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Lost and Font

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If you walked out of your home without knowing you’d accidentally time traveled into the past, how long would it take you to realize what had happened? What if they had sent you back ten years, or thirty, or a hundred? Discuss with your team: how far into the past would you need to be to realize instantly that you were in a different era?

Technology, clothing, speech - there are many telltale signs for determining an era. While some, such as technology, might be accurate and changing from year to year (imagine every generation of iPhone), others, such as language, might not show dramatic change in a short period of time (Imagine Shakespeare vs. rap). However, each generation or era has some instantaneous or iconic signs. For example: masks for Covid, phones or tiktok, blackberry, yoga pants, 70s big hair, Beatles.... Beware, there are also some elements that have barely changed - McDonald's burger & Coca-cola.  These signs are different by region and culture too. Therefore, the more recent and urban, the easier it is to determine if you have time travelled; the further and more rural, the trickier it might be. 


Written by Cameron Chapman, a designer and educator, this article is a great recap of the evolution of font aka. typeface or typography.  The history of font begins with Johannes Gutenberg, who invented the movable printing press in 1440 in Germany (there were others before him, but he is the most well-known). He is most famous for the Gutenberg Bible. Before this, books were reserved for the elites, who could afford beautiful, handwritten manuscripts, usually created by scribes in monasteries, and books were mostly religious.  Since then, fonts have evolved over time dramatically, or slowly, linked with culture and technological progress. 

Major influences of font evolution: technology, saving space/money, readability  

Gutenberg's created block letterforms based on the Blackletter calligraphy that mimicked the writings in manuscripts. Although classic and beautiful, it took up a lot of space per page and required more pages and time. 

In 1470, Nicolas Jensen created the first Roman type face based on Blackletter and Italian Humanist, a Renaissance movement, that was easier to read and space-saving. His typeface sparked many iterations over the centuries. 

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In 1501, Aldus Manutius and Francesco Griffo invented Italics to save even more space. The use of Italics has changed over the years to become an emphasis. 

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In 1734, William Caslon took typography in a new direction to increase readability by creating “Old Style" type.  


The next significant typeface was called Transitional by John Baskerville, whose designs were more distinctive and darker. Critics said he was "responsible for blinding the nation," but he received acclaim in the 20th century as "the greatest printer England ever produced." 

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In 1780, Firmin Didot in France and Giambattista Bodoni in Italy produced modern serif Roman fonts: Bodoni and Didot. Very subtle differences between them, and they are best used for headlines because of readability. 

The next trend was slab serif fonts or Egyptian fonts in the 19th century. Vincent Figgins created "Antique" in 1815.  Slab fonts lack curves on the serifs. The 19th century was influenced by Egyptomania (think King Tut) and the rise of advertising for posters, a deviation from book fonts. 

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In 1816, sans serif fonts debut! Sans means without, and these quickly caught on because of their clarity. "William Caslon IV developed “Two Lines English Egyptian”—also known as “Caslon Egyptian”—in 1816. " Known for its all-capital letter style and clarity. Two Lines English, simply the standard name used at the time for its size, is around 28 modern points.  About Caslon, read more on Wikipedia.  


In the 1900s, typography evolved and gained importance. In the 1920s, Frederic Goudy became the first full-time type designer, designing over 125 fonts.  He is famous for Copperplate Gothic and Goudy Old Style.  Interesting reading.

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"In 1957, Max Miedinger designed Helvetica, arguably the most iconic typeface of the 20th century." 

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In 1968, the first digital font was created by Rudolf Hell called Digi Grotesk. The first digital fonts were bitmaps with less readability at smaller sizes and in 1974, outline vector fonts were created, which reduced file size and had higher clarity. 

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As technology advanced, software improved. TrueType was invented in the late 1980s, which allowed computers and printers to use the same font. Then OpenType was invented in 1997, which allowed the same fonts across PC and Mac platforms. Then in 1997, CSS (Cascading Styling Rules) incorporated styling rules for web fonts. 

The 21st century led advances in web fonts. In 2009, the Web Open Font Format (WOFF) was developed and added to the W3C open web standard. In 2011, all major browsers finally adopted support for WOFF.

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In 2016, variable fonts, within the OpenType standard, were introduced. This means that fonts can change size and weight based on where they’re used in a design, within a single font file. This means quicker loading time and less files. 

As typography evolve with technology, future development areas, including diverse global languages, color fonts within a single glyph.

How different would the world look today if Microsoft had chosen Comic Sans instead of Calibri as its default typeface in the early 2000s.

In addition to space and size, each font represents a style and preference - a feeling that the creator or the user is trying to convey. Microsoft's Calibri gives of a clean, simple, and direct vibe, while Comic Sans is wider and has details that makes people feel more handwritten and child-like, like a comic book. Microsoft's decision will change users' perceptions about the company's values and culture. Being a tech giant, it would also signal a general trend and preference that can influence other related industries.  

