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As the Sanctuary release approaches (formal announcement VERY SOON, y’all!) I’m starting to work on interior design components and researching which fonts to buy, and I’ve mentioned this to a couple of people, and the reaction I’ve gotten has been a consistent and overwhelming 1.) “you have to pay for that?!?” and 2.) “wow, it never occurred to me that that is so important.”

Yes, and yes. It’s really important, from both a design and a legal standpoint. Here’s a little guide to the fundamentals of typography and the type industry, and a tour of the process of choosing a font for commercial use.

(Fonts, really, because there are more than one. I’ll get to that.)

I’ve always been a typography fan – I don’t consider myself knowledgable enough to class as geek, though I aspire to it – and after four years of undergrad and two years of grad school and many, many years of technical and procedural writing and institutional email and whatnot, let me tell you, I just loathe Times New Roman. I understand the place it has in the world – only too well, which is the problem. More precisely, I despise the mindset it puts me in. I cannot do creative writing in TNR. Just kills it. TNR is for technical and academic writing, not for literature and storytelling.

I’ve written the entire Darzins’ Mill saga up to this point in Palatino Linotype, which has a nice generous open flowing feel to it, but as I’m getting down to brass tacks here I’m tinkering with typefaces I might actually use for the final print version, and for a variety of reasons (mostly the $189 price tag, but my feelings about their business practices and other reasons too) I’m not interested in supporting the Mergenthaler Linotype brand (or Monotype or Adobe).

Ever since Gutenberg, type has been very proprietary, tightly controlled, tightly licensed technology, but the innovative independent designer has also had a very important place in the industry. During the era of cut-metal moveable type, and especially in the earliest years of the technology, typeface design was central to the publishing workflow: the type designer was often the same master artisan who owned or managed the press and made the decisions about what texts would be printed, and often, the type was designed with the text in mind. Typefaces are intellectual property (and, for most of their history, physical property, as in the actual physical moveable type) and the provenance of that property has been tightly controlled over time, and in some cases goes back hundreds of years.

Over time, with each new technological iteration – hot metal typesetting, phototypesetting, and digital typesetting – the typeface designer moved further away from the end use. Transformations in digital typesetting in the last twenty years have completed that break: designers now put digital fonts* out in the world, either independently or through typography firms or via software companies, and most end users most of the time have no idea where the fonts they are using came from or who designed them or what their history is.

*Distinction between typeface and font: the typeface is the design, and the font is the execution. Historically, a font was a complete and discrete set of moveable type in a specific typeface in a specific size. In digital typesetting, a font is a single standalone piece of software that makes it possible to reproduce the typeface.

As with other aspects of the interactive web and creative economy and maker culture, new tools and excellent tutorials put the ability to create unique digital fonts within easy reach. There are hundreds of established designers working for big firms and thousands of independents, tens of thousands of free** fonts, and dozens of font repositories on the Internet.

Note that big red asterisk next to “free.” There are (I’m simplifying a little here) two tiers of font licensing: desktop licensing and commercial licensing. If you buy a piece of software that is preloaded with fonts (like Microsoft Office, which is loaded with fonts commissioned for and owned by, or licensed by, Microsoft for that purpose) it almost certainly includes a desktop license. This allows you to use the font for creating digital and print documents for noncommercial distribution and general use – for a report, for a letter, for an informational sign***.

What it doesn’t allow you to do is use that font in the creation of a product and then sell that product. For that, you need a commercial license. ***Included in “product” is an institutional brand or image. So, for example, hanging a temporary sign on the door of the library saying we’re closed on a given holiday is a perfectly appropriate use of a desktop licensed font like TNR. (Think: fair use.) But for creating consistent, branded signage throughout the library, or for advertising, a commercial license is required.

Many, many of the “free” fonts on repository sites come with free desktop licenses, but the commercial license costs. Commercial licenses, like other software licenses, are often structured on a site-license basis. Many more are shareware – the commercial license is also free, but the option to donate to the designer exists.

Design Shack has an excellent article on the technicalities of commercial licenses, linking to further resources on how to determine whether or not a commercial license is needed for a given application. Obviously, the typefaces used in a book that is going to be sold are a solidly commercial use. A publishing company would have a robust licensed font library for their designers to work with, and a workflow and decision-making hierarchy for determining when a particular project or market trend merits purchasing a new one, but I’m on my own here, so that’s also my job.

So, how do you decide?

In short: design standards and economics.

I’m a small independent press. I can’t afford some of the higher-end licenses (see above) and I don’t really want to anyway; nor do I want to support the merger-and-acquisition culture of the typography industry and the publishing industry in general. (I was a little enamored of Chaparral Pro for a while but when I went looking I found out it’s owned by Adobe, and the license price is not unreasonable but Adobe doesn’t really need more money.) I feel very strongly about giving my money directly to an individual and boosting their signal. So that, off the bat, eliminates a large swathe of fonts. Narrows the field, makes the remaining choices easier. Font repositories make it easy, by indexing fonts by category and providing plenty of information about the provenance of the font and, generally, a direct link to the intellectual property owner.

