Why I Emptied My Fonts Folder

Decluttering my typefaces

1. I had accumulated 993 font files

I was shocked to discover how many font files I’ve accumulated over just a few years. Having too many fonts slows down the font-selection process for graphic designers.

2. I don’t even remember how I got some of them

A bunch of them were free fonts I was just trying out, so good riddance! A lot of them were poorly and hurriedly made. They don’t deserve to be in the same folder as Garamond or Helvetica.

3. I realized how little I knew about typeface usage rights

I wanted to get rid of all the fonts that were not system fonts or purchased. And learn more about typeface usage rights before I start loading up the folder with new fonts.

Licensing and usage rights are always a complicated thing, but as designers using other peoples’ creations, they are something we need to learn. Even free fonts have usage limitations.

4. My computer was getting frustratingly slow

Having too many fonts can slow down loading time for certain programs.

5. I want fewer typefaces and more meaningful use of them

Nine-hundred ninety three are just too many font friends for me. With my limited brain span, I feel like I can only truly get to know a limited number of typefaces and use them well.

And that’s what I’m going to do.

a

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“I hate the two-storey “a” said my seatmate at the signage company where I worked as a designer.

He was upset that a two-storey lowercase “a” created complications as part of internally-lit dimensional signage. At a not-so-big size, the shape of the “a” made it difficult to install lighting inside it. He preferred typefaces with the single-storey “a”.

But I love the two-storey “a”. So much so that I even wrote a short story about it.

It’s one of the best-looking letters in the alphabet. Even if you doodle it casually, you can still get it to look pretty cool.

It’s just classy, and classic.

Now look at the one-story “a”. Looks simplistic and a bit boring against its more classical-rooted counterpart.

The two-storey “a” evolved from Roman letters, which started out as a uni-case alphabet (or all-uppercase, as we would recognize them today). The uncial scripts, which was the popular way of writing sometime between the 4th to 8th century AD, were evolving into a mix of letters we recognize today as a mix of lowercase and uppercase, and the “a”, by this time was evolving into half uppercase and half lowercase. Of course during that time it was just a normal “a”.

uncial letters (the “a” is like a hybrid uppercase and lowercase)

Unless one is a letter-obsessed type geek, one would hardly distinguish the two a’s, when reading anything from books to blogs, or signs, whether the a is uppercase or lowercase. As is the case in many functional designs, when you don’t notice anything — when nothing sticks out — that’s when you know it was done right.

And the double story a, despite its more classical appearance, is not confined to old-fashioned serif fonts. Even modern fonts use it. For example, Helvetica from the 50s uses a double-storey “a,” and the little teardrop of negative space has become an iconic shape.

Type geek trivia:

In serif fonts such as Georgia, Times New Roman, and Baskerville, the Regular version appears in double-story a. While the italics are in single storey a.

(That’s how you distinguish fake italics from real italics. Fake italics is a computerized slant applied on letters. Real italics were drawn that way by the type designer, not altered by the computer)

And check out the title of this piece (which I simply called “a”) — The title and subtitle have different a’s. Because the subtitle is the italic version.

Strangely, the double-storey a looks great in typography, but a little odd when handwritten:

Thankfully, both the single-storey “a” and the double-storey “a” have stood the test of time. They make the typographic world more interesting.

And I’m grateful for the two and a half years I spent as part of a signage agency where I dealt with type in large scale, learned how to use geometry as a language, and had interesting conversations about which typefaces perform best in the world of 3D. I got to daydream about type and call it work.

How Do We Really Choose Typefaces?

The rules we love to break

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There are common rules in choosing typefaces, factors that influence why we choose certain typefaces for certain projects.

Like legibility, of course.

Then, there’s purpose (for example, the typeface Frutiger was designed by Adrian Frutiger for use in signage. The large x-heights allow easy reading from a distance).

Then we are guided by our content. What the content is, and how much of it. Serif typefaces work best for extended reading (due to the eye’s familiarity with classic serif fonts in books.) Some typefaces are just softer on the eyes than others, so we may tend to choose those. Sabon, for example is a typeface I love for reading.

There are also guidelines for pairing. In the same way red wine complements your tender juicy smoked beef brisket, a serif paragraph text elegantly complements a sans serif headline.

We are also advised to limit the number of typefaces.

And not to mention the chorus of designers echoing the request to please do not use comic sans.

Choosing typefaces requires logic, sense, and experience. Knowing how typefaces work based on experience allows you to make better choices.

But at the end of the day, we pick typefaces the same way we do our shopping. We make choices based on emotion. Then we justify them with logic.

Our own perceptions, intuition, biases, and tastes rule the game.

