Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Torq's Field Guide to Fonts

"What is this font I keep seeing everywhere?"

Ever notice that you see the same fonts everywhere you go? No? Well, I do. And I verbalize the experience often enough that my wife gets annoyed and violently twists my nipples every time I point at a font and shriek its name.

There's at least a few good reasons that these fonts have stood the test of time and become so wildly popular for marketing and design. Though being bundled with Microsoft Office is one of those reasons, they're also just well-made and highly applicable.

The bad part of this is overexposure. Sure, you may not notice Helvetica everywhere you go, but Curlz sticks out like a 12-year-old girl's flowery-painted thumb. It's a bit like using the same word over and over again. I mean, there's only so many times you can say "cabbage" out loud before it begins to sound weird, and then completely lose its meaning.

However, you might see a font while riding around on your dirt bike and realize that it's perfect for your PowerPoint presentation, wedding invitation, emancipation proclamation or whatever else you're currently working on. And the deadline is in 6 hours because you procrastinated so badly. And the guy at the bus stop is too concerned about you riding your dirt bike on the sidewalk to offer you any help identifying the font.

So here's my Field Guide to Fonts. It's like identifying leaves out in the woods or inverted insects on your windowsill, but in true word nerd fashion, it involves letters.

Copperplate Gothic

You'll see it anywhere that a classy all-capitals font needs to be used. Signs, t-shirts, websites, book titles, and everywhere in-between. Copperplate Gothic is clearly legible from a far distance because of its wide letters and uppercase-style lowercase letters (a typography style called "small caps.")

This classic typeface dates all the way back to 1901, when Frederic Goudy created it for the American Type Founders. The glyphs are intended to resemble carving or etching into metal or glass. Now that you've read this, you will actually see it carved or etched into metal or glass everywhere you go.

Crimefighter BB

You can make anything feel like a comic book by using this classic handwritten-style font. It gets its roots from the Marvel Comic classics of the mid- to late-20th century.

Lots of people think that Comic Sans would fill this role, but it doesn't, and most people hate it. While Comic Sans is seen as a trademark of poor design skills, Crimefighter BB is seen as a secret weapon.


Omigosh it's so cute! You might think that these characters had been lifted straight from the pages of a middle school girl's math notebook if I didn't know for a fact that two grown men whipped it up in 1995 for Agfa Monotype.

These were the times when many typefaces that had been popular for centuries were still being converted to vector models for use in home word processing. Carl Crossgrove and Steve Matteson noticed a significant lack in the market for girly fonts for girls that girls everywhere would print entire book reports in, and so began a trend of wacky out-there typefaces.

It's one of the most popular fonts for signs because of its lighthearted nature and easy legibility from far away. And if you never noticed it before, you're going to now. Sorry.

Hill House

Due to its erratic and high x-height and popularity on signs visible from roads, I've dubbed Hill House the new Papyrus. (You'll know what I mean if you read the snarky Papyrus entry below.)

Jon Hicks didn't want to just use Papyrus for his wedding invitations. How could a graphic designer allow that to happen? And for a marriage to another graphic designer, too! Nope, he could handle it himself. It was time to try his hand at typography and create something brand new.

The result was Hill House, an uppercase-only typeface based on the handwriting of renowned architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh, completed in 1997 — just in time for the Hicks wedding invitations to be mailed out at 29 cents a piece. Hicks went on to create all those sassy monsters you see gleefully chomping things on the Firefox website.


This font doesn't generally live up to its name, because it's clean and doesn't carry a bindle. However, much like the nomads of the American railroads, it's been everywhere.

Hobo was cranked out of the American Type Founders factory thanks to typeface magician Morris Fuller Benton. In 1910. NINETEEN-FREAKING-TEN. You can imagine that this font looked like space robots to the people of that time. Yep, people wanted something that looked like a typewriter, which translated into very official-looking serif fonts. Hobo didn't catch on until relatively recently.

It's serifless like most fantasy fonts, which makes it ideal for large print. Couple this with its friendly, curvy lettering, and you have the perfect typeface to use for a sign or poster. Want more business, but can't afford a graphic designer? Print your store's sign in Hobo. And now you know why that happens so often.


So you want the ultimate throwback font, eh? What screams 1980s nostalgia more than your standard, uppercase-only monospace video game font, pixels and all?

Joystix looks like it was screenshot straight off a Ms. Pac Man machine, which is almost exactly correct. Ray Larabie pieced together this font pixel-by-faux-pixel to recreate a typeface you'd see in just about every early video game — specifically those on the NES. Then he went on to be hired by an actual video game company. (See Pricedown.)

From the jagged A to the angled exclamation point, this font makes you want to go punch Donkey Kong in his stupid smug face.


Also known as "Matisse ITC", this typeface was produced in 1995 by the International Typeface Corporation who have since eaten Letraset (owners of Papyrus) and Agfa Monotype (makers of Curlz).

Despite being an erratic and not particularly attractive font, it's got its share of fans who reportedly like its schizophrenic design. Unfortunately, it tends to look a lot like squiggles from far away.


A favorite of apartment complex signs worldwide, this is one of the oldest fonts in our field guide. Each glyph was hand-drawn by Chris Costello in 1982 using a calligraphy pen. He wanted to create a typeface that would embody the scribing methods from two millenia ago using English characters.

Any time a classy, yet somewhat whimsical atmosphere needs to be conveyed (think apartment complex signs), Papyrus is a viable option. It's such a ready-to-go artistic font that many high-profile individuals and corporations will simply type their name out using the font without changing much of anything. (See Edible Arrangements.)

Unfortunately, the font has become so ubiquitous that it's earned it place in the Graphic Designer Hall of Hatred. Even Costello himself has lamented its overuse.


Looking at Pricedown gives me this incredible urge to walk up to the nearest automobile, swing open the door, throw the driver on the ground, and run him over with his own car. It's not that I'm a bad person. It's just that this font is most well-known for being the main font of the ultra-popular Grand Theft Auto series.

Ray Larabie was the resident typographer at Rockstar Games during the early days of the series' heyday, and created this font to capture the feeling of legendary game show The Price is Right. I'm still not sure what that game show has to do with extreme criminal activity, but I'm sure the link is in there somewhere.

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