Steve Jobs was Just My Type

Simon Garfield’s 2010 Profile Books title Just My Type: A book about fonts (which, incidentally, I downloaded from the iTunes store as an app for my iPad) opens with an introduction quoting Steve Jobs.

Which is appropriate, really, because Jobs is the father of digital type.

The quote is taken from Jobs’s 2005 Stanford speech, which you can watch on YouTube in full. I recommend it. It was the first thing I did after learning of Jobs’s death last week. In it he speaks candidly about confronting death after his initial cancer diagnosis, of his adoption, of dropping out of college, his sacking from his beloved Apple, falling in love with his wife (and while we ponder the great innovator’s legacy, spare a thought for her and his three children), and his passion for fonts.

“Reed College at that time offered perhaps the best calligraphy instruction in the country,” Jobs told the Stanford graduates. “Throughout the campus every poster, every label on every drawer, was beautifully hand calligraphed. Because I had dropped out and didn’t have to take the normal classes, I decided to take a calligraphy class to learn how to do this. I learned about serif and san serif typefaces, about varying the amount of space between different letter combinations, about what makes great typography great. It was beautiful, historical, artistically subtle in a way that science can’t capture, and I found it fascinating.

None of this had even a hope of any practical application in my life. But ten years later, when we were designing the first Macintosh computer, it all came back to me. And we designed it all into the Mac. It was the first computer with beautiful typography. If I had never dropped in on that single course in college, the Mac would have never had multiple typefaces or proportionally spaced fonts. And since Windows just copied the Mac, it’s likely that no personal computer would have them. ”

What an achievement. If that was all Jobs had achieved, aside from being a father and a husband, in his lifetime, it’d be enough to give him guru status.

The impact those fonts had on the publishing industry was profound. Desktop publishing led to professional looking uni newspapers (we used a program called Ready Set Go for the Mac at Woroni, the ANU paper, in 1990) and zines, streamlined production processes for books, magazines and newspapers (many of which have been produced using Quark Xpress, Illustrator and more recently InDesign, among other programs for the Mac). Later, the rise of the internet and html allowed us to publish websites and blogs featuring all manner of fonts. Today, publishers produce ebooks in ePub format, and ereading software and devices allow the consumer to choose their own font style and size.

My first computer was an Apple IIc. We’d had a groovy electronic typewriter before that that allowed you to edit a sentence or two back. For a passionate 12-year-old reader and writer, the introduction to word processing that personal computing brought with it was life changing. I was equally beguiled by the file and program structure of Apple’s first portable computer (we used to take it down to the beach with us – well, the beach house, at least), and spent the first few weeks reading all the manuals from cover to cover. I remember struggling to tear the hole-filled borders off the dot matrix printer paper without ripping final pages of essays and creative writing assignments for school. I remember floppy disks. And I remember playing Lode Runner and Lemonade Stand with my younger brother and sister on rainy days on the NSW South Coast.

Some family friends bought a Macintosh a few months later and invited me over to have a look at it (as you do). Their 13-year-old son showed me how it worked. I confess I had a crush on him (as well as the Mac) for years afterwards. Unlike my Apple love, that flirtation finally resolved itself on the other side of the world sometime early this century.

My first PowerBook.
At uni, I used one of the early PowerBooks (pictured in my somewhat alarmingly floral first group house bedroom). I remember feeling as though I were a pianist, creating beautiful music, as I tapped out Linguistics essays and on it. It was on one of these grey gadgets that I first experienced email and the web, in greyscale, but mind-blowing nonetheless. The PowerBook’s trackball was replaced in later models (one of which found its way onto my desk) with a trackpad.

The mid-90s belonged to Microsoft and particularly Windows. It might’ve been that in my first job as a tech journalist, I was busy reviewing laptops (and mobile phones – back when Nokia was king) from all the major computer brands (Olivetti had a gorgeous terracotta notebook, I remember, and the IBM ThinkPad was my favourite), and so had no need to be faithful to one brand.

To be completely honest, I didn’t really like the brash design of the iBook (I wish that name had been saved up for the iPad) and first iMacs.

