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A font of shame

The jagged London Olympics typeface doesn't bring home the gold for one local lettering enthusiast.

October 23, 2011|By Simon Garfield
  • A London 2012 Olympics logo. (Simon Dawson / Bloomberg)
A London 2012 Olympics logo. (Simon Dawson / Bloomberg)

Had enough of Steve Jobs yet? Me neither. How about that Stanford address? Still inspiring. I first came across it three years ago when a friend directed me toward the section where Jobs spoke about his passion for calligraphy and how this formed the basis of his fascination with typefaces. I thought: I have a fascination with typefaces too, but mine largely comes from using an early Mac.

There they were, for free, that great spill of type history on the pull-down menu, ranging from Garamond (classic, fluid, slightly coarse 16th century French), to Gill Sans (very English, proper, stocky) to Helvetica (Swiss, midcentury modern, everywhere you look). And there was all that wacky stuff, including Papyrus (think "Avatar" and school history projects about the Nile) and Comic Sans (childlike, loved and loathed in equal measure). I soon developed my own favorites: the versatile Georgia for text, rounded and warm enough for personal emails, tough and serious enough, and a bit like Times New Roman, for work documents.

Before Jobs, my type god was David Bowie. Bowie, strange and spacey in the early 1970s, taught me there was a brilliant way to spend the half-hour bus ride between the Leicester Square record store where I bought his albums and my home in northwest London. I'd analyze not only the photos but also the fonts — what was it exactly he (or his marketing team) was trying to say with that choice of Zipper on "Hunky Dory" or that dynamic lightning flash of a B on the "Diamond Dogs" jacket (and how clever of them to pair it with that flash across his forehead on the "Aladdin Sane" cover).

And now? Well, I love type as much as ever, and I no longer have to keep as quiet about it as I once did (oh, I still get called a geek, but there are a lot of us about now). Computers have helped us all share the ease and beauty of expressing ourselves in myriad ways, something we could never have imagined in the days when we were reliant on printers and rub-down letters for our party invitations and lost-dog notices.

And we all know more about fonts now. We know their names if not their history, and how easy it is to appear sober in one font and crazy in another. Most of us can tell the difference between a serif font (with those traditional little nicks at a letter's extremities that seem to ground it to a page) and a sans-serif (without those nicks, often creating a more modern feel).

I'd even venture that typefaces are cool as never before. The film "Helvetica" is as hip an analysis of a cultural phenomenon as you'll find. You can even buy wooden and ceramic letters to adorn your mantelpiece.

At last count there were more than 100,000 typefaces to choose from, if you include all the great digital offerings. That's the good news.

And here's the bad: We have just been sent back into the typographical dark ages. That awful churning sound you hear? That's Johannes Gutenberg, whom we credit with movable type, spinning in his grave. For there is now a typeface so ugly, and so unsuitable for its purpose, that you will never fail to identify it. It's something that will soon enter your daily life in the most insidious way. Just my opinion, of course, but tell me if I'm wrong: It's the 2012 London Olympics typeface, and as a Londoner I hang my head in shame.

This type, which is sometimes called 2012 Headline and sometimes 2012 Bold, may be even worse than the London 2012 logo. The logo was the subject of immediate parody (some detected Lisa Simpson having sex; others a swastika).

Like the logo, the uncool font is based on jaggedness and crudeness, not usually considered great attributes in sporting activities. Or maybe it's an attempt to appear hip and down with the kids; it looks a little like the sort of tagging one might see in 1980s graffiti. It also has a vaguely Greek appearance, or at least the British interpretation of Greek, the sort of lettering you will find at London kebab shops and restaurants called Dionysus. The slant to the letters is suddenly interrupted by a very round and upright "o," which may be trying to be an Olympic ring.

When I first saw it last year, I assumed that because I'd be seeing so much of it, it would eventually cease to offend. But this does not appear to be the case. Come to London today and you'll see it everywhere — every Underground tunnel, most red buses, every poster from the Games' many sponsors. I defy you not to feel queasy.

London is one of the most image-conscious spots in the world, bursting with the sharpest graphic design students with the most angular haircuts. So what have we done to deserve this?

I look at past Olympics and see nothing but typographical clarity. Munich in 1972? That would be Univers, by Swiss designer Adrian Frutiger, a master of signage and directional type. L.A. in 1984? A dynamic logo of three striped stars in blue, white and red combined with the less dynamic but reliable Arial Bold Italic — a typeface not quite as predictable then as it is now, and certainly visible enough from the stadium bleachers. Athens in 2004? A Hellenic version of Gill Sans, and it made simple, fluid sense.

As a type fan, I try to focus on the positive. The vast majority of the typefaces I see around me I either admire or can appreciate their intentions. I love having arguments with people about the merits of good and bad fonts.

But this one? This emblem of my home city? Let's just hope they keep it off the medals.

Simon Garfield is the author, most recently, of "Just My Type: A Book About Fonts."

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