Shelf Awareness is a Web-based resource for readers and those in the book trade. It was brought to my attention by Marilyn Dahl, Shelf Awareness’s book review editor. (Full disclosure, Marilyn is my cousin.) I bring this wonderful resource to your attention for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is their free email newsletter service for readers and one for professionals in the book trade. Twice a week I get an email containing reviews of a wide variety of new, recent, and sometimes classic fiction and nonfiction works.
What stimulated this blog post is a review by John McFarland of Simon Garfield’s “Just My Type: A Book About Fonts”. Fonts, it seems, have been hotly debated since “Gutenberg invented movable type” and probably as far back as scribes selecting which mallet and chisel combination to use. The issues have become even more contentious as digital has emerged as a competitor to traditional reading of books. It is one thing to spend all day hunched over your monitor plowing through email and spreadsheets, pondering Word docs, and puzzling out Power Point presentations, and quite another to curl up on the sofa with your digital reader. (Recall that the last two features in this blog pointed out that the printed book is not dead, but growing, even as e-book growth outpaces hard-copy growth.)
The choice of fonts for long reads using digital devices will probably prove to be more critical than for print. Eyestrain has been a big challenge for screen makers, software developers, and e-book publishers. With more than 100,000 fonts, the choice can be overwhelming.
To convey meaning – to achieve understanding – requires a complex interplay of the author, the reader, and the media, but also the environment, timing, delivery, and so much more. How does font contribute to, or inhibit, understanding? Together with layout, color, and point size (the size of the font), the choice of font can make for a pleasing pallet for learning and pleasure reading, or cause distraction and mental noise, lessening enjoyment and learning.
Meaning can be tricky to sleuth out, even under the best of circumstances. Font selection contributes to the overall organization and visual appearance of the printed or digital “page”. The choice of words to convey the “aboutness” of a document requires as much finesse and artistic sensibilities as font choice. Fortunately, there is help available for designing and implementing a knowledge organization system (KOS). You must start by choosing the right thesaurus or taxonomy before selecting and assigning terms that label an item. A thesaurus is a both a KOS and a knowledge representation system (KRS). It conveys a lot about a field, domain, or discipline. How the thesaurus is organized, laid out, and displayed, and yes, even the choice of fonts, shows how a field is organized and how concepts central to the field are related.
There is no need to try too hard to create a connection between fonts and taxonomies, but in the effort to build useful KOSs, small things make a big difference. The hierarchical layout of a thesaurus and the serif/sans serif debate do have an impact on researcher in their hunt for information. (The serif/sans serif debate centers on the visual viability on digital displays. The serif tails are thought to degrade on most displays.) The ability to review hundreds of articles could hinge on the small things, like having the right set (and the right-sized set) of documents and minimal eyestrain. Font choice can help ease the pain by producing to an appealing visual experience. A database accurately and effectively indexed using the right thesaurus produces the best document set possible, greatly easing the burden of a researcher.
As for me, I’m a “Perpetua Titling Light” man.
Jay Ven Eman, CEO