Friday Files: The Great Font Debate

The thing about so many lawyers is they are very, very knowledgeable about one or two things, but think that means they know everything about everything. Which leads them into trouble when it comes to non-linear things like, say, typography.

In reality, I know precious little about typography, but having edited magazines, I’ve picked up bits here and there. When designers tell me a font does or doesn’t work, I listen. Plus I do own the classic Thinking with Type.

I mention all this because fonts are hot, baby. First, there was the movie last summer Helvetica, about the glories of that ground-breaking font. (Sadly, not living in a major city any longer, I missed it.) And the NYT Magazine published a terrific piece on Clearview, a new font coming to a road near you.

You would think that lawyers and typography are one of those “and ne’er the twain shall meet” kind of things, but you would be wrong. Back in the late 1980s, law firms were dipping their wing-tipped toes into the pool of branding. And at the particular BigLaw place where I was hanging, fonts were a raging debate, the subject of angry meetings and countless memos.

The problem was, essentially, that lawyers think everyone else is dumber than they are. And so the fact that an M and a W were looking mighty similar to each other, with very vertical stems, was keeping some folks up at night. In the proposed new logo, if you flipped one of those letters vertically, you couldn’t tell the difference between them. Flipped, they fit one on top of the other. And this was bad, very bad. A threat to the very fabric of society.

So the compromise was that the extremely vertical W was replaced with one that had some huge kind of angle to the stems. Never mind that it made the Ws as wide as a barge and collectively probably upped the firm’s printer cartridge consumption by 5 percent. The world was safe from interchangeable Ms and Ws, and that is what counted.

Until the firm changed its name. But that’s a different story.

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