Get to Know a Typeface! Cooper Black

Cooper Black is heavy, round, and friendly. It might as well be the third author of IBD. (The blog, not the book.) (We already have a third author of the book, and I would never call her heavy or round.) (You see, since Shea and I are heavy and round, like Cooper Black, and the two of us write this blog, the joke here was that Cooper Black could also be an author of this blog.) (I reiterate, I was not calling our reclusive and mysterious third author (of the book, not the blog), diehard Texas Rangers fan Lisa Brochu, heavy or round.) (Though Lisa is friendly. One of the nicest people you’ll ever meet! Hi Lisa!) (I better get on with this.)

When I look at Cooper Black, I think of Chicago. This is because I’ve always thought Cooper Black is what a traditional serifed typeface would look like if it ate like I did for the one week I spent in Chicago. (Did you know it’s possible to consider an entire deep-dish pizza a mid-afternoon snack?) It turns out there’s another reason to associate this typeface with Chicago: It was designed in 1922 by Chicago’s own Oswald Bruce Cooper. (At the time, Oswald was thinking, “It’s been 14 years since the Cubs won a World Series. It’s about time they win again!”)

In 1972, US President Richard Nixon issued an executive order that all communication worldwide be conducted exclusively in Cooper Black. It’s important to note that while the previous sentence is entirely false, it might as well have been true, because Cooper Black was used a lot in the 1970s. To wit:

This 1976 poster for the movie King Kong.

The flag (often mistakenly called the masthead) of National Lampoon magazine. This one here was from 1970.

The Beach Boys’ album “Pet Sounds,” released in 1966 (which we understand is technically not a part of the 1970s).

The end credits for the TV show Cheers, beginning in 1982. (Let’s face it: I was there in 1982 and it was still part of the ’70s.)

And just so that we know it’s still around, Cooper Black still shows up pretty regularly in high-profile places, as with the logo for Slurm soda in Futurama:

Cooper Black is the VW Bug of typography. There have been periods where it was wildly popular as the people’s font, then widely reviled as too round and kind of ugly, then popular again in a sort of ironic way. Graphic designers who use Cooper Black are the same people who wear plastic-mesh-backed John Deere baseball caps without ever having been on a farm. They think it’s funny but they’re not sure why.

Cooper Black is indeed used a lot, so many designers shy away from it, but it was carefully crafted by a talented type designer and it’s perfectly suited for certain purposes, so using Cooper Black cannot be compared to using actual bad typefaces like Comic Sans.

Ultimately, I like Cooper Black and would use it if the occasion were to arise. Now I just have to get hold of the guy and see if he wants to write this blog with us.

Get to Know a Typeface! Connecticut State of Mind

We recently received this question from Friend of IBD Patricia Perry through our Ask a Nerd! link:

I am a font nerd. I collect fonts much the same as other folks collect small china porcupines. I recently discovered “Connecticut.” I am in love with this font. Although it is not appropriate for every venue, I find its form and grace appealing. What are your thoughts on this cute little font?

To my knowledge, Patricia has never been in my house and I’m certain that she does not have a key to the safe in the basement, so I’m a little freaked out that she knows about my china porcupine collection. Nevertheless, Patricia is the one and only person ever to review our book on Amazon and she gave it five stars, so any question Patricia asks, we answer.

I had never heard of Connecticut as a typeface before (though I do know that there’s a suburb of New York City called Connecticut*). There’s not a lot of information about the typeface available online, but my guess is that it was designed by someone with artistic talents, but not much experience in typeface design. The first clue to this effect is that it’s available as a free download from a number of sites, including FontPark and Fonts 101.

I agree with Patricia that Connecticut is graceful. (I can’t believe I wrote “Connecticut” and “graceful” in the same sentence after this month’s college basketball championship.) The individual letterforms are great. They have an elegant, organic form, accentuated by tall ascenders, like those seen in the lower-case h and d in the sample above.

What bothers me is the way the letters interact with one another. You can see what I mean the sample above (which was created by a random text generator). The typeface is meant to emulate script writing, so it bothers me the way the letters don’t connect. This can be seen most clearly in the space between the i and s of is.

Look at the h and e in Shea. Not only does the terminal stroke of the h not connect with the e, but the angle of the stroke where the h would connect to the cross stroke of the e is different, so the illusion that you’re looking at handwriting is broken.

I would take Patricia’s comment that this typeface is not right for every venue one step further. I’d say that with this typeface, you have to not only choose the appropriate venue, but also use it in specific ways. I would definitely not use this typeface for large blocks of text at a small point size. But at a large size, short words, like my favorite Scrabble word Qi, emphasize the elegant, organic form while offering the opportunity to minimize the issues caused by the way the letters interact (if you’re only using this typeface for one or two words at a large size, you can take them into Illustrator and fix those issues).

