The New York Times has an interesting piece focusing on the font choice for John McCain’s presidential campaign — it’s Optima — and what the choice might signify, given that it’s the font used for the names on the Vietnam Memorial and so on. It’s also a referendum on the font itself. The article includes this bit of double-banging snark, from illustrator Seymour Chwast:

Optima is one of the worst pre-computer typefaces ever designed. It was created to satisfy everybody’s needs. A straightforward, no-nonsense, no-embellishment face, it comes in regular and bold but little character can be found in either weight.

Optima is not inappropriate for use by Senator McCain.

I think that’s pretty mean to Optima. I like the font, personally and have been known to use it to write, because while being a sans serif font, it has just enough of a subtle weight to it that it makes it easy to read over long stretches of text. At least for me, anyway. If I recall correctly I wrote The Ghost Brigades at least partially in Optima. I have nothing bad to say about Optima. It’s not likely to get me to vote for McCain, but then, if my vote came down to an issue of campaign poster fonts, there’s something wrong with me, isn’t there.

That said, as much as I like Optima, it’s not my current composing font; at the moment I really like Cambria, the serif font that came with Windows Vista (and may be, in fact, the single best thing about Vista). At the moment, in fact, Whatever’s default font is Cambria, although I suspect a goodly portion of you are seeing it in Verdana, which is the backup font when your computer lacks Cambria, followed by other various sans serif fonts, and then finally (should you have none of these) whatever the default serif font is on your machine.

What does my current swoon for Cambria say, other than I’m Microsoft’s font puppy? I really don’t know, other than I guess I’m enough of a geek to think about this stuff at all. I do know that I change favorite fonts on a  regular basis. I don’t know what that means, either. I do know, however, that I can’t imagine a world in which I actually like Courier or any of its progeny. I’m aware it’s a standard and even use font in publishing, and I have even been known to format work into it, after I’m done writing, just like I double space everything after I’m done writing. Doesn’t mean I don’t hate it with something approaching a passion. It’s the opposite of esthetically pleasing. I wish it would die. But it won’t. At least I have Optima and Cambria to console me at the moment.

52 Comments on “Optimamistic”

  1. I think it’s disgusting that FONT CHOICE is even being covered as campaign news.

  2. I don’t know much about Optima, but there is a whole documentary on the Helvetica font. It is called, surprisingly enough, “Helvetica.” You should see it. I was amazed how much there is to say about a type font.

  3. For those of us stuck in monospace land (i.e., mostly computer programmers), I can’t recommend the Envy Code R font highly enough. Super clean (even on bold and italic), all characters easily distinguishable, reads great with syntax highlighting and shines on words that are CamelCased or stUDlyCasEd.

    I believe Barack Obama used it when he translated the Mayan Codex into Icelandic.

  4. Quoting the first line of the referenced Wikipedia article: Optima is a humanist sans-serif typeface designed by Hermann Zapf between 1952-1955 for the D. Stempel AG foundry, Frankfurt, Germany.

    Humanist? HUMANIST???!?!!? Boy, somebody in the McCain camp is gonna lose his job for that one! ;-)

  5. Thank you, John. Because of this post, I finally got up the motivation to research the difference between “sans serif” and “serif” fonts. So, again, thanks.

    Also, I prefer “Book Antiqua” when writing in Word. Just sayin.

  6. I’m currently using Luxi Sans as general applications font. I’m comfortable with it and I like how it’s rendered with my dpi settings on my monitor (I can’t stand it when I’m using my university’s LCD monitors), so I’ve been using it at home for nearly 3 years. However I recently changed monospace font, I’ve been using Consolas for a few months and so far I’m oriented to stay with it.

    That said, I have Cambria installed and it’s listed with all the other fonts, but apparently The Whatever is displayed with my standard serif font (which means that firefox is also skipping, for this site only, Verdana, Tahoma and Arial). I’m investigating.

    Using Firefox 3.0 beta 5 on Linux, anybody else has the same problem?

  7. I came in here to bring up the same documentary that JJS mentioned.

    Which I haven’t actually seen as of yet, but one of the CG/Chyron guys at work has recommended it.

  8. “if my vote came down to an issue of campaign poster fonts, there’s something wrong with me, isn’t there.”

    Well, yes: Your grammar is TERRIBLE. Prescriptivists everywhere shudder at your mangling of the subjunctive.

