Do designers limit themselves by favouring a handful of typefaces?

In which our correspondent gets all hot and bothered over his current favourite typeface and what to do when such infatuations start impacting your work 


“Garamond, Bodoni, Century Expanded, Helvetica … Optima, Futura, Univers, Caslon, Baskerville, and a few other modern cuts.”

Massimo Vignelli’s assertion that designers only need a handful of typefaces at their disposal (as set out in his 2010 text, The Vignelli Canon) is contentious to say the least. I’m in two minds about this. It’s an understandable response to the digital age’s proliferation of substandard type design, but surely such a strict dogma is overkill? There are some stunning faces out there amongst the dreck – why should we limit ourselves? Wouldn’t such self-enforced constraint simply lead to bland homogeneity?

And yet, maybe Vignelli has a point. I have a little list of my own. Given enough time in this profession, you can’t help but find yourself favouring a handful of typefaces; why would’t you instinctively reach for the tools that you have come to trust? And what’s wrong with that? Familiarity may easily lead to complacency, repetition and short-cuts, but as long as you keep this in mind, it can also provide a useful starting point for further typographic exploration.

My selection changes from time to time, depending upon what I’m working on. At any given moment, it’ll feature some old favourites, some new favourites, plus a couple of questionable favourites that I’ll inevitably come to despise in a year or two (if only I knew which couple).

And then there’s Baskerville.

In 2012, Errol Morris published a quiz on The New York Times website, ostensibly about testing participants’ optimism/pessimism about a passage from David Deutsch’s book The Beginning of Infinity. Each of the 45,000 participants were presented with the text set in one of six randomly-assigned typefaces – Baskerville, Computer Modern, Georgia, Helvetica, Comic Sans and Trebuchet. Morris’s hidden intent was to determine whether the choice of typeface had any effect on a message’s believability. Apparently it does. An analysis of the results show that Baskerville is significantly more trustworthy than the alternatives.

Reading about this in Pentagram Paper 44, which covers the findings in great detail (complete with asides on John Baskerville’s fascinating life and death), I fell head over heels for a trusty typeface that I’d taken for granted for so long. And now Baskerville (and its progeny – who can resist Mrs Eaves’ ligaturepalooza? – keeps slipping into my projects.

The curves, the capitals, the contrasting strokes – it’s just so lovely to work with, suitability for the brief at hand be damned. And that’s the problem. Infatuation is an enjoyable, educational approach to typography, but ultimately it can be a tad stifling. A shortlist of one typeface isn’t useful for me or my clients. Even Vignelli would frown upon the nonsense of such self-imposed limitation.

I’ll get it out of my system eventually. These fleeting fancies usually culminate in that most introspective of designer obsessions: the rejigging of the portfolio. I’ll redesign my site – my own little design sandbox – around the object of my affection. Rather than force Baskerville into my projects, I surround them with it. And then I’m over it. I don’t know why this works, but it does.

In time, something else will come along. Another favourite best ever loveliest typeface ever will top the list. All it takes is for me to be exposed to an illuminating article or interview (or, occasionally, feature-length documentary) about the craft and legacy of a particular typeface and I’ll be seduced.

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  • Tyson Mowat 20/10/2016 at 12:15 am

    I got all excited that there was a cool font convention so I googled “ligaturepalooza”… Looks like you’ve coined a term, it’s unused online

    • Simon Palmer 13/02/2017 at 12:13 pm

      Excellent straight-faced trolling.

  • VICENTE SARMENTO 19/10/2016 at 7:30 pm

    Can you share your special list? :)))

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