my view, two horrible howlers.

First he says that by the 1970s the spelling "font" had essentially replaced the traditional "fount" in Europe. I am old enough to know that this is nonsense. In the 1970s in Britain the traditional spelling was almost universal among printers (and journalists). The American spelling did not dominate until we were made over-familiar with it through the American software from Apple and Microsoft on our personal computers - that it until the late 1980s or the 1990s. (I'm afraid the dictionary in my steam and piston brain still says "fount" and I have to transliterate it for my juniors.)

Then he says that the word fount 'is derived from "fund", the fund (amount) of type from which the letters are selected'. This came as a surprise to me, and no doubt has surprised also the gentlemen at the Oxford dictionaries, for we all believed it came from "found", the verb meaning to cast from molten metal (as in foundry) and that a typefounder was a chap (or firm) who cast type from molten metal.

These bits of Garfieldianism have suppressed what would otherwise have been my wish to read the book. If the rest is like this - don't.

Oh dear, Picky--thanks for the heads up. Perhaps it is just as well that I hadn't gotten around to ordering a copy just yet.

I do hope you will visit us here from time to time after 10/10/11.

Weird, this, Dahlink: in Most Recent Comments there you are, on bended knee, giving me heartfelt thanks for summat or the other, but when I click on [more] - as obviously I do - there you aren't. Mmm. perhaps if I reply to you, well, who knows, let's try ....

Quite right on both counts, Picky. Perhaps Garfield was confused by the fact that the spelling "font", direct from Latin _fons_ 'origin', has always been used in both BrE and AmE for baptismal fonts and for lamp-oil reservoirs. The poetic use of both "fount" and "font" to mean "fountain" or "spring" (specifically the point of origin of a river) is likewise common property.

Garfield's right that the word "fund" was once used for a typographical font: in the 17th century, says the OED, the three words "fund", "found", and "fount" were used indiscriminately in any of their senses. However, the financial sense did not lead directly to the typographical sense: both of them are metaphorical extensions of the idea of a source of supply, which in turn is an extension of the original sense of Latin _fundus_ 'bottom(land)'.

Picky, I think we are in sync once more. Sometimes the recent comments get ahead of what is actually available under the comments section. I cannot explain it; I can only speculate.

Way to burst my bubble, Dahlink! I had myself believing in my own clairvoyance to the extent that I foresaw leaving this less-than-scintillating desk and setting up shop as a Gypsy fortuneteller.

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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