Sunday, October 9, 2011

A Font Of Knowledge


When writing a standard five-paragraph essay or creating a visual aid, our students have a vast array of textual fonts within their stylistic tool kits. We typically encounter two polar frustrations in viewing our students' work: they either ignore font size and placement altogether, or they go font-crazy. In designing Prezis or PowerPoint shows, they sometimes slap words haphazardly on the screen in squinting colors and heights, wherever their cursor happens to hover at a given moment. At other times, they inflate font sizes to disguise overly brief papers, or they flaunt kaleidoscopes of calligraphies in distracting, artistic spasms.

It's hard to overestimate the effect of a well-chosen font. The right typeface can convey immediate meaning, in its contemporary sleekness or its Old World script. The positioning of words amid other visual elements can unite a graphic and can help communicate an overall message. Sometimes, we give our students strict parameters, such as the timeless "double-spaced 12-point Times New Roman" requirement for basic research papers. At other times, we guide them in moderation of hues and serifs, in order to be visually interesting without being visually disturbing. One of the reasons we like Prezi so much is that its templates limit font options. This helps reinforce the notion of restraint in design schemes. We also, though, find ourselves occasionally encouraging students to experiment with fonts, in order not to fall back on the lazy default or the predictable choice.

Source: Simon Garfield
A lively investigation of print fonts and their connotations is Simon Garfield's recent book, Just My Type. Garfield surveys the gamut of familiar and obscure font choices, and he lends particular focus to the modern cult of Helvetica and the priggish disdain of Comic Sans. He identifies fonts in popular movie banners and praises iconic kernings and drop caps. We've mentioned before the signature effect of President Obama's Gotham font, and we continue to be fascinated by other politicians' letterings. Garfield's book makes a worthy case for paying attention to the quirks and impacts of textual fonts. It's certainly a case we'll keep reinforcing in the classroom.

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