A writer who talks about “the magical power of words” is usually a) corny and b) incapable of any such effect. But when a type designer like Joshua Darden says it, he is emphasizing the ability of letters and words to elicit a response through their physical shape and style. -Grant Widmer 
When talking typography, where does content end and form begin?
In an article entitled “Girls just Wanna Have Font?” Wayne Robins reported on Courtney Love’s reaction to a story written on her in The New York Observer. According to Robins, “Love complained about ‘getting, like, vicious font,’ or enduring ‘bad font.'”  Follow from the authorities on the subject, and Love is responding to the feeling that the typeface chosen by the Observer conveys.  The authors of How to Select Type Faces argue that this “feeling” (implicit to the typeface itself) either compliments or distracts from what a word or sentence is trying to convey. For these type analysts, “the most beautiful car in America might better be advertised in the ravishing Egmont than in the parsimonious, penny-polishing Scotch.”  Typeface conveys an idea–in this case “ravishing” or “penny-polishing”–that exists independently from the content it is representing. Thus, printed text can be said to carry two distinct meanings, in content and form. Importantly, for Love, it is the feeling found in the latter that takes primary importance–thus illustrating how meaning can be overshadowed, or co-opted, by the vehicle of its transmission. Marshall McLuhan aside for the time being, this is still a relatively new phenomenon. As Matthew Carter has suggested, in the typographical past “people who had a very well-defined sense of taste in what they wore or what they drove, didn’t really have a way of expressing their taste in type. But now you can say, ‘I prefer Bookman to Palatino’ and people do have feelings about it.”
Robins ends his article on Courtney Love an ironic note, reflecting on how font has become yet another way for celebrities to mediate their images:
The whole media-savviness [of celebrities] is pretty extraordinary. Choice of typography, I think, is the next logical step… Celebrities, instead of asking for a particular photographer for a magazine layout, will want to know who the page designer is. And perhaps we can look forward to power agents laying down the law to editors: “Tom Cruise does not do Helvetica.” 
Despite its absurdity, or perhaps because of it, Robins’ article illustrates the increasing validity of Marshall McLuhan’s famous statement: “the medium is the message.”  This precept invites us to think about how the vehicle by which content is transferred (in this case typography) takes an active part in the production of meaning. Indeed, some have argued that the meaning of typography runs very, very deep. In his quintessential text on the subject, Richard Bringhurst writes, “Typography at its best is a slow performing art, worthy of the same informed appreciation that we sometimes give to musical performances, and capable of giving similar nourishment and pleasure in return.” For Courtney Love, and a fictional Tom Cruise, the medium is the message insofar as font is negatively implicated in conveying an image (which, for all intents and purposes, can be seen as the “content” of the celebrity). Robins sees this fact as becoming even more prominent in the future, which, as text, email, digital branding, and bespoke fonts continue to play larger roles in our lives, seems a prescient guess.
While Robins’ example is obviously an inflated illustration of “the medium is the message” precept this type of attitude towards typography has obvious implications for those institutions that rely on print to communicate. The newspaper world, for instance, seems to be trying to capitalize on the message fonts can communicate as medium, what popular media has rather dully identified as “the psychology of font.” In the last decade three of the Western world’s major dailies have undergone large-scale redesigns, which included a complete overhaul of their typefaces. In 2005 The Guardian switched from “the tired old gentleman’s mixture of Miller, Helvetica and Garamond” to Guardian Egyptian.  In 2006 The New York Times hired former Face magazine artistic director and font designer extraordinaire Neville Brody to design a bespoke font  for the “Nation’s paper of record.” And in 2007 the Globe and Mail enlisted Nick Shinn, who also designed the Mordecai Richler memorial font (for the specific use of the Giller Prize), to create Globe and Mail Text.
