SANS SERIF BRIEFING
Fontasia

Apr. 27 - Trine and I were working together on a document last night. It was a friend's resume that we were helping translate into English for her.

As I've been learning in Studieskolen lately, the difference between a Danish resume and an American resume goes beyond what language it's written in.

A Danish resume, for example, is supposed to include your date of birth, whether or not you're married, and how many children you have (if any). In the U.S. that information would get your resume tossed into the circular file in a New York minute.

(The circular file, for non-native English speakers, is that squat little open-ended receptacle usually found under or beside a desk, for the filing of everything from superfluous paperwork to orange rinds and nail clippings. A New York minute is like an ordinary minute, only shorter, presumably because New Yorkers all have those cheap watches you buy on the street for five bucks, which tend to run a little fast.)

But I don't want to get sucked into all that right now. So there are significant cultural differences in resume preparation. Big deal. What I really wanted to talk about was fonts.

The resume we were working with had been prepared in a sans-serif font that struck me as unserious. I don't think all resumes have to be dreary, conservative affairs, but I thought that for this particular resume, seeking the kind of position its subject was seeking, a cute sans-serif font was inappropriate.

I said as much to Trine. This led to a discussion of sans-serif fonts generally, and the battle between Helvetica and Arial specifically. (That led inevitably to this, where you need to go right now and burn at least ten minutes of your day.)

But it also got me wondering about ornamentation in general, and the distinctions we draw between that which is ornamented and that which is not.

Contemporary Danish design, for example, is famously unornamented. When people speak of its "clean lines," they're referring to its lack of ornamentation—its lack of little twirly doodads and curlicues and baroque accents.

This notion can be abstracted. I realize I've probably just had too much coffee—one cup is too much for me, apparently—but it seems to me one could speak of serif and sans-serif personalities, aesthetics, or philosophies. (Beyond the jokey kind of thing you see here, where I was tagged as "Arial.")

But saying so would turn me into one of those people who thinks the world is divided into two kinds of people, and I've always hated that kind of over-simplification. (The world is actually divided into three kinds of people in the world: those who can count and those who can't.)

Back to the question of serifs, though: why do serifs add seriousness and formality? Personally, I think serif fonts are much easier to read in most circumstances, and that opinion appears to be borne out (with some qualifications) by research. But ease of use has never necessarily corresponded to a perception of formality. It's easier to use buttons than cuff-links, but cuff-links are obviously considered the more formal way of fastening sleeves.

And why on earth would something more complicated be easier than something less complicated? It defies the very definitions of the terms.

It's all too complicated, so let's just keep moving. What I've been trying to lead up to, crabwise, is my increasing astonishment at our capacity for recognizing letters at all. It's one of those things I didn't give much thought until I began wondering how Molli would learn to read.

Let's experiment. Draw two parallel, vertical lines. You know, like this:

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Now bridge them with a single horizontal line.

If the horizontal line is near the middle, it's going to be an "H." If it's near the top, it's going to be an "n." If it's toward the bottom, it's going to be a "u." (If it has a downward slope from left to right, it might be construed as an "N"—but it wouldn't be a horizontal line, meaning you didn't follow directions.)

And yet some fonts place the bar of the "H" quite low, and some put it way up high. The slope and placement of the diagonal in the "N" also vary widely.

I'm sure there's a deep, complex science to all of this, involving context, peripheral observation, proportion, and so on, but it seems to me there ought to be a way of describing a letter that would distinguish it from any other letter. "Two parallel vertical lines of equal height, connected by a downward sloping diagonal from the top of the left line to the bottom of the right" seems to be a pretty good description of an upper-case "N."

But how do you distinguish between a lower-case "l" and upper case "I" and the numeral "1"? On a typewriter I grew up with there wasn't a key for the numeral 1. . . you had to use the lower-case "L."

Do these three characters merely look alike, or are they alike? That is, is there any such thing as a lower-case "l," or is there merely "the vertical line," which may be interpreted as any of those three possibilities depending on context? Would a teacher be justified in marking it as an error if a student wrote "wi11" instead of "will" (in a font where they were more readily confused)?

Is there, in fact, an "ideal form" of every particular letter and number, or are we just kind of making this shit up as we go along? What happens millions of years from now when people try to decipher whatever works of ours have survived, and think we spelled "will" with two ones? It could be catastrophic! Shouldn't we try to clarify all this before it leads to some cataclysmic intergalactic war?

These are strange and probably pointless questions to be asking, which brings me back to my original point: there are a lot of differences between Danish and American resumes.

* * *

It's Saddam Hussein's second birthday in captivity.

It's also the birthday of Jay Leno (1950), who shares the day with Ann-Margret (1941) and James Monroe (1758).

It's Flag Day in the Åland Islands, that "autonomous, demilitarized, and unilingually Swedish province of Finland."

Happy Thursday!

© 2005, The Moron's Almanac™

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