About Face: A Brief History of Letters, Featuring Our Favorite Type

Every author strives to find the perfect words to tell their story, but does it matter what the words look like?

From books and documentaries on the subject of typography, to blogs declaring their love of the art form, to Saturday Night Live’s satiric thriller about one graphic designer’s great typographic failure, a vast amount of attention has been dedicated to the importance of well-designed letters.

So why the big deal?

The answer begins in the mid-fifteenth century, with the invention of moveable type. For the first time, thanks to Johann Gutenberg, individual letters cast in metal could be arranged and rearranged to form words, pamphlets, and whole books—which could be mass produced.

Along with his invention, Gutenberg also gave us the first typeface, a blackletter font resembling the calligraphy of the monks who had previously handwritten books. Some historians believe he designed this font to make consumers more easily accept his new method of printing.

To this day, each typeface carries its own purpose and message. Ornate blackletter fonts, such as those used for the titles of some newspapers, signal history, seriousness, and authority, while playful, handwritten-looking fonts such as Comic Sans send the opposite message.

I asked our art director Scott Levine to share his favorite typeface used at the press. His answer: the sleek sans serif Verlag.

I first considered Verlag when I began thinking about the design for The Borscht Belt, which features the photography of Marisa Scheinfeld. Her work focuses on the abandoned sites and structures where resorts, hotels, and bungalow colonies once boomed in the Catskill mountains region of New York. I was looking for a sans serif typeface that would connect to that bygone era and also have a more modern appeal to connect us with Marisa’s current-day perspective.

Scheinfeld 300

I had considered timeless classics like Futura and more modern faces like Avenir Next, but Verlag stood out as achieving the right balance. It proved to be the first use of many and has been featured on more than a dozen covers since. I love its versatility. It’s strong, classy, and clean yet has a slightly relaxed look that makes it useful in so many situations. Our marketing designer, Elizabeth Kim, has used it to create some fresh and appealing looks.

When I think about type for interior book design, I use a different approach. With the cover I try to create an emotional and intellectual response that hopefully leads readers to pick up the book. With interior design I want the text face to create a less obvious response. I want the type to work in the background to inspire a feeling appropriate to the topic and audience, as well as establish a hierarchy of information that is easy to follow. The typeface is important to the experience of reading in that it adds a subtle flavor without drawing attention to itself. Often I choose Minion, Sabon, or Granjon.

Whether a font works quietly in the background or catches your eye from a bookshelf across the room, there can be no doubt that typography is a language all its own. Has a typeface ever influenced your reaction to a book — for better or worse? If so, we’d love to hear about it.

Jennifer Savran Kelly is our newest production editor. You can follow her on Twitter @savranly and read some of her other ramblings at jennifersavrankelly.com.

About Face: A Brief History of Letters, Featuring Our Favorite Type