These are the key points:

  • After considering user feedback on five options, Microsoft has picked the next default font for its productivity apps such as Word and Outlook.

  • The new default, replacing Calibri, is called Aptos. For the past two years, it’s been available under the name Bierstadt.

  • But Microsoft wanted to change the name because people didn’t take it seriously, said the font’s creator, Steve Matteson.

Microsoft Office is used by more than 1 billion users worldwide and office amounts to 24% of its business. A new font means a fresh look and that may lead to re-subscribing and revenue for Microsoft. “Today we begin the final phase of this major change where Aptos will start appearing as the new default font across Word, Outlook, PowerPoint and Excel for hundreds of millions of users,” Si Daniels, principal program manager for Office design at Microsoft, wrote in a blog post published Thursday. “And, over the next few months it will roll out to be the default for all our customers.”

One view is that Microsoft is changing its image to suit its new CEO Satya Nadella who replaced Steve Ballmer in 2014. Designed by veteran typographer, Steve Matteson, who formerly worked at Monotype, the name Aptos is a small scenic town in California. From the beach to the forest, Aptos was created to reflect diversity of voices. 

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The history of London Underground's typeface

  • In 1913 London Transport's managing director Frank Pick commissioned Edward Johnston to create a typeface to bring visual uniformity to the transport network

  • Johnston's new typeface, known as Johnston Sans, was introduced in 1916 and became the basis for the text used today

  • Designer Eicchi Kono updated the typeface in the 1970s to adapt it to new printing technology, making changes like turning full stops into diamonds

  • In 2016 Johnston100 is introduced to make a digital friendly font and includes new # and @ symbols

In 1916, calligrapher Edward Johnston created a unique font for the London Transportation System, and a century later, The London Transport System launched Johnston 100, a very very slightly updated version of the font.  Transport for London (Tfl) said it "contains subtle changes to make it fit for purpose in the 21st century". In today's world were social media is prevalent, new signs such as # and @ have been added. 

The font is designed by Monotype, the same company behind Aptos, and they wanted to retain the soul of the original and keep some of its idiosyncrasies. Can you spot the very subtle differences? The main change is in the lowercase letter "g".  Personally, I think the update has minimal visual change, but the addition of the new symbols are extremely helpful.

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Be sure to learn the difference between serif and sans serif fonts, and then see which ones are used more widely. Does the same distinction apply in non-Western alphabets?

In short Serifs are letters with ending decorations, and sans, meaning without, are plain minimalistic letters. If you don't know the difference between serif and sans serif, please watch this short video.  Both are popular and it is hard to say which is actually more popular overall, as the usage scenarios are different and ever-evolving. 

There are also such distinctions for other languages too. For example, there are many Chinese fonts, and they range from classical calligraphy with detailed brushstrokes (Songti 宋体 or Lishu隶书) to Microsoft Yahei, which lacks intricate details. For Chinese, signs are usually in modern sans serif fonts, while formal documents use traditional fonts such as Songti. For Chinese, as the language does not have an alphabet and rather made of individual character glyphs with more details than Latin alphabets, style and context seem a stronger influence than readability and space efficiency.  

Scroll to the bottom of this section to see an infographic about "Serif vs. Sans - The final battle" 

Recently, the United States Department of State changed its own default font from Times New Roman to Calibri—20 years after first switching from Courier to Times New Roman. Each move sparked at least 36 points of controversy. Discuss with your team: should governments even have standardized fonts? If so, how should they pick them, and when should they change them?


The "Times (New Roman) are a changin'!" In 2023, the State Department mandated a change for all internal documents from Times New Roman to Calibri. This is not the first time, this change is taking place. In 2004, Times New Roman replaced Courier New 12, otherwise known as the typewriter font. There has been criticism about this change, and the official response is that the new font is better for readability for those with vision impaired issues and have difficulty reading.

"A senior State Department official told The Post Blinken’s decision was purely focused on the accessibility issues of employees, and not the aesthetics of the font itself. However, regardless of the State Department’s reason for the change, a Foreign Service officer told the outlet, 'A colleague of mine called it sacrilege. I don’t mind the decision because I hate serifs, but I don’t love Calibri.'"

Thomas Phinney was working for Adobe Font Systems when he received a request to look into a suspected forgery of a will. He cracked the case of the wicked will by pointing out that the type of printer which printed the will did not exist back in 1983, when the will was supposedly written.  Since then, he has become the world's foremost font forensic scientist with knowledge about fonts and the technology to produce them. He has solved many high-profile cases and consults for giants, including Google and Microsoft. 

According to Phinney, fonts matter and are all around us, even though its significance is often doubted. " Psychological research has also shown that even subtle differences in typography, such as using small caps and old-style figures, can affect a reader’s mood (as indicated by use of the corrugator muscle in the forehead to frown) as well as one’s performance on creative cognitive tasks after reading."


