Ah, the pressure of the blank page, those innocent acres of white space waiting to be filled with great insights. A clean canvas primed with matte gesso; a pristine notebook; a File>New computer window showing nothing but the cursor blinking silently. Anyone who’s worked in a creative capacity is well acquainted with the pleasures and terrors of what to say, how best to say it, and most critically for this discussion: how to start it. Digital designers, however, are faced with some predetermined visual decisions in the form of the software’s default typefaces.
Dan Rhatigan, graphic designer and former type director at Monotype, tackled the subject in his talk, “The Blank-ish Page,” at Cooper Union’s weeklong design festival, Typographics. Rhatigan has an encyclopedic knowledge of type and its uses, accompanied by a deeply observed long view of the whys—not just the hows—of the ways type functions. Who better to address the question: what does every designer first see when they sit down to begin a new project, and how do those defaults affect the design process?
The standard typefaces that are “baked in” to software interfaces (Minion is the current default text face in InDesign, Calibri is the default for Microsoft Word) are not as neutral as you might think. Rather, they set up a series of visual expectations. The near-universal requirements for school term papers—almost always double-spaced in 12-point Times New Roman—unintentionally reinforce visual conventions for what serious writing is “supposed to” look like.
Most designers wouldn’t be caught dead using one of these typefaces for a professional project, but what about the more casual user for whom defaults might prove counterproductive? Rhatigan posits that for someone without the time nor the inclination to explore other type options—a lawyer preparing a brief, a student finishing up a research paper—these bland presets often predetermine the results, leading to a world of sameness, of unappealing lack of visual variety.
Matthew Butterick, author of Typography for Lawyers, calls Times New Roman “the font of least resistance,” and chalks up its popularity to its ubiquity, not its beauty. It isn’t even a font choice, he argues, but rather “the absence of a font choice, like the blackness of deep space is not a color.”
If our tools influence our process and, ultimately, our decisions, the increasing number of cloud-based typefaces are a hopeful step towards better typography for all. A wider variety of appealing, easy-to-apply options might encourage even casual users to break away from the defaults and take a chance on Gill Sans or Goudy. As Rhatigan noted, “What you have to say is important. Think about how you want to say it. Don’t just let your tools say it for you.”