The general public is aware that Comic Sans is highly discouraged for official documents and presentation slides. But alas, Comic Sans still dominates the office and the projector screen. Because users love it and nothing you say will convince them that it’s a typeface for kids, not adults.

The late great Massimo Vignelli would choose from only a handful of typefaces. He said the world didn’t need any more than 12. So he ignored anything that wasn’t Garamond, Bodoni, Century Expanded, or his all-time favorite, Helvetica.

“I don’t think that type should be expressive at all. I can write the word ‘dog’ with any typeface and it doesn’t have to look like a dog. But there are people that [think that] when they write ‘dog’ it should bark.”

Massimo believed that “Design is utilitarian” and not art. His design focused on understanding problems and solving them logically, providing for “needs, not wants.” His philosophy in typeface design was an extension of these ideals.

“We like design to be visually powerful, intellectually elegant and above all timeless.”

And because of that, he kept in his design arsenal only fonts that were timeless.

Pentagram’s Michael Beirut, who worked for Massimo and was restricted by his boss’s typeface views, said that after he left his job with Massimo, “Suddenly I could use any typeface I wanted, and I went nuts. On one of my first projects, I used 37 different fonts on 16 pages.”

In a Fast Company article, he cites 13 reasons for using a typeface, and they are a mix of factors based on intuition, taste, and sense. For example “Because you like its history” or “because you like its name,” or “Because of who designed it.”

At one point I started to question why I was using Gill Sans because of a debate I read about whether you can separate a designer from their work.

“The industry needs to show people that bad behavior won’t be tolerated. We shouldn’t celebrate the work of a morally reprehensible designer; it sets a terrible example. It says that even if someone has done something awful to someone else, they’ll still be championed,” Erik Carter argued. Paula Scher, on the other hand, said, “but you can’t make a visual judgement about a typeface because the person who designed it is a predator. That’s insane. It’s pointless, actually. You could say that they shouldn’t get a royalty for it, but that’s another story.”

I haven’t used Gill Sans since.

Typographic choices reflect conviction, and in today’s age of heightened cultural awareness, and how everything you do, or choose communicates something, every little thing you do must support what you stand for.

We all love to break the rules

Michael Beirut himself ignored the “limiting typefaces” rule for the design of his own book, 79 Ways to Read About Design. “When I published my first book of essays, I wanted it to feel like a real book for readers — it had no pictures — so I asked Abbott to design it. He suggested we set each one of the 79 pieces in a different typeface. I loved this idea, but wasn’t sure how far he’d want to go with it.”

A lot of other things trump the rules — ideas, a sense of adventure, a story, your mood. And nothing is more powerful than the emotional drive behind the choices. How the typeface makes you, the designer, feel.

Typography is human after all. We rely on our eyes to make judgments. And despite how mathematically perfect and proportionate typefaces look, they look that way because of the human touch. Every detail adjusted and perfected by a typeface designer’s experienced eye.

That’s the beauty of typography and graphic design. The type is part of our language, influenced by perception, by pop culture, and even things we didn’t suspect influence our choices. That is why it’s fun, fulfilling and why we do it with so much passion, care, and obsession.

Why I Draw (Even If I’m Not Very Good At It)

During the first decade of my design career, I avoided “real” drawing. Enthralled that I could just create graphic imagery with Adobe Illustrator, I drew with a mouse instead.

I have a natural childish drawing style (which probably mirrors my own nature).

Growing up, I was drawing all the time: portraits, caricatures, cartoons. I doodled alien-like characters in my college notebooks. And when I started working, the only time I would sketch was to create design thumbnails to discuss ideas with the team.

But a few years later, working for a signage design company, I found myself drawn to drawing again. Because we designed with a lot of type, I drew typography as part of brainstorming and internal presentations. Something about the process hooked me back into drawing.

And these are what I’ve come to love about it:

1. Drawing brings you closer to your subject

Drawing is the art of seeing, Bert Dodson reveals in his book Keys to Drawing. When you’re drawing something, you’re looking at it most of the time. Your eyes start to see things about the subject you never saw before. You come to memorize the details.

2. Drawing creates deeper understanding

In Keys to Drawing, Bert Dodson tell of an artist he knows who drew parts of a dead duck to understand the duck better — such as how the legs and wings worked.

Similarly, when I started copying typefaces on the job — like drawing Helvetica as part of signage design, I began to understand how the typeface worked, and what possibly might have been the thought process behind key design decisions of the type designer. I gained more insight on the details that give the typeface its overall character and feel. I became more conscious of typefaces and their impact on legibility and large-scale production. (And that a double-story a is more difficult to internally illuminate than a regular a.)

3. Drawing gives me relief from computer screens

Drawing with pen and ink means time away from the screen, and I love that.