However, despite the prevalence of the idea in communications studies, none of the articles I consulted about the font changes in these newspapers addressed the intriguing idea that “the medium is the message”–an issue that Courtney Love seems to find quite obvious and that Grant Widmer, in the epigraph beginning this paper, refers to as “the magical power of words.” Robert Bringhurst writes, “the moment a text and a typeface are chosen, two streams of thought, two rhythmical systems, two sets of habits, or if you like, two personalities, intersect. They need not live contentedly forever, but they must not as a rule collide.” However, the articles I consulted for this blog post focused on a typeface’s utility, or how typography facilitates access to News. In other words, content, as opposed to form, content remains the dominant focus for writers and publishers even when the medium (font) is the subject in question. As the graphic designer Alan Fletcher once famously put it, “a typeface is an alphabet in a straitjacket.” However, in their focus on utility, newspaper publishers emphasize the ways in which their fonts free content, providing unrestricted access to the letter as such, which follows the line of early typography criticism laid out by Beatrice Ward in 1930, convincingly dissembled by Simon Garfield in Just My Type: A Book ABout Fonts. According to Ward
…the book typographer’s job was building a window between the reader inside a room and that landscape which is the author’s words. He may put up a stained glass window of marvellous beauty, but a failure as a window; that is he may use some rich superb type like text gothic that is something to be look at, not through. (60)
As Garfield argues, “to deny the idea that type itself can be the message… is to deaden excitement and progress.” Following from Garfield, this blog post explains an important gap in the literature on newspaper fonts, not only asking why a discussion of the medium has been left out of the conversation on newspaper typography (thus relegating newspapers to the dusty annals of typography criticism), but also enquiring as to what are the effects of leaving it out are. I illustrate how this gap is connected to ideology, the system of unconscious ideals that undergird economics and politics, arguing that designers create fonts that communicate certain ways of valuing, thinking and perceiving that maintain and reproduce late capitalism.
As mentioned above, in the majority of the articles I consulted on the redesign of newspaper fonts, typeface is said to be designed for purely for utilitarian reasons. Many of the reasons for a font re-design are based in sales and the continuing need for print media to remain a competitive source of information in the age of television and online news. According to the newspaper art director Micha Weidmann, a change in font can give a newspaper “real presence on the newsstand”.  However qualitative this statement might seem to be it has very quantitative evidence to back it up. Len Kubas, president of Toronto consultancy Kubas Consultants, adds that “a redesign of th[e] magnitude [of the Globe and Mail’s] can typically produce anywhere from a 1% to 3% boost in circulation.”  Such evidence is undoubtedly why papers are willing to pay about $27,000 or more for a bespoke front page flag font. 
However, an increase in sales is not the primary reason for a newspaper to employ a new typeface. In order to draw attention away from the ways in which font is implicated in facile marketing gimmicks, the majority of newspaper publishers justify their redesigns by focusing on the utility of typography, or how a change to typography can make content more immediate.  According to Ron Reason, the designer responsible for the Orlando Sentinel’s redesign, “what you want is consistency and clarity… Before you add something, ask yourself, how does it help the reader? And does it make the paper smarter?”  Bryan Erikson, an art director at the Detroit Free Press, expresses the same type of utilitarian sentiment about the redesign of his newspaper: “it always brings you a new level of excitement and a more pleasurable reading experience when you have a new look,” Erickson says. “We cleaned it up and made it easier to use.”  In Canada, Edward Greenspon, editor-in-chief of the Globe and Mail, goes so far as to attribute the entire success of his recently redesigned paper on the utility of its new font:
The secret that made the [Globe and Mail] redesign possible lies in new typefaces custom-made for us: Globe and Mail Text, News and Sans. They are, at one and the same time, more efficient and more readable.” 
Despite the fact that papers like the New York Times have enlisted artists and designers known for their creative talents, font itself, in these formulations, is entirely benign and of interest only insofar as it allows the reader to most easily access its content. In fact, the less font gets in the way of meaning the better. Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin explain the notion of eliminating form in the service of content as a desire for immediacy: “a style of visual representation whose goal is to make the viewer forget the presence of the canvas… and believe that e is in the presence of the objects of representation.” To generate immediacy in newspaper font is to erase for readers the delivery system of the news. The end result being, absurdly, a message that is without medium.
