One wonders if Antonelli’s inclusion of the furniture and other design objects was done to disguise her lack of knowledge about typefaces. She has included a glossary of type terms to help the viewer understand the esoteric world of type design, but the list is woefully inadequate and several terms are severely bungled. Descender is defined as, “The part of a letter that reaches down below the baseline of the font, in g, p, and q, for example.” This definition is slack. It not only leaves out j and y but it could include the tail of Q which descends but is not considered to be a descender. Furthermore, ascender, descender’s more significant counterpart, is not included. Other terms that are deficient include cathode ray tube, font, joining stroke, ligature, and titling face. Definitions of point size, serif, typeface and x-height are flat-out wrong.
Point size is not the “size of a font, based on its x-height” but, in metal type, of the metal body bearing the character. This height was larger than the distance from the bottom of a descender to the top of an ascender. In digital type the measurement is similar, except that now there is no physical object, just a bounding box. Typefaces with the same nominal point size can have wildly divergent visual sizes. This concept should have been illustrated in the glossary. (Furthermore, it is only with Postscript that 72 points equal exactly one inch. In the Didot system, 72 points equals 1.186 inches and in the Anglo-American system — the one that dominated in this country until the advent of the Macintosh computer — it equals .9936 inches.)
“A short line that extends from the top or bottom of a stroke in a letter,” the first part of the definition of serif, is merely incomplete. But the second part — “It is a symbolic leftover from handwriting.” — is laughable. A serif is a tiny stroke (not necessarily a line) that terminates a principal stroke of a character. Serifs are not confined to letters and they may be found on horizontal and curved strokes as well as on vertical ones. They derive from formal lettering, not handwriting; and, although their functional value has been a matter of debate, they are certainly not symbolic holdovers.
Typeface: “A set of letters in different sizes and styles, united in form and look, that are designed to be used together. Also called a type family or face.” Originally, typeface referred literally to the design of the character on the face of a piece of type metal. From there the term has come to mean the design of a group of related characters (not only letters) “united in form and look” but not comprising “different sizes and styles.” A typeface is not the same as a type family. The latter is a set of related typefaces, most often various weights and widths of a roman and its companion italic. Increasingly, the definition of family has been stretched to include serif, sans serif and mixed serif variants. Getting this term wrong undermines the whole notion that Standard Deviations is about types and families.
Character is defined as, “An individual letter, also called a glyph or letterform.” This collapses the critical distinction between a letter (or letterform), a character and a glyph. A character can be a letter, but it can also be a figure (numeral), a punctuation mark or a symbol. Glyphs, in typography, are graphical units and as such they encompass and go beyond characters to include writing marks in non-Latin languages.
“The height of the lowercase x in a typeface, upon which the heights of all other characters are based,” is the definition of x-height. This is overly literal and it puts the cart before the horse. The x-height (the z-height in older American type books) describes the height of the body of a lowercase letter and is only meaningful as a guide to the proportion of the body to the ascender height first, the capital height second and the descender depth third. The height of the x (or the z) is merely a convenience and not what the type designer is really concerned about.
These definitions are crucial to the recent development of digital type and are precisely the sort of thing that Standard Deviations should have focused on.
It is telling that the image used to advertise Standard Deviations on MoMA’s website is “You Can’t Lay Down Your Memory Chest of Drawers by Tejo Remy
(Droog Design, 1991), a set of mismatched drawers precariously assembled together with a giant leather strap. This is a fantastic and fascinating design, but it is not a font. This image symbolizes the confused nature of the show and seems to be symptomatic of Antonelli’s and MoMA’s unwillingness to confront type on its own terms. Instead of displaying type in a direct and mature manner that, at the risk of being labeled boring or didactic, acknowledges the intelligence of the museumgoer, the museum has opted for sleight-of-hand tricks to entertain and distract him/her from the real subject of the exhibition. A prime opportunity to educate the general public about a niche area of design has been squandered.
*I have added the foundries who issued the faces or the clients who commissioned them to the list provided by MoMA. The names are those in existence at the time the relevant typeface was released rather than its current one. For instance, the Hoefler Type Foundry did not become Hoefler & Frere-Jones
until 2004. I also added Zuzana Licko’s name to Dead History since she is usually credited as a co-creator, the person responsible for turning P. Scott Makela’s design into a workable font. Some of the dates given by MoMA are questionable, most notably that of Mercury which the Hoefler & Frere-Jones website describes as “the product of nine years’ research and development.”
‡ See http://paulshawletterdesign.blogspot.com/2011/03/opinionstandard-deviations.html
for extended arguments for other fonts.