I felt a kinship with Paula Scher when she started to share why she got back to painting, in the Netflix design documentary Abstract.

“I used to paint my fonts by hand, when I was a young designer and I really miss it,” she said.

“When we became fully computerized in the late 90s, I didn’t touch anything and I didn’t use my hands. In the past, I cut things up I ripped things; I pasted things; I touched art supplies. The physical loss was huge for me and that’s why I started painting.”

During the signage design job, I was at the computer probably 90% of the time. So I appreciated the opportunities I had to look at paper, pencil, and ink instead.

Like Paula, I crave for that break from the screen, to use my hands. I cherish the purity and timelessness of pen and ink, and those sacred moments that make me feel human again.

Trust your Typographic Eye

Type is human

One afternoon, as a young designer, I was cutting some thick board paper into several parts. My boss happened to be hanging around, watching. So I wanted to impress her with my precision and carefully measured with a long metal ruler, and made small pencil marks where I was supposed to cut. I was trying to make all the parts perfectly equal. Then she impatiently said, “what are you doing? Use your eye!”

I don’t trust my eye, I thought, so used to hearing that young people should deliberately do things the hard way so that they learn.

Why choose the easy way when you can choose the hard way? was the mantra of my 20s.

She shooed me off the mock-up area and took over. And took the big sheet, positioned the metal ruler somewhere that looked like the middle and just sliced it nice and smooth. Then handed it back to me to continue nervously. I did not have much confidence in my optical perception. My boss, meanwhile, had a superior eye and could see everything.

What I didn’t know was that you can learn that over time. But first you would need to keep using your eye. Exercising your vision. Not necessarily to cut all parts of a sheet into equal sizes, but to think and judge as you design. If you don’t get it right, just keep doing it, and eventually your eye will get sharper.

Consider the following principles, and hopefully they will convince you of the importance of your eye and that though you may be often unsure, ultimately you can trust it as you work on improving your perception and sense of space.

Optical center is different from mathematical center

If you were to center type perfectly (vertically centered) on a page, it will look a little lower than center. It’s not your eye tricking you, that’s how we all see it.

Mathematical centered text appears rather low

Designers would center the text using their eye. If you were to measure it mathematically, it’s not really centered. But between mathematical center and optical center, the optical is the one to follow. Because after everything is done, the design must look good and make sense to the eye.

Kerning is done with the eyes

When type designers kern (determine the spacing for each letter when paired with a specific other letter) all the combinations of their alphabet, they adjust with their eyes. There is no magical instant kerning tool in type design. Moreover, the eye trumps the ruler.

Attempting to kern my first humanist typeface

But weight, there’s more

When I attended a short type design workshop by Jean Francois Porchez, they provided a bunch of materials: calligraphy pen, ink pencils, masking tape, tracing paper, graphing paper. And no ruler.

We drew 80% of the time with our hands, and used the computer in the last hours only. Which I loved. But we also used our optical judgment the whole time, to evaluate details such as size, weight, and proportion. “Use your eye,” even when drawing the guidelines, Jean Francois advised.

We need to consciously use our eyes.

When learning type design, 80% of the work is done by hand

There was one time my boss, let’s call her the Imperial Ruler, said to me “what letterspacing is that?” And I said, auto. Her eyes got big and I felt some steam. She said, “Don’t let the computer tell you what to do; you tell the computer what to do!”

(Later on she also praised me for excellent kerning on a logo, and it was also “auto” but I was so embarrassed and scared of her response, I didn’t say anything.)

Type designers use their eyes to judge things. Similarly, graphic designers use their eye when typesetting. It may be awkward at first, and you may have no idea what to look for but there are some basic principles to start with. They use their eye to judge the weight of a paragraph, readability, balance. Even when you don’t know the principles, your eye has a built-in capacity to see things. Most people don’t see it because they don’t think they can. But really, you have no choice but to trust your eye because that’s what you’ll use for practically everything. You will use the computer to align things, but sometimes it doesn’t get it right either (because of letter shapes and their quirks) and you have to see that.

So the good news: yes, you can trust your eye! Trust is after all the starting point for most things. And the more you use it, the more you can trust it. And enjoy it.

It’s such a relief that type design is not robotic; a lot of it is drawing, imagination, and creativity. A lot of it also is ridiculing boring typefaces like Times new roman, and encouraging each other to do something different, and using type to test it out.

Type is human. Design is human.

Black Panther: Loved the Movie, Adored the Typeface

Typographic spoiler alert

I’m the type of moviegoer who does barely any research on a movie before I watch it. I find it more enjoyable to experience a story with no expectations.

As Black Panther unfolded, the first thing that pulled me in was the typeface — the opening credits were flashing in and out with some digital effects, typeset in a font reminiscent of the typeface Gotham, with African/tribal influences. It looked custom-made for the movie and was the first hint of what the story might involve.