  9. Don’t know much about Optima,
    don’t know much about Palatino.
    Don’t know much about Arial Black,
    don’t know much about Handwriting Dakota.
    But I do know that I love Times,
    and I know that if you love Times, too,
    what a wonderful page this would be.

  10. Does Vista come with a Coheed font also?

    I really like Trebuchet MS – good for web pages and signs. Tasteful with just a little snap – very appealing.

  11. I don’t want to live in a world without fixed width fonts!
    Courier and their ilk are the bee’s knees when coding or cutting and pasting columnar data into programs that otherwise don’t really allow you to line up your text properly.

    And the best thing about Vista is Media Center Edition. At least if you have a large library of ripped DVDs, downloaded content and a semi-technophobic wife. “Just press the big green button, dear.”
    If Microsoft would just develop a plugin for Netflix’s play on demand movie database, life would be skittles and beer.

  12. Optima was indeed designed by Zapf, one of the greatest typographers of the last century. Despite being sans serif, it has modulated stroke widths that give it a certain touch of “serifness”. People who dismiss it are merely showing their ignorance. It is not a typeface that responds well to screen, however, as monitor resolutions are not fine enough to show the subtle modulations and end caps.

    Microsoft Typography is actually staffed with excellent typographers like Matthew Carter, and have done some ground-breaking work on fonts optimized for on-screen reading.

  13. Same thing, I clicked through to comments just to strongly recommend to John (and any other people interested in great documentaries about neat offbeat subjects) that he check out Helvetica, which fabulously combines fonts and geekery — I mean, passion — about a Cool Topic. Absolutely the best documentary I saw last year. The director’s story about the soundtrack (and what music he couldn’t use because it didn’t really go with the font) is just one of the great things about it.

  14. I used to love Book Antiqua for writing, but as I started to do more scientific writing, I realized that the Symbol font really only looks right with Times New Roman. So, that’s what I’m stuck with for the moment.

    Finding out that Whatever would render in Cambria if I loaded it in Vista is yet more reason why I never want to give up XP.

  15. *sigh*

    Include me as someone disgusted by the elite media’s insistence on trivia when reporting on the people who are going to head up the Executive Branch of this great nation of ours.

    Font choice? Reeeeeeeeeeeally?

  16. What – sixteen comments and no heated diatribe against Comic Sans, the Official Font of Godwin’s Law?

    Something is wrong. Very wrong.

  17. “Microsoft Typography is actually staffed with excellent typographers like Matthew Carter, and have done some ground-breaking work on fonts optimized for on-screen reading.”

    Too bad he wasn’t there when they first started out, and the MS team, not wanting to, y’know, actually pay for the already-existing well-made Adobe Helvetica fonts, gave us the eye-mangling visual charlie-foxtrot cheap third-world knockoff that is Arial.

    I’ll give them credit for doing a much better job since… but man, I used to hate hate hate them, and I still hate the entire generation of people that the Windows/Office “revolution” created, who think they’re graphic designers because they can use 18 fonts in a Word or Powerpoint doc. *shudder*

    I like Optima too. I use it when I need something clean, professional-looking and unobtrusive. It’s easy on the eyes, and can be used for both headline and body text (though I would rarely use it for body).

  18. For those concerned that the NYTimes is devoting news space to fonts….It should be noted that this isn’t a NYTimes News Article. This is a blog post.

    To quote:

    “One-stop shopping for The Times’s opinion journalism on the 2008 campaign: the issues, controversies, debates and dramas that will rise up during the long march to Nov. 4. Campaign Stops will include commentary by outside writers, as well as frequent posts about the race by Times columnists, editorial writers and bloggers.”

    The author is a “guest contributor” and his bio is as follows:

    Steven Heller is the co-chairman of the MFA Design program at the School of Visual Arts. He writes the “Visuals” column in the New York Times Book Review. He is the author of the forthcoming “Iron Fists: Branding the Totalitarian State.”

    Considering his background: fonts, which are visual, are a very appropriate thing for him to be blogging about.

  19. I like the last comment in the article from Rudy VanderLans:

    What does Optima say about Senator McCain? Nothing. It probably says more about the designer than anything else. Who, except designers, would judge a candidate by the typeface?

  20. Thanks for reminding me of about Courier. Now I’m not so annoyed at the Ariel I have to use in the paper I’m writing.

