Baskerville is the new Helvetica.

by Jen

Remember when the physicists at CERN discovered the Higgs (-like) Boson last month? Remember how they were mocked for presenting their findings in Comic Sans? I was of two minds about the issue; I love to hate Comic Sans as much as the next guy, but I also think that very hatred is often as hilariously absurd as the typeface itself. The designer in me was disappointed in the scientists’ typographical choices, as if using a stupid-looking typeface somehow takes away from the significance of their work, but the physicist in me was too busy applauding their work and reflecting on the magnitude of the discovery to even notice the whining of said internal designerly monologue. As everyone’s favorite patent clerk once said:

“If you are out to describe the truth, leave elegance to the tailor.”

I have no background in typography aside from a year’s worth of graduate design coursework, but I often wonder why so much focus is directed solely on a font’s legibility; if designers are wont to pursue the holy trinity of useful, usable and desirable, why isn’t that trinity equally present in typography? Of course, I’m sure that most graphic designers will maintain that it is, but if usability translates roughly into legibility, where do the usefulness and desirability of a typeface factor? I admit I have given this question relatively little thought, but was recently reminded of the subject when I read about a sneaky study conducted by filmmaker Errol Morris. He discovered that Baskerville, compared to other typefaces, is perceived as the most truthful. Maybe there’s a little more to that desirability component…

As Michael Bierut writes for the Design Observer:

“We have entered a new, unexpected landscape,” Errol Morris writes. “Truth is not font dependent, but a font can subtly influence us to believe that a sentence is true. Could it swing an election? Induce us to buy a new dinette set? Change some of our most deeply held and cherished beliefs?”

Whether or not a typeface can do any or all of those things, I do agree the landscape has changed. Once upon a time, regular people didn’t even know the names of typefaces. Then, with the invention of the personal computer, people started learning. They had their opinions and they had their favorites. But until now, type was a still matter of taste. Going forward, if someone wants to tell the truth, he or she will know exactly what typeface to use. Of course, the truth is the truth no matter what typeface it’s in. How long before people realize that Baskerville is even more useful if you want to lie?

I don’t know about you, but I’m dying to find out how many science denial treatises have been printed in Baskerville, and more importantly, why that Higgs Boson presentation wasn’t.

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