By Christopher Howse
01 May 2015
Applying for a job with a curriculum vitae in the Times New Roman typeface is like turning up to the interview wearing sweatpants, a design expert has told Bloomberg, the American business-minded outfit. Certainly if I was having an anxiety dream, wearing sweatpants at an interview might figure, after I’d missed a couple of trains and found myself at the controls of a car without knowing how to drive. But, I don’t possess a pair of sweatpants, so my remaining career risk comes from an unwise choice of font.
What’s wrong with Times New Roman, then? “It’s telegraphing that you didn’t put any thought into the typeface that you selected,” Brian Hoff, the designer man said. I fear that, more by accident than design, he has put his finger on a malaise in our civilisation.
The bigger problem is that thousands of brilliant young people have to send off job applications with CVs that combine the reliability of Baron Munchausen with the modesty of Mr Toad. Never mind that they are written in prose that would shame a local authority human resources executive. To get the edge over their rivals, the poor lambs imagine that the right choice of font makes all the difference. And here is Mr Hoff encouraging the myth. Come Hoff it.
Apart from anything else, it is deeply suspect to pretend to a knowledge of fonts in preference to having done something useful like reading Dante or successfully tending a bed of asparagus. Before we go any further, I’d like to say that I’d prefer to spell the word fount, as the Oxford English Dictionary records is usual in England. If I spell it font, I am just obeying orders.
It’s called a font because the bits of type that compose it are founded in a foundry. Anyone who gets all hoity-toity about the superiority of Garamond over Times Roman had, I think, better show some knowledge of the works of Cardinal Bembo (who was buried in 1547 in that church in Rome behind the elephant with an obelisk on its back) and the publishing history of Christopher Plantin, publisher to Philip II of Spain.
But in simply reading a well-printed book, there is a large element of concomitant pleasure: the paper comes into it and the dimpled imprint that the metal type leaves on its surface. When Hansard used to come hot, or rather damp, off the presses you could feel the lines of type with your fingertips. Now it is usefully online and you must look, don’t touch. It’s just the same with emailed CVs. Their so-called fonts are a mere simulacrum, a mirage of little particles of light on a screen, or, if printed out, a congelation of sooty dust.
As for the claim that the job-applicant’s character may be read in his choice of font, I can’t tell you how angry it makes me. (I’ve just had to take a little turn about the office to cool down.) It is the merest pretence to knowledge, like phrenology, the art of reading psychology by the bumps on the skull.
To put it plainly, judging character by choice of fonts is literally typecasting: stéréotyper, as the French put it. We rightly denounce racial stereotyping, and prejudice based on sex and age is forbidden too. I know there is not much left to exercise irrational hatred on – accent, beardedness, fatness, choice of socks perhaps – but to place the onus on type fonts is as bad as using astrological signs.
A very nice woman called Sarah Hyndman (whom you might have heard on Today on Radio 4, not an easy medium to explain typography) devotes her energies to “an experiential type studio to research how fonts evoke emotions, prompt multi-sensory interactions and influence us as type consumers”. That’s fine, but then she propagates the font-job myth too, like Mr Hoff.
“Fonts can act like an interview suit,” she says, “if you are writing a CV or letter to a client and need to be appropriate both for the industry and the occasion.” But how can you know whether the client has an irrational fear and loathing of Times New Roman or not? You might as well rely on feng shui.
None of this means you can’t like some fonts more than others. If you ask me, the world of print took the wrong turning when it chose in the 16th century to make roman type the default. I like some italic types of the time much better. But at least we have got rid of what was usually called black letter. I’ve got a 17th-century Book of Common Prayer at home set entirely in black letter. Think of a page in the same type as the Telegraph title. It’s not a pretty sight. Yet it was once widespread.
If, then, you sent off your CV in Telegraph Gothic, I admit that you might be mistaken for a keen supporter of the Teutonic Knights. Like messages on cake icing, some fonts are not designed for sustained reading. I have a personal aversion to fonts that ape curly handwriting. Snell Roundhand is an example. OK on wedding invitations at a pinch. But even at The Lady magazine they wouldn’t welcome a CV in it.
A lot of people mock Comic Sans type, as though the letters were all made up of clowns with big shoes standing in funny poses. As it happens, before moveable type was invented in Europe, scribal pattern-books were available in which all the letters were made up of grotesque figures in vivid colours. That would be something to try for a handwritten CV. It would take your mind off rejection for a few months. But, no, Comic Sans is a type face that looks suitable for use in a comic book. It is quite ugly, with an m that resembles three eighths of a dying spider.
Any sans face is more difficult to read as the body type of a book or document than letters with moderate serifs at their ends. That rules out Helvetica. Eric Gill was a great letter-cutter, but Gill Sans is no use either. It may be based on Edward Johnston’s typeface for the London Underground, but I suspect we love that for its associations, rather than its dynamic beauty. Johnston himself developed an attractive variety of roman and italic hands for writing, but that’s another story.
If job applicants put more study and practice into improving their handwriting for a nice covering letter to a prospective employer, it would pay dividends. Not ballpoint, please, and not madly calligraphic, but well-spelled, legible and neat. That shows a bit of character in a way no digitally generated font could.