It wasn’t until the MacBook arrived that I rejoined the fold. Sleek, white and slimline, it brought me back to Mac. Were I have stayed since, adding essential gadgets to the mix as Jobs and his magicians created them.

The iPod was clever, but from the minute I heard that Apple was working on a mobile phone, I knew that true handheld computing was finally on the way.

It was on my iPhone that I became a social media junkie, first read an ebook, finally learnt to budget via the Spend app, kept my to do lists in order via Things, replaced my audio recorder for interviews (with the SpeakEasy app), embraced cloud computing (with My Writing Spot and Dropbox), really began to use email on the go, gave up using our old stereo system (TuneIn Radio rocks), ditched my Filofax for Contacts and Calendar, gave up the Gregory’s for Maps and moved from restaurant guidebooks to Urbanspoon. With the 4 I’ve given up using a separate camera as well.

Don’t get me started on the iPad. If any one inanimate and inedible object has changed my life more, I can’t think of what it is offhand. Books, magazines, newspapers, television, film, writing, PDF annotation, Skype, photo viewing and video editing … and that’s just for starters.

What a legacy for individuals who have used his creations. What an inspiration for creative types everywhere. Thanks Steve, we’ll miss you.

This post was written on my iPad and MacBook and posted on my iMac.

Typing About Comic Sans Criminals

Just My TypeOne of the most-important and most-used skills I’ve had to develop as a writer who works as an editor is steering clients away from their mystifying obsession with using the most heinous of all fonts every created: Comic Sans.

It’s the kind of noxious weed of a typeface that I have to cover my eyes, Command + A a document, and change its font to something more palatable like Garamond before I can even begin to take in or edit its contents.

I’m not alone, with Comic Sans, the font created to not look like a font and to add a playful, non-threatening element to a Microsoft program, now (as with most Microsoft products) the bane of writers’, editors’, and designers’ lives.

So much so that one designer has created a tongue-in-cheek website that uses humour to politely tell clients that no way, not now, not ever, is Comic Sans an appropriate choice of font. It’s called Comic Sans Criminal and you can order posters and stickers that bear the words like ‘You’re a Comic Sans criminal, but we’re here to help you’.

It’s no coincidence, then, that the first chapter of a book about fonts that I bought myself for Christmas (or bought just for having because I’m obsessed with typography) contains a story warning of the pitfalls of this font. Apparently some people thought it ok to use it on a gravestone. Yep. I know. It blows the mind.

Like the Comic Sans Criminal website, Just My Type contains some Comic Sans jokes. There’s the cartoon that states that every time you use Comic Sans, they’re forced to punch a bunny. And there’s the joke that when Comic Sans walks into a bar, the bartender says, ‘We don’t serve your type’.

But the book contains much more than diatribes against awful fonts and even more awful applications of them. It’s a comprehensively researched, thoroughly well put together thesis about the history of typefaces and their cultural impact.

In just the first few pages I learned that we have even more to thank Steve Jobs about than we thought, as he was the one who invented and brought a variety of fonts to computers. No, I’m not going to get into a how-Apple-is-better rant—I might be a Mac user, but I steer clear of that stuff and was, as I’ve previously mentioned, appalled by Stieg Larsson’s relentless naming of the now-outdated PowerBook in his Lisbeth Salander trilogy. But I am going to say that I’m bemused that many of the rubbish fonts that are now thorns in our sides can be traced back to origins within Microsoft’s evil empire.

Apple versus Microsoft arguments aside, the books outlines the history of the Transport font, which is used in the UK and Europe to clearly convey traffic directions and conditions. It introduces us to the founder of Gill Sans, a guy who had a dubious but well-documented relationship with a dog and his daughters (there’s a camp that believes we shouldn’t use the font on principle, and I’m inclined to steer clear of it now that I know its history).

The book also looks at the font being used for the 2012 Olympics in London and how fonts can have gender. It explains the now-iconic fonts Apple used to use up to the early iPods (Chicago). And, best of all, it contains on the inside covers an incredible and art-like periodic table of fonts.

I highly recommend Just My Type. I highly recommend dobbing in Comic Sans criminals. And if you know where I can obtain one of those font periodic tables in the form of a wall-mounted piece of art, please let me know.