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Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Typeface

By Michael Bierut

For the first ten years of my career, I worked for Massimo Vignelli, a designer who is legendary for using a very limited number of typefaces. Between 1980 and 1990, most of my projects were set in five fonts: Helvetica (naturally), Futura, Garamond No. 3, Century Expanded, and, of course, Bodoni.

For Massimo, this was an ideological choice, an ethical imperative. "In the new computer age," he once wrote, "the proliferation of typefaces and type manipulations represents a new level of visual pollution threatening our culture. Out of thousands of typefaces, all we need are a few basic ones, and trash the rest." For me, it became a time-saving device. Why spend hours choosing between Bembo, Sabon and Garamond No. 3 every time you needed a Venetian Roman? For most people — my mom, for instance — these were distinctions without differences. Why not just commit to Garamond No. 3 and never think about it again? My Catholic school education must have well prepared me for this kind of moral clarity. I accepted it gratefully.

Then, after a decade, I left my first job. Suddenly I could use any typeface I wanted, and I went nuts. On one of my first projects, I used 37 different fonts on 16 pages. My wife, who had attended Catholic school herself, found this all too familiar. She remembered classmates who had switched to public school after eight years under the nuns: freed at last from demure plaid uniforms, they wore the shortest skirts they could find. "Jesus," she said, looking at one of my multiple font demolition derbies. "You've become a real slut, haven't you?"

It was true. Liberated from monogamy, I became typographically promiscuous. I have since, I think, learned to modulate my behavior — like any substance abuser, I learned that binges are time-consuming, costly, and ultimately counterproductive — but I've never gone back to five-typeface sobriety. Those thousands of typefaces are still out there, but my recovery has required that I become more discriminating and come up with some answers to this seemingly simple question: why choose a particular typeface? Here are thirteen reasons:

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