Over the course of an entire summer in 1916, block by block, letter by letter, T.J. Cobden Sanderson threw his masterpiece typeset off of the Hammersmith Bridge in London. The story goes that it took him over 100 nightly trips to complete his plan and ensure that the now legendary Doves Press typeface never be used again. Sanderson devised this plan over years, obsessed with never letting the typeset be mechanized and fall into the wrong hands. He insisted that it’s beauty and power only be used to communicate works of great humanity like the writings of Dante, or the Bible. 100 years later, a designer named Robert Green used his life savings to commission a group of professional divers from the Port Authority of London to find the missing blocks. Despite 100 years of the river’s tide, several hundred blocks were recovered from deep in the silt underneath the bridge. Robert Green painstakingly reproduced each block and after a long and tedious process released his version of Doves Press back out into the world.
So what about a font can drive these two men, separated by a century of time, to these lengths of borderline madness?
The art of type, or Typography is an incredible world once it reveals itself to you. What is the written word if not visual art? When we simply change the font of any typeface, IT CAN MEAN SOMETHING COMPLETELY DIFFERENT TO US. The same letters, communicating the same thoughts into words, yet now they feel completely different. SHY AND SUBTLE or angry and brutal.
In 2009 a woman named Vicki Walker was literally fired from her accounting job for sending what her boss described as “confrontational” emails. When the HR department looked over the claims against Vicki’s emails the only thing they found uncouth about them was they were written in all caps. The words and ideas of the messages themselves were polite and professional. But the nature of all caps was more powerful than the actual ideas she was communicating. I mean, even the words POLITE AND PROFESSIONAL written this way sound rude.
The same way that words can seem stern in all caps, they can seem elegant or soft spoken or wild just by representing them as an idea with other fonts. In the new digital world we have created, branding and the communication of your personal voice is incredibly important. In the real world we wear different hats or shirts or drive certain cars and listen to certain music to identify ourselves to others. In our online world of personal websites and social media, we have endless opportunities to expound on the tools of the real world. How we express our thoughts through written words using typeset and font are very powerful pieces of that self expression.
Typography is a hidden world of manipulation and persuasion and powerful beauty. In the digital world its all around us at all times. We only have to take a moment and notice its effect on our emotions to begin to use these tools ourselves. So what’s your favorite font?
*Comic Sans supporters will be banned ; ]