By R.E. Hawley
I cannot start any document — a novel, a letter, an invoice — without first clicking on the drop-down menu labeled “Font” and considering my options. There are the obvious choices: Times New Roman, reliable if bland; Arial, crisp and austere; Proxima Nova, clean and versatile. But what about those occasions that require the fine china of typography?
I’m speaking, of course, of delicate, refined Garamond. Garamond is not just one typeface but, in fact, a group of them, whose origins trace back to 16th-century France, where they were created by a man named Claude Garamond. Garamond lived and worked during a transitional period, when old-fashioned black-letter fonts were giving way to more modern Roman typefaces. His typefaces, meticulously designed to resemble a more legible version of pen-and-ink handwriting, inspired a printer named Jean Jannon to create a similar type (also named after Garamond) in the early 17th century, eventually leading to a revival.
Whether designed by Garamond, Jannon or someone else, Garamonds share a few central characteristics. Their serifs — the little extra strokes on letters like “i” and “r” — are often sloped or slightly scooped. They have low “x-heights” — that’s the height of a lowercase letter like “e,” “a” and, obviously, “x” — and high crossbars, or horizontal strokes, on letters like “e.” Garamond’s strokes are widely varied and full of character — they were originally made, after all, to resemble handwriting. The italics tend to reveal some of their most idiosyncratic strokes, such as the loop on a lowercase “k,” or the upward flick at the bottom of a lowercase “h.”
Garamonds are lovely, and yet they have a polarizing reputation. Their low x-height and fastidiously detailed strokes make for what many find a pleasant print-reading experience, but these features make them less legible on screens compared with their more uniform sans-serif compatriots. And where some see elegance, others perceive fussiness. There’s a stereotype associated with the sort of person who loves Garamond: The Garamond Guy, if you will, is irritatingly uptight, so certain of his own profundity that his words must be conveyed with the weight of a 500-year-old French typeface. (In the sitcom “Brooklyn Nine-Nine,” a character desperate to impress his type-A future father-in-law greets him at the airport with a sign printed in Garamond. “You’re a Garamond man, huh?” the father-in-law says, beaming.) It’s unsurprising, then, that Garamond has developed an association with the most trite, surface-level aesthetics of bookish intellectualism, and is subsequently considered a bit gauche by those in the know.
I count myself among those in the know. As a graphic designer, I spend hours each week scrolling through my font library in search of the perfect fit for each project. Clients are rarely able to articulate exactly what they want, only what isn’t working. You can categorize a typeface by any number of technical elements, but its aesthetic and emotional impact often comes down to something ineffable — a vibe. And the vibe of a typeface is likely to change over time as it’s juxtaposed with new trends. You can imagine Garamond registering as more casual to readers of the mid-16th century, given its penlike strokes. In our current age — one defined by sans-serif typography and spare, minimalist aesthetics that scan easily on a screen — that same style has a baroque vibe, an old-fashioned fanciness.
But we all need to feel a bit fancy sometimes. Unlike the Garamond Guy, I have found my self-confidence to often be in short supply, particularly in my writing pursuits. On the page, this is typically borne out in the form of serviceable, risk-averse prose where there could be something more. For a long time I favored utilitarian sans-serifs like Avenir or Montserrat for writing. There’s an informality to the flow of words in these typefaces, as if they were merely jotted in the Notes app on your phone. This felt ideal for me, a writer who struggles to put words down on the page. And yet, as I watched blocky sans-serif letters fill my screen, I found myself uncertain — lending occasional audience to the low, honeyed voice in the back of my head who questions whether I’m just not very good at this, maybe?
Then, a few months ago, while I was looking at a long-term project I’d been working on in fits and starts, my cursor meandered toward the word processor’s font menu, and with one click the text reappeared in Garamond. I nearly gasped. Dressed in gentle serifs and subtle ornamentation, my words swelled with new life, and I saw hidden in the screen behind them the reflection of someone else, someone whose presence commanded respect.
It’s a little ridiculous to have to trick myself into believing in my own work, and even more ridiculous that I can be tricked so simply, like a child enraptured at a magic act. But creative output of any kind depends upon a steady stream of tiny self-delusions — guardrails to keep yourself from veering into a pit of self-doubt and despair. Mind-set is blessedly malleable: We put on our best outfits not because we’re going somewhere, but simply to look in the mirror and will ourselves to feel as good as we look. So I continue to “select all” in my word documents and, for a moment, let myself believe that my words are as beautiful as the typeface in which they appear.
R.E. Hawley is a writer and a designer whose work has appeared in The New Republic, Gawker and other publications.