  21. I’m a Helvetica girl. Comes with the Mac territory.

    But of course, after the “Obama Fuck Yeah” viral campaign, someone else’s font had to be discussed, since “his font got serifs goddam” is pretty powerful.

  22. I’m with DejaVu too. My ebook reader comes with a default Verdana font, but I installed both Serif and Sans flavors of DejaVu, which I found more comfortable for on-screen reading.

    For some reason, though, I still stick to Times New Roman when I write. Maybe I’m deformed by all those years with old versions of MS Word, MS Write and Lotus AmiPro. The only one I like better is Garamond, wich is beautiful once printed, but it’s not very friendly to reading on a screen.

  23. From a design fashion point of view, Optima was everywhere 10 to 15 years ago. And I mean everywhere, from CAD software user guides to pizza delivery place leaflets. I’m not sure whether the Vietnam Memorial thing actually plays a role or whether a designer chose to go for a little bit of almost-retro. Or maybe those people have been ordering too much pizza.

  24. I’m writing my novel in Optima, and used it for the short story I just finished. It’s the default font in Scrivener, which is the software I’m writing in (can’t say enough good things about Scrivener, by the way, but that would be off topic). I find it inoffensive, and neutral enough that I don’t piss away time thinking about the font I’m working in.

  25. Microsoft Typography is actually staffed with excellent typographers like Matthew Carter, and have done some ground-breaking work on fonts optimized for on-screen reading.

    Amen. I love Verdana for programming for all the reasons Dave likes Envy Code R, plus it’s usually available by default on pretty much any computer.

  26. I hate Times New Roman with a fiery passion, and was thrilled that I was presented with a few options when writing my doctoral dissertation. Bookman is thus my new favourite font. (Though I am pretty fickle when it comes to fonts. I have been known to use up much of my alloted writing time playing with fonts.)

  27. I liked Bookman in college. We don’t talk now. I can’t decide whose fault it is.

  28. The article’s intro pretty much covers Optima for me, it’s not bad, it’s just specific. It’s useful and perfectly suited for a number of things, but I’d find it difficult to use as a fallback.

    My usual fallback is Trebuchet MS. Like Ian M. at #11 said, it’s not flashy, but has its own personality.

  29. Centaur uber alles!

    My grandfather was a printer and taught me to use a letter-press at age five, something I still do at least once a year. So I grew up with a grandad with shelves and shelves of Centaur, from 8 pt up to 48 pt, in which I had custom lunch bags, (very simple) D&D character sheets, all that good stuff.

    But I’ve never been happy with the Centuar that is on the PC.

  30. I like Optima OK, but my favorite “boy, I wish I could afford to buy this” font is New Aster. When we were working on the GURPS Fourth Edition page design, we were trying to find a font that worked in several weights and was easy to read, but was NOT a flavor of Times. New Aster came to our rescue. At the 90% width we used for body type, it has many of the same properties of Times without actually BEING Times, but it also works for heads (especially in the heavier weights), and has very graceful italics in all weights. I don’t think anyone who looked at the books ever said, “What a great font!!” but I know it’s there and it makes me smile.

    I used to be a Palatino junkie, but its overexposure led to my disenchantment. Sigh.

  31. It is not a damn font. It’s a damn typeface. 10 points is a font. 12 points is a font. Optima is a typeface.


    (Sigh) This is a hopeless crusade, isn’t it?

  32. David #@35: Yes. It is. Has been since the introduction of the Mac introduced the broader world to the word “font”, albeit incorrectly. I gave up many years ago. Of course, since we’ve already established that our Gracious Host is a Radical Prescriptivist (TM), you could see if he could help.

  33. Well, a font also means the whole family of a particular typeface, in various type sizes. Which fairly accurately represents what exists inside most computers. If we want to get technical.

    But more to your point, yeah, this one’s probably a lost case.

  34. I am a book designer, so, you know, bona fides here.

    I love Optima. It’s clean, easy to read, and goes with many other fonts (matching fonts is a big part of book design).

    More than Optima, though, I love Officina Sans. It’s wonderful when an author has characters emailling or text messaging in the book.