As Ellen Luptun astutely argues, however, drawing attention to the Brechtian possibilities of font, in order to be true to the story and the power relations that organize it, sometimes typography needs to interrupt smooth access content:
Readers usually ignore the typographic interface, gliding comfortably along literacy’s habitual groove. Sometimes, however, the interface should be allowed to fail. By making itself evident, typography can illuminate the construction and identity of a page, screen, place, or product.
That being said, newspapers are not in the business of breaking the forth wall. As the Russian Formalists first illustrated, in shifting the focus from what is being presented to how it is being presented the import of content is eclipsed and put in service to form. Pierre Bourdieu refers to this medium-oriented way of viewing an object as “the aesthetic mode of perception”  in which one “asserts the absolute primacy of form over function, of the mode of representation over the object represented.”  Part of what makes the News what it is depends on its ability to present itself as content oriented.  The News as such is the content it represents, not the mode of its representation. Newspaper publishers work tirelessly to construct the appearance of neutral objectivity for their papers, fact checking, portioning off editorials and policing for fabricated stories. When the mode of representation, or the medium, becomes too much of a focus, the much valued appearance of neutral objectivity is compromised and the News source loses authority.
This is not to suggest that we, as a media immersed society, believe that the news is, or even can be, an unmediated representation of the world, but simply to illustrate that mediation must be at least tacitly repressed by the newsmakers in order to maintain the thin veneer of neutral objectivity that the concept of News as such circulates around. The focus on the utility of typography by publishers illustrates that the medium must never explicitly be acknowledged as participating in the conveyance of a meaning–which exists independent from the content it represents–without serious consequences for for the category of News as such. Of course, newspapers market themselves towards specific ideologies, but this does not preclude the fact that reporting is, at base, as the OED confirms, “to give an account of a fact, event, etc.; to describe.”
Despite the ideological tilts newspapers adopt, there is a tacit agreement between reader and publisher that mediation is at least repressed, if not eliminated. Because of the need to maintain the appearance of transparent immediacy, newspapers represent their font redesigns in strictly utilitarian terms. This representation becomes obtuse when members of the news media are asked to speak about how font contributes to a newspaper because they must draw attention to the ways in which it facilitates better access to content, as opposed to the “feeling” of the typography. For example, consider Greenspon’s remarks that the secret behind the Globe and Mail’s entire redesign was the change in typography: “The secret that made the [Globe and Mail] redesign possible lies in new typefaces custom-made for us: Globe and Mail Text, News and Sans. They are, at one and the same time, more efficient and more readable.” Further, consider these remarks from Neville Brody, the designer responsible for the New York Times new font, Times Modern, who also speaks on the utilitarian aspects of his design. According to Brody, “the change in typeface [in the New York Times] signals a change in content, and ultimately articulates differing forms of content more immediately.” 
Both Greenspon and Brody seem compelled to defend their respective fonts as playing a definite and important role in their newspapers. Interestingly, however, namely because Brody is a renowned designer and artist, his remarks remain entirely centered on the content of the paper, at least insofar as his font grants easier access to it, rather than on the medium itself. While the font certainly participates in the conveyance of meaning for Brody it does so in a manner that is interactive with content, rather than independent of it–as most typographers, such as Bringhurst and Garfield, would argue. What Brody is suggesting is that his font somehow provides the reader with more immediate access to the events it stands in for (perhaps gesturing towards a move “beyond text and verbosity“?) According to Brody, Times Modern does not only allow us to read the news, it allows us to read it faster and better. In fact, it would seem that Times Modern makes content even more immediate. As such, Brody depicts his font as being purely utilitarian, a medium created primarily to make the content of a newspaper more accessible. This type of argument effectively eclipses the notion that typography communicates anything independent of content simply by making that content the dominant focus (and where, in this argument does content end and form begin?).
Yet, how exactly can Brody’s font be said to make content more immediate? As much as he seems to be attempting to obfuscate McLuhan’s famous dictum here, is it fair to say that the medium can be totally subsumed by the content it allows access to? And, if not, is there an argument to be made that newspaper font communicates its own “feeling,” independent of content, in much the same way Courtney Love encountered “vicious” type face in the Observer?
