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.

I ♥ Whatever

I arrived at work one day not too long ago to find this “I ♥ Nepal” sticker taped to my office door.

I’ve never been to Nepal and have no emotive response to the country one way or the other, so I was confused by the sticker’s meaning. I put on my Indiana Jones mystery-solving fedora, which I keep handy at all times, and set about decoding this cryptic message. At the time, the National Association for Interpretation’s national office, where I work, was hosting 26 people at a training course, so anyone could have been responsible.

The first thing I noticed was a Post-It note attached to the sticker with the following message:

Paul—
PLEASE
do a blog post about this!
Phil Sexton

Well, I’m no Indiana Jones, but I had narrowed down my suspects. It turns out that Friend of IBD Phil Sexton wanted me to do a post on this “I ♥ Nepal” sticker. If this were an Indiana Jones movie, it would have been called Indiana Jones and the Sticker on the Office Door. It would have been really short and not that interesting, but it probably still would have been better than Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.

Though the mystery was not great fodder for a movie, it did raise this important question: Why did I keep thinking about Indiana Jones? Well, any loser with too much time on his hands knows that Nepal is where Indiana Jones finds that his bitter ex-girlfriend Marion, who owns a bar and can handle herself in a drinking contest, is in possession of the headpiece of the Staff of Ra that Indy is racing to keep out of the hands of the Nazis.

It’s possible the reason I was thinking of Indiana Jones was that the “I ♥ Nepal” sticker features what graphic designers refer to as the “Indiana Jones gradient blend.” This, of course, is the vertical blend from red to yellow featured in the logos for all of the Indiana Jones movies. (Every time I use a phrase like “Indiana Jones gradient blend,” it fills me with wonder that I have any social life at all.)

Other graphic elements of note in the decal are a hot-pink iconic heart shape and a rounded sans serif italicized typeface. The heart shape could be the subject of a whole other blog. That shape is believed to have originally represented something other than a heart—and it’s a discussion not really fit for polite company. Maybe we’ll save that one for Valentine’s Day.

The “I ♥ …” phenomenon was popularized in the 1970s with the beyond-famous “I ♥ NY” campaign. The logo, designed by graphic-design legend Milton Glaser, is one of those “so simple anyone could have done it but no one did until a famous graphic designer did it” phenomena. It’s incredibly simple: three letters in a typeface (American Typewriter) that someone else designed and a symbol that’s been around for centuries composed in a rough block shape. But like a catchy tune, it captured the imagination of the public, caught fire, and has spawned countless imitations and permutations.

To me, one of the great things about the story of this logo is that Glaser designed it for free to help promote a city he loved. One of the ridiculous things about this logo is that, according to a story in the New York Times, when Glaser designed a logo that read “I ♥ NY More Than Ever” after 9/11, the city threatened to sue him for copyright infringement.

Because of Milton Glaser (who is the subject of a documentary called To Inform and Delight, which sounds like a great definition of interpretation to me), the use of the heart symbol to mean love has become so ingrained in popular culture that now any symbol used in this composition is roughly understood to mean love.

If Glaser’s “I ♥ NY” campaign had never existed, this Apple laptop skin, a logo designed for a new Apple store in New York City, wouldn’t make sense. Out of context, “I Apple NY” conjures images of mischievous teenagers throwing rotten fruit at Manhattan from across the river in Newark, New Jersey. But in context, it’s yet another example of Apple’s sophisticated and elegant marketing (right down to the use of the appropriate typeface).

On the other hand, the most nonsensical use of this vernacular that I’ve seen is this “I Jack LA” found on a site called Karmaloop. The composition is an obvious reference to the “I ♥ NY” campaign, with a close-but-no-cigar slab-serif typeface, a color scheme derived from the Los Angeles Lakers’ purple and yellow, and the face of noted Laker fan Jack Nicholson replacing the heart. This is one of those instances where the viewer understands the point of the composition, but it’s just too big a mental leap to correlate Jack Nicholson with the word love.

There are other examples of this composition in which symbols represent words other than love. For instance, Bob Barker would approve of the “I ♠ My Cat” shirts available all over the internet. Perhaps the best example is this contribution from Gary Larson’s The Far Side:

Though he had a long and distinguished career in graphic design, Milton Glaser is most famous for a simple composition he designed for free out of love for a city. More than three decades later, the composition has, to borrow a word from a horrible person I used to work for, impermanated the visual landscape, from the Massachusetts native who shamrocks Boston, to Friend of IBD Phil Sexton, who clearly hearts Nepal.

Free fonts!

dafont

As synthetic, mass-produced, quick-sign solutions erode society’s appreciation for the unique, it is the designer’s responsibility to restore it. If you only take one thing from this website, here is what it should be: Computer defaults are not your friend.

Among the most obvious default settings that are not your friend is your pull-down menu of available fonts. Some of these default options have become so overused that they are experiencing backlash. To see what I mean, read this discussion of one blogger’s selection of the top 10 worst font choices: www.heyokadesign.com/news.asp?post=top-ten-worst-font-choices. I note one exception: If you are starting an organic aroma therapy massage clinic and your plan is to advertise exclusively on coffee shop bulletin boards, I recommend that you use Papyrus for all of your communications. You’ll fit right in.

There are so many resources for free and expressive typefaces that are not horribly overused, that you are negligent as a designer if you use any of the same old few. Note that I have used the term expressive typefaces. By this I mean decorative or handwriting options like Papyrus or Brush Script that are easily identified by the casual viewer. When it comes to traditional serifs or sans serifs like Helvetica or Garamond that are not as readily identified, you’re safe using the classic options already included with the computer.

The point is, when your goal is to be expressive rather than functional, explore the options beyond the defaults, not just to be different, but to find that perfect typeface that fits your needs. Below are just a few of the many websites that offer fonts for you to download. The whole point of these sites is to give you stuff (usually for free) so that you don’t have to use the fonts your operating system chose for you.

www.1001freefonts.com

www.dafont.com (pictured above)

www.freemacfonts.com

www.urbanfonts.com