Reading Fonts

A new exhibit at the Minnesota Center for Book Arts encourages people to look more closely at the letterforms around them.

Jason Zabel


Face the Nation: How National Identity Shaped Typeface Design

WHEN: July 12 – September 22
WHERE: Minnesota Center for Book Arts at Open Book

you probably remember the first time you discovered the font menu in your word processor. From Arial to Wingdings, you transformed text with a simple click. Nowadays, it’s easy to turn a ho-hum essay into a document with a classic aesthetic, or to make a love note extra enticing with loopy, undulating letters. It’s possible that the naturalist in you prefers your text swept to the side as if blown by the wind; or maybe you favor something a bit barer, and Helvetica tempts you with its no-nonsense, modern neatness. With the advent of the personal computer, everyone has a typeface of choice. These fonts have come to represent a personal style – a textual persona, of sorts.

But you may not automatically think about the history behind the design of your favorite fonts. A new exhibit at the Minnesota Center for Book Arts showcases the changes in typeface design over the first half of the 20th century. “Face the Nation,” from the University of St. Thomas, looks at how motivations to reinvent, redefine or transcend national identity shaped typeface design.

The early 20th century was arguably one of the most internationally formative in modern history, a period of worldwide instability that spawned odious wars and new nations. This free exhibit, housed in the airy Open Book building in Minneapolis, demonstrates how nationalism influenced design during this time.

Craig Eliason, University of St. Thomas assistant professor of art history and the curator of the exhibit, hopes that people will leave the show with an understanding of where the fonts they use come from. “Letterforms express something about the time, place and conditions under which they are designed and used,” Eliason said. He studies typefaces the same way he might look at the traditional fine arts. So it’s not that he and his group of St. Thomas master’s students simply have a crush on the aesthetics of typefaces -instead, they analyze with an eye for larger meaning.

Though the exhibit only covers the first part of the 20th century, typeface designs undoubtedly have resonance today, he explains. In the current race for the White House, Barack Obama and John McCain have chosen distinctive fonts as a means of conveying their messages. Obama, fitting with his mantra of change and new beginnings, has chosen a newer geometric sans serif typeface called Gotham for his campaign. The design is clear and welcoming, practically announcing trustworthiness . McCain has also chosen a clean-looking font called Optima, but his is more severe than Obama’s, just so you know that he means business. Perhaps no coincidence, McCain’s font is the same typeface used on the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial in Washington, Eliason said. A reader of McCain’s Web site might suddenly feel an overwhelming rush of patriotism, and that’s no accident.

One of the case studies in Eliason’s show is the Nazi typeface. An inky blackletter font, the text briskly fell out of favor after the fall of Nazi Germany, and with good reason; today, one look at the text brings forth grim associations and brutal images from that harrowing time.

With that in mind, what should you look at when selecting your own fonts? Eliason likes to approach the subject as a scholar, suggesting the importance of knowing the history behind the fonts we use. But most people simply select a font based on the feeling it gives them, unaware of the overarching lineage of its usage. Usually that process pans out. “To the extent that your reader is immersed in the same culture that you are,” Eliason said, “his or her sense of what a font expresses should be similar to your own.”