The explicit, and often exaggerated emphasis on the utility of font, as exemplified by Brody, elides a much more interesting field of study: the ideological construction of typeface. According to Slavoj Žižek
the point [of any critical analysis] is too avoid the properly fetishistic fascination of the ‘content’ supposedly hidden behind the form: the secret analysis is not the content hidden by the form… but, on the contrary, the ‘secret’ of this form itself. 
In sum, Žižek’s argument portends that one must move away from the “fetishistic fascination” with content–such as Brody demonstrates by attempting to create a form that will make content even more immediate–in order to study a much more important question: how does form, and what it communicates, contribute to society’s perception of reality? The blatant focus on content in newspapers obfuscates the ways in which form, in this case font, contributes to a specific understanding of the world around us. This is accomplished through a very basic articulation of ideology–the unconscious ways of perceiving, valuing and engaging with the world which have some relation to the maintenance and reproduction of social power–not in the word per se, but in its very form. Ideology can be read into specific fonts with the help of some of its designers.
For example, in the article “Fonts of Clarity”, published in Editor & Publisher in 2000, Mark Fitzgerald touches briefly on some of the ideological implications of newspaper redesigns. In an interview with Lucre Lacava, the designer in charge in re-creating the Vancouver Province, Ottawa Citizen and The National Post, Fitzgerald tells us that,
North American designers can slip into a philosophical turn of speech that can leave non-artists confused. Almost as an aside, Lacava, for instance, describes how centered headlines wouldn’t work at The Post and Courier because “Charleston is a flush-left city.” 
Žižek’s reflections on the ideology of form is pertinent here. Fitzgerald is locating ideology in an object generally treated as being purely utilitarian. Further, the language used in this excerpt is representative of an ideology that must exists “between-the-lines.” Lacava necessarily mentions the “philosophy” implicit to newspapers “almost as an aside” not only because directly addressing the leftist ideology of a newspaper would strip it of its neutral objectivity, but because it is only as an aside that typography conveys its power in newspapers.
This assertion needs to be unpacked a little further in order to consider its full import. As I have already illustrated, shifting the focus away from a newspaper’s message towards its medium threatens the objectivity of that paper inasmuch as interferes with the promise of repressed mediation. Fitzgerald provides an excellent example of how this could occur in the quotation above: if the ideological content of a typeface is made explicit it would suggest that a newspaper is attempting to mediate its content, directing its readers towards a certain way of thinking before even engaging with an “objective” story. Yet, if ideology remains “between-the-lines”, as Žižek would have it, it in fact enhances its power by creating a stronger identification with the “objective” content conveyed, thus selling more newspapers. This is not simply a matter of a typeface conveying a “feeling,” but being imbued with a particular way of thinking, valuing and believing (in this case leftism). As long as it aligns with the political positioning of its readers, the tacit ideology of a font mediates content in such a way that a newspaper is able to responds to the political concerns of its readership (and thus the capital that allows it to exist) while simultaneously repressing the constant threat of mediation, which remains a vital aspect of the news proper. Here, Lacava provides us with one simple analytical tool through which we might “read” font: a typeface which leans to the left can indeed be indicative of a leftist ideology. This is another way of thinking Zuzana Licko’s famous typography dictum (expressed in font, of course): “It is the reader’s familiarity that accounts for legibility.” In this case, familiarity is connected power structures and privileges, rather than serifs and descenders .
The idea that font communicates ideology is further exemplified by Nick Shinn, the designer who created the new fonts for the Globe and Mail.The following excerpt is from Typofile,a website that caters to self-professed font geeks. Here Shinn is commenting in a forum entitled “GuardianRedesign” (2005) two years before he designed the Globe and Mail fonts:
I’m disappointed by the all-serif look. I felt the same way when the Toronto Star, also a leftish paper run by a foundation, rather than a media conglomerate, was recently redesigned with all serifs. Somehow, it signals a pandering to “taste”, a movement away from a hard-line stance, whether or not that is the editorial drift. My initial impression (which may nonetheless be revised once I see it on newsprint) is that the newly refined look will be at odds with the necessarily blunt messages that this newspaper, so frequently critical of the establishment, must carry. 
