A font of wisdom on economies of scale

21st May, 2011

A confession: I have become something of a fontophile over the past couple of months. And I don’t think it’s just me. This year’s April Fool’s Day witnessed some splendid typographical jokes. Typing “Helvetica” into Google provoked an alarming change: every letter in the search was suddenly transformed, not into the spare and elegant Swiss typeface, but into Comic Sans. (Comic Sans is a determinedly informal font loathed by almost everyone with a knowledge of typography, and unwittingly adopted by most of the rest of the human race.)

Helvetica itself was the subject of an eponymous and entertaining documentary in 2007. The message of Helvetica echoes contemporary concerns about globalisation. A single typeface, designed in 1957 in Münchenstein near Basel in Switzerland, graces the American Airlines logo, Coca-Cola adverts, the New York subway, labels in American Apparel stores, Crate and Barrel, Kawasaki, Gap, Panasonic, BMW, Jeep and even Oral B. One designer, infuriated by its ubiquity, declares in the documentary that Helvetica is the font of the Vietnam war. She’s only half joking.

Modern life tends towards standardisation. The likes of McDonald’s and Starbucks try to replicate the consumer experience, the branding, the size of the drinks cups. In such cases, economists often look for signs of “economies of scale”, a term used to describe a business operation whose average costs decline as the size of the business expands. Annoyingly, economies of scale are analytically inconvenient – if you want to build a textbook model of an industry with scale economies, the mathematics are messy – and yet Adam Smith’s famous example of the pin factory simply illustrated how fundamental economies of scale are to economic progress.

Fonts and typefaces enjoy economies of scale: once designed, they can be used again and again at low cost. Indeed this is more true than in the days when a font was hundreds of pounds of carefully sculpted metal. (Simon Garfield’s likeable book, Just My Type, includes the tale of Doves, the font that drowned. Thomas Cobden-Sanderson, the designer of Doves, did not wish his glorious font to be used by a rival after his death. Over the course of three years the septuagenarian Cobden-Sanderson destroyed the casts for the type, and then every metal letter, by consigning parcels of them into the Thames. Helvetica is immune from this fate. So, alas, is Comic Sans.)

Economies of scale underpin real-world monopolies. Could Helvetica achieve this status? Hardly. Just like most dominant companies, Helvetica is vulnerable to competition. Arial, an upstart font with the same proportions as Helvetica, was packaged with Microsoft Windows from 1992 and guaranteed instant prominence. The world’s most popular font these days is probably Calibri; it was pushed centre stage by Microsoft as recently as 2007, the year Helvetica was produced.

Contrary to popular belief, Helvetica never even wiped its rivals off the face of the New York subway. An obsessive coffee-table book by Paul Shaw documents that the Helvetica-style font that defined subway signage is in fact Standard Medium. Helvetica didn’t become the official typeface on subway signs until 1989. Standard Medium persists in corners of the subway and most people don’t notice the difference.

Economies of scale in fonts, as often in the corporate world, do not seem to stand in the way of diversity for long. There have never been so many alternatives to Helvetica, and new fonts are created at an unprecedented rate. There is always demand for the next forward-looking font. Barack Obama used a 21st century font, Gotham, for his 2008 election campaign. Evidently some people think it helped his fortunes: Gotham has now been adopted by Sarah Palin.

Also published at ft.com.

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