There’s a lot to like about Connecticut (the typeface, not the cheating basketball team and its corrupt coach). Patricia’s affinity for its grace and elegance is certainly warranted. But as with many free typefaces that do not come from established, well-known typeface designers, it’s important to use it carefully and pay attention to the details.

And whatever you do, avoid the Merritt Parkway at rush hour.

*Note to Shea: This joke is funny because Connecticut is not just a suburb of New York, it’s its own state. I thought I’d explain, given how little time in your life you’ve spent in or near New York.

Get to Know a Typeface! Minion

Normally, on this site, we write about expressive typefaces that evoke strong responses. And since Shea and I are bitter, unhappy people, we write about typefaces that are easy to hate like Comic Sans and Papyrus.

Minion, designed by Robert Slimbach in 1990, is one of those typefaces that only a typographer could love (not that other people dislike it; they just don’t notice it). If Minion were at a high school dance, it would sip punch with its back against the wall trying not to make any sudden movements while Curlz MT and Mistral breakdanced in the middle of the floor. Meanwhile, Comic Sans would try to make his friend Marker Felt laugh so hard that milk came out his nose and Papyrus would be smoking in the girls room. (This metaphor may be starting to break down.)

The Elements of Typographic Style by Robert Bringhurst is one of the most influential books on typography. It discusses everything from the anatomy of individual letterforms to how to choose and combine typefaces, from the basics of effective composition to the history of the field going back more than 500 years. Some designers call it the Typographer’s Bible, and it’s set in Minion. (The cover pictured here is from an old edition of the book; I used this one instead of the newer one because it’s the one I’ve had on my shelf for about 10 years.)

Minion is a serifed typeface designed in the “classical tradition,” which is designer code for “It was designed to look like pretty much every other serifed typeface out there.” What makes it so great is its flexibility. If it played high school sports, it would never make the football team, but I can guarantee you it would make varsity running cross country. (Meanwhile, Comic Sans would play sousaphone in the band and Papyrus would smoke in the parking lot and make snarky comments about how people who play team sports are such conformists.)

There is nothing to dislike about Minion. Sure, typographers who like to argue about the tiniest of details will say things like, “The slight upward angle of the cross-stroke of the lower-case e is too whimsical,” but it’s expertly designed to maximize legibility, and the practical advantages to most designers are immeasurable.

In short, the advantage of Minion, specifically Minion Pro, is that it contains more characters (called glyphs) than most other fonts. A small fraction of Minion’s glyphs are pictured here; you can see that it has a lot more versions of the letter O than you’re likely to ever use. When I laid out an article in Legacy magazine that required unique characters from the Hawaiian language, Minion Pro was the only typeface on my computer that had characters with the diacritical marks I needed. The cover of The Elements of Typographic Style pictured above pays homage to the importance of glyphs by featuring 11 of them based on a lower-case a in a row in red.

Minion Pro has multiple weights (bold, semi-bold, medium, roman) plus old-style letterforms and small caps. Most typefaces simply use small versions of upper-case letters for their small caps, while in high-end typefaces like Minion, small caps are upper-case letters specifically designed to be read at smaller sizes.

Beyond the practical benefits of a large character set, there are aesthetic applications as well. Suppose you were setting the word “Phlegm” at a display size and wanted give it that extra bit of flair we all know it deserves. Most classical typefaces don’t give you many options, but among Minion’s many glyphs are traditional characters that contain swashes. The swashed m in the top “Phlegm” is just that much more elegant than the traditional version underneath.

Another important feature of Minion is ligatures, where certain letters in sequence are joined. Most classical typefaces include “fi” and “fl” ligatures, but Minion Pro includes many more. The top example of “Office” here features an “ffi” ligature, while the example underneath does not. (Most of the time, your computer will default to any ligature included in the font you’re using when the appropriate letters appear in sequence. I had to trick the computer into not defaulting to the ligature on the second example.)

Some interesting typographic trivia (if there is such a thing): The ampersand (&) derives from a ligature of the letters E and T (et is Latin for and).

Like many who were scared to talk to girls and who were not that great at sports in high school, Minion found a niche in the grown-up world where it is appreciated for its strengths. These days, Comic Sans thinks about those high-school glory days while it goes to work on take-out menus and garage sale flyers, and Papyrus begrudgingly tries to make a living promoting massage therapists on business cards on coffee shop bulletin boards, but that nerd Minion is the one that finds itself on the pages of the book typographers call their Bible.

Get to Know a Typeface! Brush Script

In the heart of the famous Las Vegas Strip, nestled among extravagant, enormous themed casinos like the Bellagio, Caesars Palace, Treasure Island, Paris, and the Venetian, sits the unassuming Imperial Palace Hotel and Casino. It sounds grand, but compared to the bigger, newer, more expensive casinos around it, the Imperial Palace is often overlooked.