Shinn must also speak from the shadows, however in a manner slightly different to the oblique references Lacava makes: as opposed to the newspaper, which caters to diverse groups of people and still commands intellectual authority over other Medias, the website remains a marginalized forum, particularly a website that caters to so specific a group as Typofile. Despite that fact (or indeed because of it), we can read Shinn reflecting on the ideology he sees in the font of another designer. Rather than taking a “hard-line stance” he asserts that Guardian Egyptian “somehow” caters to “taste” by projecting a softer image that is at odds with the difficult content a paper must represent.
At the risk of reading too deeply into Shinn’s analysis (something which he appears unwilling or unable to do himself), we might assume that this appeal to “taste” is a way to control the severity of the news, to make it more palatable for the reading public. Font thus acts as a control measure against those who might want to take action against or for reported events. This is obviously a way of reading font as “soft” or “tasteful,” such as in the delicate serifs of Times New Roman or Georgia, as opposed to the more “modern, progressive, cosmopolitan attitudes” of Helvetica or Arial.  As such, ideology has been built in to the very fabric of typeface and works to specifically direct the reception of reality. We are given licence to insist that Guardian Egyptian is communicating this ideology independent from the content it is representing insofar as the Guardian markets itself as a very left-leaning paper, which strives to disrupt the controls of big brother, rather than evoke them.
Neville Brody would have us believe that newspaper font is designed solely to allow the reader easier access to content. However, is ideology not the best way to reasonably explicate the cryptic explanation of what font does, such as Brody himself provides in the excerpt from Time Online? If Brody is employing ideological constructs in Times Modern would this not allow his reader to access the content of the paper more immediately, providing that these structures reflect the political positioning of the Times readers and communicate an appropriate “hard-lined” attitude towards the news? As Lacava and Shinn illustrate, fonts such as Guardian Egyptian can be read to communicate very specific ideologies–independent of the content it represents. How else can we explain Brody’s statement–that typogrpohy “ultimately articulates differing forms of content more immediately”– without resorting to an entirely subjective (and ultimately futile) discussion of what makes one font easier to read than another?
If we look closer, Brody’s emphasis on utility reveals something much more interesting than content. By highlighting utility to such a degree the designer is able to invest his font with ideology, or ways of valuing, perceiving and believing that contribute to the reproduction of social power. Made explicit this ideology would impinge on the objectivity of the news, but veiled “between-the-lines” it is another way to attract an audience and sell newspapers. In principle, typography in newspapers works in the same manner as a headline would, albeit more tacitly. A headline predisposes a reader to engage with an “objective” article in a certain way. It provides the initial tone through which the ensuing events are meant to be read. If we follow from Nick Shinn, this is precisely what font accomplishes via ideology. Typeface, however, is an even more powerful means to “elicit a response” from an audience, insofar as it conceals its ideology behind a screen of utility. As a result, readers are able to subscribe to a newspaper’s objectivity, while simultaneously being instilled with a predetermined set of values and beliefs.
Typography is an important aspect of how we interpret a newspaper. However, this relationship is not simply a utilitarian matter of allowing the reader to more easily access the words on the page. Rather, instilled with ideology, font initiates a particular reading of an “objective” article. Independent of content, it communicates a feeling rooted in specific values and beliefs that informs the reception of the message. A “vicious” font would initiate a “vicious” reception of a story printed in its form. The key then, is not to invest in the utilitarian functions of typography, which are so blatantly represented by newspaper editors and designers. Doing so only contributes to “the magical power of words,” a formulation driven by vague conceptions of the “feeling” conveyed by a font, which lack in any real critical reflection. The exaggerated focus on utility has stymied our ability to research the ideological functions of font and the intricacies of typeface as form and left us to resort to such facile interpretations. As Terry Eagleton states, “criticism must dissociate art from mystery and concern itself with how… texts actually work.”  It is here, as medium, that further research on how newspaper text, as one of the world’s major disseminators of information, begs to be done. Ideology and font might appear to be worlds apart, but a detailed study of the links between the two can provide new ways to understand how social reality is constructed, how we understand world events and the influence form has over content in our daily lives.
