The Font of Youth

At 18, Mary Pflug ’16 became one of the youngest people to publish a typeface.

Mary Pflug ’16 is the designer and co-founder of the College’s new student magazine, The Independent (the first issue is now on stands).

The art history major is also one of the youngest designers to have a published typeface. While a senior in high school, Pflug developed Dumpling, a typeface inspired by Jun Kaneko’s sculptures, as an assignment in one of her courses. And thanks to her mentor, Neil Summerour—who has published a number of his typefaces—Pflug’s font is available online (check it out).

Pflug recently spoke with me about typefaces, fonts, design, and her decision to attend a liberal arts college.

(Photo by Scott Cook) (Photo by Scott Cook) Laura Cole: What’s the difference between a typeface and a font?

Mary Pflug: Technically, the word “font” refers to a set of characters that make up what we use to convey written messages. The basic makeup of a font includes more than just the standard 26 letters of the alphabet; one needs a lowercase set, an uppercase set, numerals, and the symbols that are used in punctuation. Most fonts have many more components than this, including different styles of numerals, alternate characters, ligatured alternate characters, fractions, percent and currency symbols, and diacritical marks so that the font can be used in other languages.

A typeface is the word used to describe the design of a collection of fonts. Using Times New Roman as an example, one can see that there are different styles, including italics and bold. The regular, italic, and bold versions are each individual fonts that make up the typeface Times New Roman. Each had to be individually designed and coded, yet they all possess a similar, cohesive style. Colloquially, it is perfectly fine to refer to a typeface as a font. It is also OK to use the term “typeface,” especially when talking about the design of the letterforms. Just be sure not to mesh the terms together and call Times New Roman a fontface!

LC: Why does the world need another typeface?

MP: This question gets asked a lot, and it is certainly something that I think about. Scrolling through the thousands of typefaces on font distribution sites, it is easy to become overwhelmed by the many options that, on the surface, look very similar. However, as time passes and designers hone their craft, more fonts are created that work better and within a very specific context. It is akin to asking why the world needs another sedan? Even though the updated 2007 version of a car might only be slightly different from the 2005 version, the technological and design advances will eventually lead to a 2018 version that will be miles away from the 2005 model.

In general, the people who make up the community of type designers are dedicated and particular. I commend the drive to improve and innovate with the goal of perfection. Perhaps this is most often achieved when designers can realize the perfection in imperfection, giving a necessary human touch to a world of increasingly cold, rigid, and “too perfect” digital elements.

LC: You recently designed the College’s new magazine, The Independent. Did you use a serif or sans-serif font for the body text? (And can you explain to readers what the difference is between the two?)

MP: I am so excited about the new publication! I used a serif font for the body copy, Magneta, designed by Positype.

Serifs are the marks that appear on the ends of vertical strokes that make up some letterforms. These derive from when writing was carved into stone, a byproduct of the use of a chisel to make the marks. This evolved into a stylistic element that we still see today. Serifs are helpful in increasing legibility of letterforms. The way the eye understands the visual information of a letter is by defining the negative (or white) space around it. Serifs help to clarify that space, so that it is quicker and easier for the brain to interpret it. For large amounts of small text, serif fonts should be used.

Sans-serif fonts do not possess serifs. It is becoming popular to use sans-serif fonts for body copy in websites; however, I try to avoid that as well, since reading from a screen is just as taxing as reading from a printed page, if not more so. It is perfectly acceptable to use sans-serif fonts for a smaller amount of text in a relatively larger size. Both have their pros and cons, and choices are also made for aesthetic reasons.

LC: You attended an arts high school, and you knew you wanted to go into design. Why attend a liberal arts college rather than an art and design school?

MP: That was one of the most difficult decisions I have had to make. I chose a liberal arts education for two reasons: First, I want to be well rounded; and second, I have many interests and skills that fall outside of the boundaries of design. After three semesters, I have found that I am able to continue my design work and education with various projects (like The Independent!) and keep in touch with mentors from high school. Yet I have this other great side of my education that is attained in the traditional sense, allowing me to be informed about the world around me and to grow my critical-thinking skills, which are necessary in any field, even design.

LC: Most people think of design in terms of aesthetics—making something visually appealing. But what else does design do? What lies behind all those decisions you make as a designer?

MP: I find designing type to be both an art and a science. I spoke earlier about the need for a human touch in designing type. Finding the balance between perfection in proportional and natural deviation is what makes something beautiful. When this balance is achieved, the letterforms become more visually appealing. As a direct result, they also become more technically useful, conveying messages more clearly.

In design in general, I favor clarity and simplicity. I love design because it is a practical art. It is also useful and affects so many people. Looking around, everything is designed by a human mind with a specific goal. Roadways and faucets that are designed specifically to be inexpensive make you feel a certain way. Chairs and websites that are designed with quality or comfort as the first priority make you feel different as well. Looking at vehicles designed for speed makes you feel differently than looking at vehicles designed to hold lots of passengers.

Designing fonts requires that same balance of form and function. Different fonts evoke different feelings in people, and choices are made based on those feelings. If you ask me, that is a powerful thing.