Once, during a cross-country road trip with friends, I stayed at the Imperial Palace with about 11 other people in the same room. It’s an experiment I am not anxious to repeat, though on the plus side, I think I ended up paying about $8 a night for the stay. Apart from its location and management’s willingness to overlook the fact that we could have fielded a baseball team with three reserves with the number of people we had staying in the room, the main advantage of the Imperial Palace is its “Dealertainers.”

Dealertainers perform three distinct functions: 1. Look like celebrity musicians, 2. Sing very loudly, and 3. Deal blackjack. And while most visitors to the Imperial Palace are simultaneously watching the performers and enjoying “free” beverages as they lose $5 at a time at the blackjack tables, there I am, commenting to my friends that the “Dealertainer” typeface (as seen on the banner behind Billy Idol) is our old friend Brush Script. This may be why my friends have stopped telling me when the annual trip to Las Vegas is happening.

(Note: The photo above is distributed by AccessVegas.com for promotional purposes only. So I will promote Las Vegas: Come to the 2010 NAI National Workshop, November 16-20, in—guess where—Las Vegas!)

When Brush Script was designed by Robert E. Smith in 1942, you could hardly have predicted how pervasive it would someday become. In its heyday, it was used widely in advertising and for other commercial purposes, as in the words “A” and “Release” in the end credits for the classic Tom and Jerry cartoon pictured here.

Brush Script is designed to evoke lettering crafted by hand with a brush and ink. It is informal but refined, more calligraphy than scrawl, not so much handwriting as artfully hand-crafted.

Of course, like many good typefaces, it ended up as a default computer font and became widely reviled because of overuse. You can see it everywhere from a sign welcoming you to Intercourse, Pennsylvania (the words “Welcome to”—thanks to Jeff Miller and the Towns with Strange Names Facebook page for the photo) to the phrase “Rich & Sassy” on sauce packets from Famous Dave’s barbecue to the milk cooler on my front porch.

When people who write blogs about graphic design get bored, they write top 10 lists of typefaces that they hate. Almost invariably, these typefaces are not inherently bad (except Comic Sans; that one is bad), but they are defaults that become overused. This is how Brush Script ends up in posts like 10 Most Overused Fonts in Design, Typobituaries, and A Plea from 16 Most Overused Fonts. These blogs are annoying because they all seem to list essentially the same typefaces, though when they discuss Brush Script, they usually make the good point that it should never (ever!) be set in all caps.

I argue that Brush Script is not a bad typeface, but that it has been subjected to both overuse and misuse. As handwriting typefaces go, it is well crafted and has stood the test of time. You frequently see Brush Script used to evoke a certain 1950s-ish feeling. The television network ESPN has one of the most carefully crafted visual aesthetics out there, and it’s not by accident that it used Brush Script effectively in promoting the Major League Baseball Home Run Derby last week. ESPN used the typeface in conjunction with a Vegas-style starburst (somehow they pull it off) and neon signage to evoke a drive-in movie theater or old-school diner.

As with any typeface, the fact that Brush Script is well-designed and can be used effectively does not mean that it can be used at any time for any reason. It has its time and place. Used effectively, with intent, and with other design elements that contribute to an overall effect (as with ESPN’s drive-in movie theater/diner), it contributes to a playful, fun atmosphere. Used carelessly and without thought, as it is on countless fliers and signs and T-shirts and whatnot, Brush Script is just another default font that’s going to end up on some annoyed blogger’s Top 10 list.

Get to Know a Typeface! Comic Sans (with a little Helvetica mixed in)

I recently watched the documentary film “Helvetica,” which Shea reviewed back in March. The movie, predictably, features experts on typography who either hail the typeface as the solution to all of mankind’s problems or deride it as the manifestation of humanity’s worst attributes. What’s interesting about the typeface (and the movie) is the story about how and why Helvetica came to be and the function that it serves.

Regardless of how you feel about its aesthetics, you understand that Helvetica was designed with attention to detail and a strict adherence to a philosophical movement, and it fills a specific need in the design community. I found myself thinking that everything that makes Helvetica an interesting and viable typeface stands in stark contrast to everything that makes Comic Sans such a joke.

Yes, I am hard on Comic Sans, but I enjoyed the above YouTube video, where Comic Sans creator Vincent Connare explains the origins of his most famous creation. It’s humanizing to see a man who created one of the most used (and most reviled, in some circles) typfaces ever, admit to not being proud of his work.

The most important thing he says here is, “It’s often badly used,” which I think is the crux of why so many people dislike this typeface. Connare speaks directly to what makes Comic Sans inappropriate when he explains that it was designed to be used for text in speech bubbles for a cartoon dog—not, we can infer, for long passages of text or as large display type.

So to reiterate a recurring theme on this site: Don’t use Comic Sans unless the type you’re setting is in a speech bubble, preferably that of a cartoon dog.