 Grant Widmer, “Letter Writer,” Print 60.2 (2006): 130-132.
 Wayne Robins, “Girls Just Wanna Have Font,” Editor and Publisher 23 (2000): 23.
There are obviously some differences, most of them historical, by which one could delineate between “font” and “type face.” However, for the sake of the argument, I will be using the two interchangeably in this essay.
 “The feel of type faces,” in How to Select Type Faces, (New York: Intertype Corporation, 1956), 15-16.
 Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media (New York: Mentor, 1964), 23.
 “Guardian goes Egyptian but bookie backs Times.” Campaign. 38 (2005): 25.
 A font designed with a specific audience in mind.
 Yolanda Zappaterra, “Fonts of Wisdom,” Design Week. 16 (2006): 9-11.
Chris Powell, “Spinning a New Globe,” Marketing Magazine 112 (2007): 8.
Joe Strupp, “New Reader Friendly Design in Detroit,” Editor & Publisher 132.16 (1999): 47.
 It is interesting to point out that although most publishers insist that redesigning the paper makes it easier to read, the majority of re-designed papers have gotten smaller, most taking an inch or more off their borders. They are able to do so, without losing content, by making the font smaller (See Edward Greenspon’s article in the Globe and Mail entitled “About Our Redesign”). Insofar as newspapers cater to an aging reading public, who more than likely already need glasses to read, making the font smaller cannot entirely be seen as a utilitarian project. I am indebted to Clint Burnham for pointing this out to me.
Mark Fitzgerald, “Fonts of Clarity,” Editor and Publisher 39 (2000): 22-25.
Joe Strupp, “New Reader Friendly Design in Detroit,” Editor & Publisher 132.16 (1999): 47.
Edward Greenspon, “About our Redesign,” The Globe and Mail. 23 May. 2007: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/servlet/story/RTGAM.20070522.wredesignchat0522/BNStory/Front/. My emphasis.
Pierre Bourdieu, Distinction. Boston: Routledge, 1984, 30.
As an example of the news industry’s desire to represent content as being primary to form in their media, consider the following remark from Al Anstey the deputy director of news for Al Jazeera English: “A good reporter understands the story, recognises why it’s important and explains it clearly, with authority. But the best reports are remembered for the story, not the reporter” (my emphasis, Anstey, Al. “Media: Double Standards – ‘We have to play devil’s advocate and set our own agenda.” Media Asia (2007): 7. My emphasis.
Elizabeth Blanks Hindman, “Jayson Blair, The New York Times, and Paradigm Repair.” Journal of Communication 55.2 (2005):227.
Neville Brody, “Neville Brody and David Driver Q&A” The Times Online 27 November. 2006: http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/comment/talking_point/article640234.ece. My emphasis.
Slavoj Žižek, The Sublime Object of Ideology (New York: Verso, 1989), 11.
Terry Eagleton, Literary Theory (Minnesota: Minnesota UP, 1983), 13.
Elizabeth Cook-Lynn, Why I Can’t Read Wallace Stenberg (Wisconsin: Wisconsin UP, 1996), 144.
Slavoj Zizek, The Plague of Fantasies (New York: Verso, 1997), 4. My Emphasis.
Slavoj Zizek, Lacan (London: Granta Books, 2006), 17.
Slavoj Zizek, The Plague of Fantasies (New York: Verso, 1997), 25.
My emphasis. Ibid.
My emphasis. Ibid.
Mark Fitzgerald, “Fonts of Clarity,” Editor and Publisher. 39 (2000): 22-25. My emphasis.
Terry Eagleton, Literary Theory (Minnesota: Minnesota UP, 1983), 2.