An Experiment in (Typographic) Criticism

Ramfublio's picture

I just read C.S. Lewis's An Experiment in Criticism, and I thought it would be fun to adapt it to typography:

Good fonts are those which permit, invite, or compel good design. The function of typographic criticism is to multiply, prolong, and safeguard experiences of good design.

If I say I like Helvetica, and you are sure that it is bad, then you could say my taste is bad. On what do you base your position? If it is your own taste, then you are just being insolent. If you say so because of the prevailing view of the typographic community, then how long will this last? It is only a matter of time before fashion changes.

Suppose you had a different way to approach it. You might encourage me to talk about Helvetica, and discover that I have the worst sort of attitudes about design and typography (laziness, trendiness, etc). Suppose you then went around to other designers, and found that everyone who likes Helvetica shared the same bad attitudes. You would have solid ground for a steadily growing conviction that Helvetica is bad, arguing that 'Since all who enjoy Helvetica do so by applying the worst sort of design, Helvetica is probably a bad typeface'.

This approach has three advantages: first, it fixes our attention on the act of design in operation rather than abstract considerations. Second, basing judgment on how someone designs is much stronger than basing it on what typefaces they choose, which is subject to fashion. Finally, this method makes critical condemnation a very laborious task, which is a good thing (it is too easy otherwise).

This method relies on separating true typophiles from the general public. However, if you can find even one type lover who is fanatical about a given typeface, who would notice if there were a change, who would spend money to replace it if necessary, then you would need to exercise great caution before condemning it. Helvetica, under this method, could never be called a bad typeface. However, Comic Sans and Cheltenham (aka 'Chelt') might be.

kentlew's picture

An interesting rationale and argument. But then, what prompted you to toss the example of Cheltenham in there at the end, contra Helvetica?

Here is a typeface with a longer history than Helvetica, the recorded plaudits of a number of respected historical designers/typographers (W. A. Dwiggins among them) and notable use currently in the headlines of The New York Times.

“. . . then you would need to exercise great caution before condemning it” indeed.

Té Rowan's picture

Nah, Arial is much closer to 'bad' than ever ol' Chelt. I'd never buy a religious tract because it was set in Arial. I did do that for Cheltenham.

dezcom's picture


Ramfublio's picture

I was actually teasing a bit with Cheltenham. I mention it only because of its attraction to American advertisers, and because of Douglas McMurtrie's quote that 'The appearance of most magazine and commercial printing will be improved by the simple expedient of denying any variants of the Cheltenham design to compositors'.

Ramfublio's picture


OK - I put my foot in my mouth about Chelt, and your response shows that I am all wet. The great thing about the system is that Dwiggins' praises are exactly what is needed to establish Chelt as fine type. Interestingly, the fact that the NYT uses it is not enough to do so, unless it is clear that the paper uses it because it contributes to the overall design, as opposed to cost or tradition (or apathy).


Arial is actually a perfect example for this system. It is popular, but for non-typographical reasons.


dezcom's picture

"...Dwiggins' praises are exactly what is needed to establish Chelt as fine type"

Anyone's praises or damnation do not make any typeface in to a fine type. It is exactly what you see and you are free to make up your own mind without hearing a word from another soul.

Frode Bo Helland's picture

Arial with it's extended character set and extensive hinting is a marvelous design tool. There I've said it.

Ramfublio's picture

Anyone's praises or damnation do not make any typeface in to a fine type.

I completely agree, Chris. The quality of the type is inherent to its design, and public opinion, even of type lovers, cannot make a bad font into a good one (or vice versa).

I like Lewis's theory because it does not attempt to define what makes good art good. Rather, it tries to make rejecting art more difficult. I said that Dwiggins' praise was enough to establish Chelt as fine type, because he is someone who clearly loves typography and design, and he also loves Chelt. It would have been enough that Kent or you love Chelt.

Establishing the fact that a type has value is easy; establishing the opposite is and should be hard. Lewis uses the analogy of a spider - you can show that there is a spider in the room simply by pointing to one. To show that there isn't, you need to take the room apart.

dezcom's picture

Establishing truth or falsehood involving discussions of the physical sciences is a totally different matter. Getting universal agreement among the majority of humans on what type is good or not is not only far more complicated but it is a moving target with opinions changing with time. Perhaps you are looking for an Uncertainty Principle that can be applied to the ever-shifting opinion patterns of people on typography? ;-)

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