What’s the best font?
This question has been pitched at me two ways. First, as a sincere inquiry about whether there’s a best font. Second, as a gentle heckling of the overall argument in favor of typography: surely, if typography has a pragmatic role, then it shouldn’t be treated as a matter of personal choice, but rather empirical research.
Sounds good to me. While we’re at it, can we research the best opening sentence for a brief? Can we at least determine the number of vowels each paragraph ought to have?
Type designers aren’t hostile to the idea of research. On the contrary, many typefaces have emerged from legibility research. For instance, Bell Centennial (shown at left) was designed in the 1970s to keep small type legible in phone books by using ink traps that compensated for low-quality printing. More recently, the new federal-highway signage font, Clearview, was designed to be legible at various speeds and light levels. In these cases, however, the research tested propositions sufficiently narrow to be converted into design guidance.
Is it possible to discover the best font for everything? Some have claimed to, but just like research in any field, creating an empirically coherent legibility study is difficult. One complicating factor is controlling for acculturation and habit, which naturally play a large role in what is legible. (Consider the huge range of writing systems that human civilizations have successfully used.) A good survey of this research can be found in Sofie Beier’s book
Which brings us back to the question. As I said in what is good typography, typography is not a math problem with one right answer that we can discover with sufficient research. But neither is it a matter of whimsy, as we can always imagine typographic solutions to a problem that are not suitable. Indeed, thinking critically about the differences between, say, presentations and contracts is always helpful
And in that way, typography functions much like writing itself. We can—and should—use pragmatic considerations to narrow down the space of possibilities. But when it’s time to choose from among those possibilities, there’s some art, humanity, and expressiveness to it. Just as no one can tell you the best opening sentence for your brief, no one can tell you the best font for that brief, either.
And what’s wrong with that? Part of the persuasive value of the written word comes from that expressiveness. So it is with typography.