Just Go to Helvetica

I've changed fonts nine times while writing this piece, even though I know NEWSWEEK will print it in regular old Vincent no matter what I sneak in. I labored through Book Antiqua, Century, Bodoni and Verdana, finally deciding on the Microsoft-commissioned Georgia—I know, so not hip to the cult of Mac-using designers. But I'd like to think the font's personality fits me: a British psychologist described it as individual, sophisticated, with a curviness that suggests a little bit of rocker chick.

OK, maybe I'm flattering myself. But the idea that a font says something about the person who selected it is, perhaps for the first time, rising beyond the design elite. Like me, America has developed a geeky obsession with fonts, the latest instance of our sophistication about design. "Helvetica," a documentary about one font's history, played to sold-out audiences when it came out last year. Basic font knowledge has become mandatory for anybody in the know—"Knowledge of Fonts" was actually a category on "Jeopardy!" Even Barack Obama has a custom font. "I always used to dread having to explain to a stranger what I do for a living," says Matthew Carter, a typographer who has been in the business for more than 50 years—he designed the font of the AT&T phone book, as well as NEWSWEEK's. "Nowadays, you can have an intelligent conversation with a 9-year-old about font."

A lot of that has to do with the digital revolution. Half a century ago, designers like Carter were manually carving words into lead—sometimes at the rate of a letter a day. Today, there are tens of thousands of typefaces available to buy and download on the cheap. Basic programs like Gmail and Microsoft Word come equipped with dozens of free types, and anybody with a few bucks and some time can learn how to create their very own font—maybe even sell it. Now Hollywood's jumping in on the action: celebs like Beyoncé, Kate Moss and Björk all have unique fonts. "There's really been a tremendous explosion," says Sam Berlow, the general manager of the Boston-based Font Bureau, a well-known foundry. "The consciousness has reached a point where it's almost annoying even me."

In many ways, that explosion is the rest of us catching up to what typographers have long known: that font can be a "subtle form of propaganda," says "Helvetica" producer Gary Hustwit. Typography is about message as much as form: a letter's density, its arcs and points, even its placement can convey tone, spirit or mood. A manly brand like Marlboro will use a thick font to convey boldness, while a girlier product—or a fashion ad, perhaps—will go for something light and thin. "There are definitely typefaces that one would consider to be more aggressive or sophisticated or sexy," says Michael Ian Kaye, who worked on the logo for Beyoncé's fashion line, Deréon. "What a graphic designer tries to do is make sure the typography is emotionally consistent with the brand."

Cool candidate Obama staged a mini-coup by choosing the modern classic Gotham for his logo. Modeled after New York City signage by designers Jonathan Hoefler and Tobias Frere-Jones, Gotham first appeared in GQ magazine—but of course—which wanted it to feel modern, yet authoritative and masculine. The blogosphere has since exploded with chatter of the Obama "brand," which designers say is the best crafted of any politician's in history. On the other hand, Hoefler and Frere-Jones describe Hillary's font as a "snooze of a serif" that "might have come off a heart-healthy-cereal box, or a mildly embarrassing over-the-counter ointment."

So that's a little harsh, but a little serif here or there can make all the difference. Studies show that fonts with round O's and tails are interpreted as friendly, while angular types convey rigidity and coldness. Fonts can influence whether we see an e-mail as professional or casual, or even if we read it. They may even affect your grades: a Canadian student's survey of his own college term papers found those written in Georgia (a sort of Times New Roman with a modern flair) to be the favorite among his professors. "We as designers have the power to influence the world, to influence what the world sees," says Kaye. Or at least the way we see their words.

Images: © Kate Moss-Storm (top) © Paul Barnes (center left); © Hoefler & Frere-Jones (center right); © House of Dereon (bottom)