  35. I detest Courier. In fact, I wrote a post last week listing it as one of my pet peeves.

    I usually use Arial, because it’s available on every computer I’ve come across and it’s near the top of the list (bonus there for not having to scroll), although Verdana is very similar and a little cleaner. I haven’t run across Optima yet, but I do like it.

  36. A crazy little game I like to play is “Font Spotting.” I work post-production in a phtography studio, of all things, so I don’t have a huge exposure to fonts, but I did get to pick out sixteen or twenty for us to choose from. The idea behind that is we really shouldn’t need more than that (and, in fact, we don’t actually need that many— I’m the only one that uses a couple of them, and those ones are entirely for abstract purposes.)

    But Font Spotting is a lot of fun, because nearly all of those fonts are in common usage. I did NOT pick Papyrus, a beautiful font face that is perhaps the most overused one of the last decade. I also didn’t pick President, one of my favorites, because it wasn’t loaded on our computers. But I go to the grocery store and I see them all the time. Or Lucida Handwriting. Or Harrington. Or Vintner. Or even Marigold, for something different.

    It just amuses the heck out of me that with a mental vocabulary of perhaps two dozen font faces, I am able to identify nearly all of the “artistic” food labels out there. It’s as though the designers get no further than the Open Type list and stop dead. I mean, I do that too, but generally I’m not designing something for pay, so I can’t go out and buy rights to a font face.

  37. I worked with Helvetica. I knew Helvetica. Helvetica was a friend of mine. Optima, you are no Helvetica!

    Optima is in use by the McCain presidential campaign, which is wrong on the War in Iraq.

    Optima is in use by the McCain presidential campaign, which is wrong on the economy.

    Optima is in use by the McCain presidential campaign, which is wrong on personal liberty.

    Optima: Wrong on the War, Wrong on the Economy, Wrong on Personal Liberty.

    Optima: Wrong for America!

  38. I’ve set recent work in the Mrs. Eaves family, which I think looks quite elegant when printed. For anyone interested in a font of fonts, check out http://www.myfonts.com (no affiliation – just find it an interesting, easily searchable site). I particulary like the feature where you can upload a bitmap of text in a font you are not familiar with and they do their best to identify it for you (usually with success).

  39. Actually, John, apologies in advance if I this is too pedantic, but the usage of ‘typeface’ vs. ‘font’ is one of my pet peeves, so let me help set the record straight. . .

    Mark Simonson explains it best, in a comment to a post on typophile.com: “The physical embodiment of a collection of letters (whether it’s a case of metal pieces or a computer file [regardless of how many actual weights are in a case—could be one, could be sixty]) is a font. When referring to the design of the collection (the way it looks [Helvetica v. Palatino]) you call it a typeface.”

    And yeah, it probably is a losing battle, but man, this is one they’ll have to pry out of my cold dead composing stick. . .

  40. Ditto to Scalzi re Optima, Cambria, and anti-Courier. I’ve been known to tell students not to write in Courier, as my unconscious bad vibes will probably lower their grade.

    Incidentally, re #15—Cambria also comes with Office 2007 and MacOffice 2008, so resisting Vista will not save you from it. But MS did 24 new fontsXXXX typefaces, of which Cambria is only one, and they are really quite nice.

  41. 1) Cambria is very nice
    2) Microsoft actually offer a free download that lets those of us who don’t want to touch Vista with a 20 mile barge pole get those nice new fonts
    3) Thank you!

  42. Athersgeo @#46: Where can we download the fonts? I have them because I copied the files from a friend’s Vista laptop, but I could use a direct download (I have not regular access to machines with Vista).

  43. Optima was the font used for the original hardcover Jonathan Livingston Seagull. I once set up a sample page of Optima in a college class on the history of printing.

  44. When it comes to code, I would like to kill all folks who use non-monospace fonts.

    When it comes to writing, Courier New grew on me. I actually prefer to compose in it (and I hate serif or sans serif). Not quite sure why. Perhaps it’s because I’ve been coding long enough to get used to the idea that Monospace Is Good.

    (That said, I hate Courier New for coding. I usually use Monaco or Andale Mono. And yet I can’t use either of the latter fonts for writing comfortably; it just feels wrong, somehow.)

    When it comes to reading… on screen it’s sans serif. On paper it’s serif. Why, I don’t know… probably because anti-aliasing works better on paper (or even electronic paper) than it does on the screen. Even on a Mac (although it’s pretty close to perfect on a Mac).

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