Good Fonts, Bad Fonts, and the Presidency

Somehow we’ve let the election season come to a close without thanking both parties for making this an 100% H&FJ election. Continuing the signature voice of its 2008 campaign, Obama for America kept Gotham as its typographic keystone, this year adding our Sentinel typeface as a companion slab serif. The GOP chose fonts from us as well, the Romney campaign settling on Mercury for its serif and Whitney for its sans.

We’d especially like to thank the teams at Obama for America and Blue State Digital for making us a part of their outstanding work on Barackobama.com. Eagle-eyed viewers may have noticed that webfonts from H&FJ made their first appearance on that site earlier this year, an especially meaningful milestone for all of us. It’s not often that your first beta tester is the President of the United States.

If the coming days bring a bitter electoral challenge, or the next four years bring the nation continuing deadlock on Capitol Hill, Americans will know exactly who to blame: typeface designers. According to this study by researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, bad typography may be useful in softening the stance of the politically extreme. The theory is that awkward or uncomfortable typography disrupts a reader’s “confirmation bias,” one’s tendency to only see things that are agreeable. What amateur typography might do for a candidate’s credibility is anyone’s guess, and whether the study’s choice of Times Bold really counts as an acceptable control for “good typography” remains an open question. But I look forward to the 2016 election, in which the honorable grunge candidate will face off against his esteemed colleague using Comic Sans. —JH

Typefacial Recognition at H&FJ Labs

Typeface: Ideal Sans

We’re generally content to control font outlines by pushing points around on a screen, but an intuitive interface for managing the entire gestalt of a type family remains elusive. Andy Clymer at H&FJ tends to develop fonts and tools together (one always seems to be the excuse to create the other), and this is his latest exploration: using facial recognition to control the basic parameters of a font’s design.

Behold Andy modeling his latest creation, which employs Kyle McDonald’s FaceOSC library, GlyphMath from RoboFab, and Tal Leming’s Vanilla to mutate the geometries behind our Ideal Sans typeface in realtime. I’m intrigued by the potential to control local and global qualities of a typeface at the same time: fingers and mouse to design the details, faces and cameras to determine their position in a whole realm of design possibilities. I wonder about the possibilities of a facial feedback loop, in which one’s expression of wonder and delight could instantly undo a moment of evanescent beauty. And then there are the possibilities of environmental pathogens affecting letterforms: what might too much caffeine, air conditioning, or ragweed pollen do to a typeface? Listening to Louis C.K.? Too many whiskey sours? —JH

Uptown App, for iPhones

Typefaces: Gotham, Mercury Text, Giant

Manhattan’s urban grid is a vaunted model of simplicity, a rectilinear plan of numbered streets intersecting numbered avenues. Never mind that West 4th Street crosses West 10th, that those walking from Fifth Avenue to Third Avenue will seldom encounter Fourth Avenue, and that “North” in the New York sense differs from conventional “North” to the tune of 29°. It’s this kind of accuracy, transparency and accountability that makes New York the perfect home for Wall Street.

A fixture of the corner of Broadway and Houston, where H&FJ makes its home, is a tourist population forever asking that question of the ages, “which way is uptown?” I can’t entirely blame them: in the math of the NYC grid, Houston is 0th Street, and local signs wickedly conceal the real names of avenues below fake labels that are designed specifically to ensnare tourists. (Watch the meter when you ask a taxi driver to take you anywhere on “Avenue of the Americas.”)

To the rescue comes our own Andy Clymer, whose joint interests in typography, programming, and human decency are combined in Uptown App, his new utility for the iPhone 3GS. Andy’s thoughtfully used some of our fonts on what’s actually a pretty handy app: because it uses the iPhone’s built-in magnetometer, it can give you a quick read on “uptown” in places where GPS signals and cellular networks are unavailable or slow to come online, like when stepping out of freezing cold subway stations. Compared to the inconvenience of frostbite, 99¢ is a genuine bargain. —JH

Obnoxious Character Recognition

Typeface: Mercury Display Bold Italic

At the heart of the game of cat-and-mouse played by bloggers and spammers is Captcha, purveyor of those staticky demands to enter the code exactly as shown above. Captcha is premised on the idea that brains are still better than machines at reading text, and that by forcing visitors to decipher a distorted piece of typography, the system can successfully distinguish between humans and robots. Of course, ongoing advancements in OCR technology have sparked a proportionate response in the impenetrability of Captcha, provoking an arms race whose chief casualty is the quality of life online. Next time you’re submitting to some real-world indignity — say, stripping down to your underwear at an airport security screening — try to look forward to the geniality of the virtual world, in which your own computer, from the comfort of your own home, will upbraid you for mistyping B89gqlIIl. And this after it went to all the trouble of obscuring the type using a three-dimensional distortion matrix, edge softening, gaussian interference, random occlusion, and your least favorite font. Puny human.