About design, then. As in all design stuff, you have to know what you like and what you’re looking for and how – if something you’re looking at almost but not quite fits – how to articulate what’s missing or wrong or unsatisfying, and where to look for the thing that’s just a little closer to the ideal you’re searching for. And that means knowing a little about the underlying principles and standards of the thing so that you have the vocabulary.

Martin Silvertant and Typography Deconstructed have some excellent typography tutorials and reference diagrams:


Research shows that serif typefaces are easier to read on paper, and san serif are easier to read on backlit screens and signs, which is why, duh, TNR and Arial. San serif for the main text body of books that are not art books is almost unheard of, so that eliminates another whole category. So now we’re down to serif fonts by indie designers.

Now, go pick up a book that is a pleasure to read. Hold it in your hands, open it to a random page. Look at the type. Does it feel small and tight or large and open? Dense and heavy or light and lacy? How much white space is there on the page? How does it make you feel? When you read this text, is it a leisurely experience, or an energizing one (or – you don’t want this! – a mechanical one)?

I have in my hand the 1952 reprint of the 1933 Knopf edition of The Garden of the Prophet by Kahlil Gibran, and, oh, conveniently, it has a typesetting statement.

This book is set (on the linotype) in Original Old Style, of the history of which very little is known; in practically its present form it has been used for many years for fine book and magazine work. The design of its lower-case letters would indicate a derivation from English and Dutch Old Styles of the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, the period which reached its culmination in the work of William Caslon. The blackness of its capitals shows clearly, however, that their design was modified in imitation of the Modern faces which so completely displaced the Old Styles during the first half of the nineteenth century. Original Old Style possesses in a high degree those two qualities by which a book type must be judged: first, legibility, and second, the ability to import a definite character to a page without intruding itself upon the reader’s consciousness.

So, okay, that’s very similar (but not identical) to what’s now known as Century Old Style, designed in 1906 by Morris Fuller Benton. This typeface is very even and readable, with very small eyes and large counters, very firm upright stems and a slightly flourishy elegance in the serifs and and terminals, and strong bold strokes on the capitals. The typeface itself is fairly weighty, but there’s a lot of white space on the page – wide margins and line spacing, which balances the weight and gives a spacious and elegant overall effect. It feels very poetic. It’s beautiful. It’s not quite what I’m looking for, though.

I myself am a fan of open, airy text, especially for fiction; lightweight characters densely packed on the page feel textbookish to me. The movement of the eye across the page should be relaxed and harmonious. I like big counters but I also like big ascenders, and that means a very balanced x-height and a nice generous arc. I like a historical typeset feel, a hearkening back to the first half of the twentieth century, the heyday of typeface design; I want to evoke the substantial feel of the moveable type striking the paper and leaving an imprint. I looked at a lot of typefaces, probably looked at thirty or forty that I liked enough to download and format my manuscript in, but none of them made me happy; none of them felt like they were mine.

I’ve long been a fan of Frederic Goudy, wildly prolific and influential designer, passionate and unapologetic geek, and mastercraftsman, who is of course responsible for Goudy Old Style, possibly “the most heavily covered song of all time,” digitized with varying levels of fidelity and appreciation by all of the big guys – Linotype and Adobe and Microsoft, and Goudy’s own old firm, Lanston Monotype, later bought out by Mergenthaler. Goudy would have hated that.

So when I discovered that Goudy’s somewhat lesser-known Kennerley Old Style has been masterfully and sensitively digitized as Goudy Bookletter 1911 by designer Barry Schwartz and released as open source, I was delighted. Kennerley is really beautiful, with up-tilted crossbars and generous flourishy (but not too flourishy) serifs and a distinct emphasis on the axis that makes the counters seem bigger than they are, and a very slight bowing on the diagonals of certain letters that suggests calligraphy while maintaining fidelity to the distinct art of type.

And Kennerley works well with the font family I’d already selected for a heading font, Cinzel by Natanael Gama. This will be the chapter headers, the title page, the author and title leaders on the top of the page, stuff like that.

Cinzel is Portuguese for chisel, and basic Cinzel is a Roman-style all-caps typeface inspired by and evoking both Classical stonework and Renaissance Italian texts from the first century of moveable type, while Cinzel Decorative is lusher and more calligraphic, with fancy ascenders and descenders and elegant and surprising details very like those in Kennerley. Even though these two typefaces have nothing in common historically – they’re descended from lineages that split off in opposite directions within twenty years or so of the invention of the printing press, and share neither a design nor a linguistic commonality at any point – they dance together on the page. They’re lovely.


Circling back to the beginning, I’ve begun playing around with fonts as soon as I’ve got the first few paragraphs of a new short story down, actually writing in the typeface in which I think I might publish, or just the typeface that appeals to me in the moment of writing. I’m interested in the effect it will have on the creative process and on the story itself. Some authors swear by longhand, and although that’s not my process, maybe they’re onto something: the intersection of hand, eye, and mind, the intentionality of the letters on the page as the story emerges and takes shape.



Published in visual art writing


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