Font Nerd

I’ll admit it: I’ve been accused of being a nerd more than a few times in my life. But paradoxically, I’ve never been into a lot of stereotypically nerdy pursuits. I don’t read Star Wars novels, I don’t play trading card games and my knowledge of anime is spotty at best. No, my nerdy interests are a little more … unusual. And I am definitely a font nerd.

I’ve been fascinated with fonts — or, as font nerds know they’re more properly called in this context, typefaces — for most of my life. When we got our first computer when I was a teenager, I installed hundreds of fonts and printed out samples of each — to what end I can’t even remember.

I know I’m never going to get people as excited about fonts as I am. But what I do want you to know is that fonts are important, even if you’re not thinking about them. The right font can convey the image you want to express: businesslike, casual, fun, whatever. And the wrong font can hurt your chances of being able to express that image. Fonts affect the way you think about brands and businesses, though you probably don’t realize it. That’s why large companies spend millions developing their own fonts.

The early days of the Internet were a tough time for font nerds. Back then the technology dictated that only fonts installed on user’s computers could be used. But how could you know what fonts your users had installed? You didn’t, so you had to use the fonts everybody had installed — and that meant choosing from just two: Times (or the similar Times New Roman) and Helvetica (or the similar Arial). Later on Microsoft added a third font, Verdana, to the mix.

Thankfully, web technologies have advanced to the point that designers and developers can use fonts even if users don’t have them installed. And a number of companies, most notably Google, have taken advantage of this by publishing a huge variety of free web fonts. Google alone has almost 1,000. This makes designers’ jobs both easier and harder — easier because now there are options, and harder because, well, now there are options.

It’s OK if you don’t want to think about the fonts that are right for your business. Not everyone can be a font nerd like me. But somebody should be thinking about it.