But happily — brilliantly! — Captcha’s inventor, Luis von Ahn, has inverted his own technology in the service of something grand. Von Ahn’s latest project, reCaptcha, replaces Captcha’s random gobbledygook with actual snippets of digitized books that computers have so far been unable to decipher. ReCaptcha uses each individual human intervention to improve the quality of digital literacy, a welcome relief for readers of this 1861 text that mentions modems (“modem art” is a common flub.) National Public Radio has the full story in this four-minute interview with the inventor himself. —JH

Data Visualization of the Day

Jason Kottke turned me on to this fantastic data visualization by Zach Beane, showing this year’s box office gross for American movies. Like this related graphic at The New York Times, it uses the x-axis for time and the height of each node to indicate revenue, but presents the data in a way that allows readers to infer four additional kinds of information — without having to complicate the graphic:

The position on the y-axis represents each film’s rank, revealing the importance of a strong opening weekend (but begging the question of how The Bucket List, which opened in 23rd place, became the #1 movie in America the following week; something to do with New Year’s Day?) The slope of each line conveys the distinction between films with a slow burn (Juno) and those that flamed out (Cloverfield.) Beane makes a rare and non-gratuitous use of color to distinguish individual data lines, where the occasional dissonance identifies films with box office longevity: the thread of mint green running through the purple of early May highlights the inexplicable endurance of Horton Hears a Who. And the height of the y-axis overall charts seasonal trends in the industry at large, confirming that July is considerably more important than April.

Finally, I appreciate the way Beane used rollovers to reveal the names of the films themselves. A lesser designer would have given this information primacy, but Beane recognized that the titles, while crucial, are not the story themselves. Isn’t it nice when a bold decision is demonstrably the right one? —JH

Four Shortage Strikes Nation

The New York Times reports on crippling shortfalls in the nation’s strategic four reserve:

‘With regular gas in New York City at a near-record $4.40 a gallon, station managers are rummaging through their storage closets in search of extra 4s to display on their pumps. Many are coming up short… “Typically, we have a lot of 9s and 1s, and we had a shortage of 3s before we got a lot of 3s in,” Mr. Nair said.’

Welcome to the world of frequency distribution. The popularity of different letters is familiar to anyone who’s ever watched Wheel of Fortune, as well as anyone who’s ever seen a Linotype keyboard (where the confounding qwerty is replaced by the ranked-by-popularity etaoin shrdlu.) But numbers, counterinituitively, have their own frequencies as well: a simple example of this is to write out the numbers from one to twenty, and notice that while most digits are used twice, the two appears thrice, and the one appears twelve times.

Different applications have their own unique frequency fingerprints. North American area codes traditionally favor zeroes and ones, retail prices favor fours and nines ($49.99); Golan Levin and Jonathan Feinberg explored the topic beautifully in their Java applet The Secret Lives of Numbers. There’s also a lot of occult numerology in the background of our Numbers collection, in which everything from cash register receipts to monuments reveals something about the culture of numbers. Of course, gas pumps are in there too, fours and all. And fives. And sixes… —JH

Typographic Gifts for Designers, Part 4

Every design studio has at least one of Edward Tufte’s books. They’re traditionally distributed during the sacred initiation ceremony through which one becomes a Graphic Designer: a cloaked celebrant makes the sign of command-option-escape and anoints the novice with toner, the congregation recites the paternoster from Paul Rand’s Design, Form, and Chaos, and the now-ordained Designer is presented with the Holy Relics that will form the heart of his or her own workplace: a manga-inspired wind-up toy, a framed fruit crate label with a smutty pun, an overwrought and temperamental stapler with a European pedigree, and a copy of Envisioning Information.

Whether you share Tufte’s love of clarity, or haven’t read his books and simply want the shortcut to intellectual street cred (I’ll deal with you later), you’ll want a copy of this poster showing Napoleon’s March to Moscow, which Tufte correctly calls “probably the best statistical graphic ever drawn.” Designed by Charles Joseph Minard in 1869 and now reproduced by Graphics Press, the diagram simultaneously shows the position, direction, and strength of Napoleon’s army, as well as the time and temperature at each turn — a remarkable amount of information for such an intuitive and tidy diagram. —JH

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