As the movie unfolded and the technological landscape of Wakanda (the fictional setting of most of the movie) came into view, modern geometric shapes, mixed with linear African accents made more sense, hinting at tribal culture and tradition in a modern context.

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The typeface drew me into the movie, the perfect introduction to the story that was to unfold. And every graphic detail of the movie was a marvel. (Pun intended haha).

The costumes were a visual feast, so much so that the fight scenes were actually a delight to watch.

I won’t say any more except that it’s probably the Marvel movie that I enjoyed the most. And not just because of that typeface.

The Comic Sans Oppression

This innocent little typeface has been bullied for too long.

At church today, we had a guest preacher. She was introduced as a lady with a passion for justice, a defender and helper of the oppressed. She is the head of an orphanage as well as other mission initiatives.

She prepared some slides for her message, and one moment she was showing us Bible verses in Helvetica, and then later on in an italicized Comic Sans-like font. (Distracted by the slides I wondered, as she preached, does Comic Sans have italics? A real italics version, not just a computer-slanted Regular?)

So anyway the next slide, was, definitely, Comic Sans.

And I thought, how fitting that she would use a typeface that is, like those she cares about, oppressed. (How did she know?) Amazingly she picked Comic Sans (and its cousins). Helvetica, which she used, is also another typeface suffering constant criticism, mostly from people who have seen it too much and have been experiencing Helvetica fatigue.

So there I was sitting in church, snickering to myself, being so judgy about seeing Comic Sans (in purple, mind you — but then again, it is Pantone’s color of the year) on the giant screens.

And now, guilt-ridden, I feel the need to redeem myself from my evil thoughts by attempting to defend, and honor, the most oppressed typeface of all time.

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So here are some things I would like to remind the world about Comic Sans.

1. Comic Sans was created to solve a design problem

“Typographic Engineer” at Microsoft, Vincent Connare, could not accept that a Microsoft Bob, a very friendly software with a cartoon dog, was going to have the very formal Times New Roman as its typeface — to be used in cartoony speech bubbles. So he designed the friendly Comic Sans to fittingly replace it.

Unfortunately though, because the measurements of Comic Sans did not exactly match Times New Roman’s, and Comic Sans would be too big for the existing speech bubbles, (and I assume no one at Microsoft valued typeface choice enough to grant extra time to adjust the speech bubble sizes or type size), Comic Sans didn’t get to save the day. For that project, at least.

Instead, it became part of Microsoft’s Windows 95, and was happily adopted by hundreds of thousands of school term papers, and even corporate reports all over the world.

2. Comic Sans was inspired by the text in DC comic books

Hence the name Comic Sans (which is probably short for Comic Sans Serif, otherwise comic sans would just mean “no comic”).

Comic books’ text is handwritten, but Comic Sans was a fontified version of handwritten text, making that same text easily usable, without the time and effort of writing by hand. Using digitized handwriting of course sacrifices some organic qualities of handwritten text, which is why many designers find Comic Sans offensive. Because of its nature it doesn’t seem to belong anywhere — not as a typeface, nor as handwritten text, and is often misunderstood.

3. Comic Sans makes office people happy

“People like it because it’s not like a typeface,” says its designer Vincent Connare, as quoted by Simon Garfield in Just My Type.

Comic Sans looked different from all the other fonts in the Windows 95 package. It stood out, with its irregular shapes and fat strokes. Perhaps many found the curved stroke endings more friendly than the pointy serifs of the ancient typefaces. And people were happy to use it. Office people, bored to death looking at their corporate reports in Times New Roman, scanned the list of available fonts, and Comic Sans would be a refreshing, down-to-earth typeface in a sea of sophisticated, distinguished fonts. Not as fancy as Jokerman, nor as foreign as Papyrus, and definitely not boring like Times New Roman. Comic Sans just has what it takes to pop out of the “regular fonts” and capture the attention, and heart, of cubicle workers.

4. Comic Sans knows its purpose in life; it’s those who mis-use it who don’t

Comic Sans, like every typeface, is created to serve a communication need. Those who don’t see typefaces as tools of communication, but rather, decoration, will inevitably use it in a non-kiddie or non-comics context, and it will be disaster. But when that happens, it’s not Comic Sans’ fault. Don’t blame the typeface for the mistakes of its user.

5. Comic Sans was a pioneer

Comic Sans was born in 1994. It had no competition. Since then, so many handwriting-ish typefaces have been created, each for its own purpose. There are some Comic Sans look-alikes too. But Comic Sans was the first to be embraced then hated, and now it is probably the most unforgettable typeface of all time.