Fonts, like all of us, have a particular character. Pun intended. Their shapes can suggest a tone of voice, encourage a level of formality or urgency, or trigger associations with other products or brands. Some allow for fast reading on screens, or easier prolonged reading on paper. A brief foray into internet resources regarding font design will take you into a world of nuance and technical detail, for which you might need to learn a host of interesting terms: glyphs; ligatures; kerning; hinting. Fonts can be fascinating and beautiful, and designing them is a creative and highly technical skill. Nevertheless, we can appreciate them in terms of their characteristics and utility, their history and heritage, and their intent in communicating brand philosophies, by comparing different choices made by MRI manufacturers. Let’s look at some examples, using the fonts seen in printed materials by Philips, Siemens, and GE.
Some fonts have serifs, the slight projections which finish off a stroke of a letter. A common serif font is Times New Roman. Fonts without serifs are called sanserif or simply sans (for example, Arial). The differences between the lettershapes of sanserif typefaces is reduced, making them legible but not very easy to read in larger blocks of text. Adjustments are sometimes made to increase readability. So-called humanist sans fonts retain the clean lines of sans fonts without losing readability or familiarity, by retaining a number of features similar to letters written by the human hand: axis, aperture, modulation, and so on. Gill Sans is such a font.
Philips say of their typography “our typography is inviting and highly legible and has enduring style”. A recent example:
The typeface was designed in 1931 by Eric Gill, and was inspired by a font designed by his teacher, Edward Johnston, for the London Underground. Gill wanted to improve upon Johnston Sans, remarking that ‘some of these letters are not entirely satisfactory, especially when it is remembered that, for such a purpose, an alphabet should be as near as possible “fool-proof”… as the philosophers would say – nothing should be left to the imagination of the sign-writer or enamel-plate maker.’ Whether this motivation behind the design of Gill Sans is relevant today in the context of computer-aided text-generation, is open to argument.
Modern alternative fonts following in the tradition of Gill Sans exist, such as Bliss and FB Agenda. Nevertheless, Gill Sans remains very popular, and has been called the ‘Helvetica of the UK’, meaning it is seen everywhere (as Helvetica is, in US cities). It can be seen used in many companies’ corporate identities and products, including: the BBC, Network Rail, the Church of England, and the British Government which formally adopted Gill Sans as its standard font in 2003. Outside of the UK it is used extensively too: by Monotype Imaging, United Colors of Benetton, Saab, even the G20 group of economies. Its popularity speaks of its flexibility: it has an efficient, professional look but remains comfortable to read.
It has been said that setting body text in Gill Sans requires a sure sense of color [the overall darkness of the type set in mass, which not the same as the weight of the face] and measure [overall width of a textblock]. There are some residual serifs in the lowercase in some of the weights (a, g), and Philips use a version of the font with an alternative, serifed, figure 1. The x-height is lower than competing contemporaries (e.g. Futura), which would reduce readability were it not for the humanist aspects of the font design: variable aperture (compare the openings on the c and e glyphs); and slight contrast in the face [thick vs. thin strokes of letters] which also adds its warmth, as opposed to sans fonts with no stroke modulation.* The significant differences between Gill Sans weights [light, regular, italic, bold, ultra bold, condensed etc] lends the font to many different publication styles and contexts.
* The slight contrast in the regular Gill Sans face does not permit attribution of a clear axis, and so in this aspect it does not adhere to all the characteristics of a humanist sans.
A recent example:
The Siemens font family was designed in 2008 by Hans-Jürg Hunziker, and is delivered by the URW++ type foundry. The font comes in three typefaces (serif, sans and slab), with eighteen styles in total including all the weights and styles. They were conceived ‘as a set of related modern, mechanistic and lineal faces’, echoing Siemens’ relationship with technology. Siemens intend (pdf) the font to be ‘a distinct typographic style that reflects our character and resonates with our values and beliefs as a company’, and to be ‘exceptionally legible’.
The serif font, seen above, has a distinct style suitable for titles and headings, and the slab and sans versions are complimentary, maintaining the same structure and so adding harmony to the typeface family. The slab face has the same stroke weight as the serif. The sanserif glyphs have reduced contrast compared to the serif, adding to readability when set in body text.
The serif font has: modulated stroke; rationalist [vertical] axis; abrupt trapezoidal serifs (on the serif and slab typefaces); large aperture; flat stroke ends and sharply-modeled serif-like terminals (cf. the endpoints of s and f).
Strokes are cut on the diagonal which helps to prevent the the face appearing too impersonal. The gentle modeling and blunt serifs give the font a good chance of surviving the indignities of low resolution. Subtle modulation of the downstrokes on the serif and sans typefaces give the font added personality at higher resolutions, balancing its industrial design.
A recent example:
GE Inspira was originally designed by Mike Abbink who built on early concepts by Patrick Giasson, in 2005. Inspira comes in four fonts, with various purposes [general use (Inspira Regular); small text (Inspira Book); screen presentation (Inspira Pitch, i.e. bold); and small caps]. The font is a very prominent part of GE’s brand expression, claiming to be ‘derived from the curves and the classic hand drawn character of the monogram’ [logo]. The intention was to create a font which was ‘precise and modern, reflecting our brand attributes’.
GE Inspira has a relatively plain appearance, and yet it is approachable, with its rounded terminals. It is benign but without the details of personality which more calligraphic (humanist) sans fonts can suggest. Minor stroke modulation and slight contrast add to the readability, though a face such as this with no sharp corners may prove a challenge for the successful setting of extended text. However, its primary function (like all the fonts discussed here) is to support branding and identity, and Inspira is more likely to be used in short bursts.
One wonders if the design of Inspira was influenced by the early sanserif fonts published around the time of GE’s inception at the end of the 19th century, in order to tie the long history of GE in to a modern looking typeface. So-called grotesque fonts, are relatively straight in appearance with mimimal line-width variation, such as Akzidenz-Grotesk, designed in 1896 (GE was formed by merger of companies in 1892). Neo-grotesque fonts such as Helvetica and Univers have become hugely popular today, which are also based on Akzidenz-Grotesk. (Before Inspira, GE’s previous identity program (pdf) prescribed Univers for sans typography). Common features include the dropped horizontal on the uppercase A, and open and non-circular counters and bowls. These links with popular fonts which have this heritage may lend an air of both modernity and history to Inspira. One redesign of Akzidenz-Grotesk, AG Book Rounded, produced a font similar to Inspira. Another variation on nineteenth-century grotesque sans serif designs, VAG Rounded, also is similar. However, both lack Inspira’s additional curvature of traditionally straight strokes (e.g. uppercase A and Y), which adds to its hand-drawn allusions.
Q. What about Toshiba and Hitachi?
A. Toshiba uses Eurostile for its corporate branding, a font designed in the 1960s. Over the years this font has demonstrated its ability to provide a sense of technology and brio. Its square shaped glyphs with rounded corners echo the design of machinery and technology of the 50s and 60s. It is used extensively in numerous industries. Hitachi uses Helvetica for its sanserif requirements, due to its ‘precise, technical feel’ which ‘matches the company’s technological base’. For its serif needs, Sabon is used; the warmth and elegance of this font ‘reflecting the human side of the company’. Sabon is a popular font for setting body text in books; it is clear and readable, and retains some character without drawing too much attention to itself.
Further reading for budding typophiles:
The Elements of Typographic Style by Robert Bringhurst
Just My Type by Simon Garfield