Word association

Naming a typeface can be like christening a child. Some are classic, others wacky or just plain dull. Jim Davies types out the interesting origins of font names

‘The name of a man,’ remarked media theorist Marshall McLuhan, ‘is a numbing blow from which he never recovers.’ Brutal, but largely true. A name may not actually shape a person’s future, but it does determine how he or she is perceived by others.

Without a doubt, names are potent signifiers, redolent with meaning.

You can apply the same kind of logic to the name of typeface. For example, if Helvetica, the world’s most widely available sans serif face, had kept its original name of Neue Haas Grotesk, would it have been the runaway success it proved? It’s doubtful. To anglicised ears at least, Helvetica is a more elegant word, with a heavy nod to the typeface’s rigorous Swiss origins. Haas, which alludes to the Haas Foundry, where type designer Max Miedinger worked, is a far more obscure reference, which wouldn’t have had the same ready association or easy international appeal.

Pre-digital typefaces were certainly christened with gravitas. That’s not exactly surprising given the painstaking, time-consuming and highly skilled effort that went into creating them. With quite understandable pride, their makers tended to name them after themselves as their typographic passport to posterity. Giovanni Bodoni and John Baskerville are just two of the old masters who designed eponymous fonts.

Frederick Goudy must have been particularly fond of the sound of his name, incorporating it into six of the seven fonts he designed (the exception being Kennerly Old Style). And Eric Gill kept things in the family, naming Perpetua and Joanna after his daughters Petra and Joan respectively, hinting that these typefaces were the precious offspring of his creativity.

How times have changed. When digital font packages such as Altsys’ Fontographer and Letraset’s FontStudio came of age during the late 1980s, a legion of new typefaces – good, bad and ugly – were suddenly spawned.

Where once it took literally years to hone an alphabet, now you could knock one out in just a matter of days. And, of course, they all needed names. Created in such a different context, however, these titles were conferred with a very different rationale. They became irreverent, zany, postmodern, radical or just crass, often based on typographical in-jokes and usually reflecting their disposable nature – a trend in nomenclature that has more or less continued to this day.

The Chicago-based digital type foundry T26 includes fonts in its catalogue called Freakshow, Bubbalove and Uncle Stinky. And Dutch design studio Underware has just released a family of fonts called Dolly.

At FontWorks you’ll find Minimum Bong, Soupbone and Yokkmokk. Others include Superchunk, Fetish, and Daddy-O. And probably the most gratuitous name of all is still Nick Worthington’s Neville Brody Ate My Hamster, which will undoubtedly take its place in history for its appellation rather than its craftsmanship.

‘It’s like classical versus pop music,’ observes Assorted Images creative director Norman Hathaway. ‘Classical music may take itself a lot more seriously and will be around forever, but that’s not to say that there aren’t some great pop songs out there. The names are just a reflection of the different attitudes behind the design of the typefaces.’

While the traditional/ modern divide to some extent explains the attitudinal shift towards type naming, there are other, more pragmatic, reasons behind it. With so many new typefaces screaming for attention, a snappy, standout name is one way of making yourself heard. And similar names just add to the general confusion surrounding issues of copyright, plagiarism and ownership. Initiatives such as Rochester Institute of Technology’s register of typeface names seeks to offer some protection.

So how do today’s practitioners of type design go about the arcane business of naming their fonts? As you might expect, their methodologies are about as diverse as the typefaces they produce. Some honest souls admitted to the AAA Taxis technique – that is, choose a name that starts with a letter near the beginning of the alphabet so that your typeface appears at the front end of a catalogue. Others carefully select what they considered to be the key letterforms in the font and try to make a word out of them. Then there’s the aural/ visual approach, falling into two camps of ‘just like the sound of it’ or ‘just like the shape of it’.

Clearly some designers have a more considered approach to naming. Jeremy Tankard prefers short names, ‘so that each typeface almost becomes a brand in its own right’. This, he continues, is a particularly useful ploy if your font secures third-party distribution and it insists on adding its name to the front of yours.

Tankard is also inclined to more sober names as he believes his work will be taken more seriously by corporate users. Usually these names pop up through serendipity rather than hard graft and a Thesaurus.

His elegant Shaker typeface was originally called Galileo. While he was working on the typeface, however, he happened to be browsing in a bookshop when he came across a book on Shaker crafts and decided to appropriate the name. Considering how it was arrived at, it’s amazing how well the name suits the face. Similarly, Tankard’s Bliss is named after his friend Spencer Bliss, rather than a state of euphoria induced by a sublime typeface. ‘It’s amazing how much gets read into it,’ says Tankard.

You might have thought that designer/ illustrator Rian Hughes’ typeface names, marketed under the Device label, were a little more tongue-in-cheek. His work mainly falls under what Rookledge’s International Typefinder would term ‘modified outrageous’, come complete with outlandish monikers – Foonky, Slack Casual, Bordello and Scrotnig among them. But, Hughes maintains, they all have an underlying integrity. ‘A font name should be descriptive of the use to which it might be put.’

He uses two contrasting faces as example. Blackcurrant, which he describes as ‘brightly coloured and slightly kitsch, the kind of thing you might see on fruit pastille packaging’, and Paralucent, ‘which is [his] attempt to out-Univers Univers – it means beyond clear,’ he explains. ‘One’s fun and the other’s serious, but they’re both approached with the same rigour.’ Quite what applications the name Knobcheese suggests isn’t entirely clear.

Typographic designer Jonathan Barnbrook, by contrast, likes to invent names that question or even contradict the visual nuances of the fonts he has created. ‘I’m exploring the notion of letterforms as communication and the concept of language,’ he says. ‘The names I use deliberately create a barrier between the font and the word that describes them.’ Manson, (which was changed to Mason in the US after letters of complaint to distributor Emigré), is ‘about the violence and beauty of language’ – the sound of word may be elegant, but it has been tainted by association. The black letter face Bastard, one of his earliest creations, meanwhile, is a postmodern comment on ‘the history of type’.

‘It’s important to me to come up with something that has several levels of meaning,’ he says. For someone who puts so much effort into nomenclature, it’s ironic that a Canadian designer has taken his name in vain, producing a pirate copy of Bastard, which he’s dubbed Barnbrook Gothic. While this reeks of cynicism and opportunism, one thing’s for sure, Barnbrook – along with every other contemporary typographic designer – would never have named a typeface after himself.

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