Sat | Dec 16, 2017

Tony Deyal | Taking in font

Published:Saturday | July 22, 2017 | 12:00 AMTony Deyal

 

Mark Twain is reputedly the first author to use the typewriter. He typed a manuscript for his publisher, who wrote back saying that Twain had left out the punctuation. Twain sent back a sheet filled with periods, commas, semicolons, etc. with the suggestion, "Insert where necessary."

On the other hand, I am one of the worst writers in the world (if I say so myself), and even admitting this means that I am not running true to type. Most writers believe that they are the best, and any failure they encounter is the fault of the publishers and readers who generally lack discernment and are bigger idiots than you know who.

But when I speak about my being a bad writer, it is a comment on my penmanship and not my ability to string together a few words to wow, bewitch, bewilder and bedazzle the hoi polloi. My bank used to demand that I re-sign documents because my signature kept changing, but then became resigned to the fact that change, in my case, is not just a law, but also a fact of life.

Bad handwriting is not a joke, although it is the subject of many, especially about doctors, including the one whose patient strode into his office and raged, "Someone wrote some graffiti on my house last night."

"So why are you telling me this?" the doctor asked.

"I can't understand the writing," the patient responded. "Was it you?" he asked accusingly.

The doctor replied angrily, "So why are you wasting my time? Why didn't you call a pharmacist to translate the graffiti for you?"

Then there is the American family doctor who wrote out a prescription for a patient. The man used it for two years as a bus pass. Twice it got him into Radio City Music Hall, and once into Yankee Stadium. It came in handy as a letter from his employer to the cashier to increase his salary. And to top it off, his daughter played it on the piano and won a scholarship to the Curtis Institute of Music.

Fortunately for all of you in the region, even though I worked for the Pan American Health Organization, I am not a doctor. Also, because the authorities at Carlton University insisted that everyone in the four-year journalism degree programme should be qualified in typing as a prerequisite for admission into the second year of the programme, I bought an old Olivetti and pounded my way into my profession and career. I believe that the people of the region should thank the government of Trinidad and Tobago for making sure my scholarship was not in medicine, and Carlton for demanding that I learn to type. They should get lifesaving medals because, believe it or not, my father used to boast when in his cups that his son would be a doctor and, in those days, the only recognised doctors were those in the medical field.

The typewriter had one font and many flaws, but I learnt about fonts, their use and variety from my time spent in the print section of each year's studies. First, I found out that a printer's devil was not someone who haunted the plant at night but an apprentice who mixed the ink and fetched the type.

I learnt a few jokes. For example, "One font meets the other in Rome. He asks: "Hey, are you a Roman, too?" "No," says the other, "but I am an Italic!"

And this one. Two fonts walk into the bar, and the barman says, "Sorry, lads, we don't serve your type."

When personal computers came out, I was in writer's heaven. I was quick as a touch typist but my brain always outraced my pen to the extent that I got cramps in my hand and almost zero in written exams because of my poor handwriting. The new computers were not just faster but had a variety of fonts that were pure joy.

In his commencement address at Stanford University on June 12, 2005, Apple creator Steve Jobs helped to fill in the story of the romance of the fonts. He explained, "Reed College at that time offered perhaps the best calligraphy instruction in the country. 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 sans 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 10 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."

Now, fonts are so much part of our lives that a font has come to the forefront in an important lawsuit. Pakistan is staring at the fall of the government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif because of the popular font, Calibri. It was found that his daughter, Maryam, misled the Pakistan Supreme Court with fake documents in an ongoing corruption case against her family. Maryam sent the court documents dated before January 31, 2007 and typed in Calibri font. But Calibri was not commercially available before 31st January 2007, two years after Jobs' Stanford speech.

Calibri started its journey by replacing Times New Roman as the default typeface in Word. Now, 10 years after, the court will have the last word, and I can bet that whatever the font, whether Gill Sans, Britannic, Eras, Rockwell or Sim Sun, the Court's verdict will be bold.

- Tony Deyal was last seen repeating a typesetters joke about the marriage between Comma and Period. The trouble began when she started finishing his sentences.