Type design, a craft that blends art and science, is like fashion or furniture, says Phinney, himself a type designer. “While true innovation is rare, people consistently come up with variations on existing themes or combine existing elements in new ways.” He is currently working on, which allows users to manipulate and build their own font style by changing weight, width, contrast, and slant.

Growing up in Alberta, Canada, Phinney worked at Silicon Valley and did his MBA at Berkeley's famous business management school, Haas. While working at his corporate software management job, he continued to get requests to solve font cases. For example, a rabbi, who forged his certification by using a font that was not yet created.  His cases fall into 2 categories. 1) people trying to fraud others, such as in the case of a fake will.  In these cases, anachronism, which means out of time order, seems to be the way to solve the case.  2) font specialist comments on whether 5pt font on Justin Timberlake's CD liners were sufficient to

show copyright ownership. Each state in the US has different requirements on font. For example, in California prescription medication must be with 12pt font.  Phinney is still waiting for his big case that will have a huge impact on a lot of people, but meanwhile, this is a rewarding and fun job!

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Be sure to check out  The site lets you design your own font. Very fun!

Retailers are rethinking self-checkout lines, and many are opting to go back to traditional human-manned check outs. "Booths, a British supermarket chain, said it’s removing self-checkout stations in all but two of its 28 stores. In the United States, Walmart, Costco, Wegmans and other chains have also revised their self-checkout strategies."   Essentially, self-checkouts pass the cost of service to customers themselves. Customers are willing to pay for the goods, but it seems like most prefer being served than self-serve. 

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"Inventor Joe Woodland drew the first bar code in sand in Miami Beach, decades before technology could bring his vision to life." 

It all started in Troy in Miami County, Ohio. Yes, a bit misleading. It originated in Ohio, not Miami, even though the sub-headline mentions sand.  This virtually unknown town is the home of National Cash Register (guess what they make) and Hobart Corporation, the company that made the weighing and pricing machines. The world's first "beep" from a shopping center was heard on 26 June1974, shortly after 8 AM in the Troy Marsh Supermarket. The first shopper to place something to the


scanner was Clyde Dawson, head of research and development for Marsh Supermarket. He had chosen pack of Wrigley's gum becausethey were not sure stickers would work on something so small.  Since then, bar codes have been the prevalent form of retail tracking used all over the world.

Woodland was inspired to create the bar code based on complaints from real shop managers who wanted to speed up the checkout lines at the cash register.  As a young inventor Woodland was committed. He quit school, moved to his grandfather's apartment, and cashed in on his stocks. The idea came to him one day at the beach...

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 Woodland and his partner Bernard "Bob" Silver filed a patent in 1949 and it was granted in 1952. They built a tiny working model with a 500-watt incandescent bulb and an oscilloscope, but it was still 20 years too ahead of the technology of the times.


So, they shelfed the idea, until the invention of Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation or you might know it as simply, the LASER. In 17 July 1960, research scientist, Theodore Maiman announced his invention the laser - "atomic radio light brighter than the center of the sun" -  to the world in New York. Everyone talked about what the laser could be used for - communication, military, and construction - but Maiman never thought it would lead to supermarkets.

In 1966, Kroger Company, one of North America's largest supermarket chains looked for an electronics partner to create "an optimal scanner to read the price and total the sales." A small research team at Radio Corporation of America (RCA) was looking into an automatic bank cash machine. Finally, their research led them to Woodland and Silver's patent. The original design by the duo was not rectangular bars, but concentric circles, meant to be read from any direction. Finally, RCA managed to get a real-life test at the Kroger Kenwood Plaza store in Cincinnati on July 3,1972, and it hit superior sales

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figures. Together, they formed an Ad Hoc Committee of the Universal Product Identification Code which wanted to come up with a bar code that would be common to all goods sold in supermarkets and imprinted by the manufacturers and retailers to include product info and also store promotional information. They met resistance at every corner from cardboard manufacturers to canners. It took 4 years to put it to the entire industry. 

Finally, seven companies proposed their plans to the Symbol Committee, and it seemed that RCA was going to win because it had hosted a demonstration. But International Business Machines 

(IBM) stepped in. Woodland was actually employed at IBM but was not part of its final submission. Geoge Laurer, unrelated to any previous case, was unbiased and came up with the horizontal barcode design.  IBM built prototype scanners and tested it internally, "they had their ace softball pitcher pitch beanbag ash trays, with symbols on the bottom, as fast as he could over the scanner and it read correctly."   Finally, finally, the committee sought appraisal from MIT, and Laure's rectangular code was chosen 90%.

UPC (Universal Product Code) became mainstream when merchandizers adopted it. The first one being Kmart, which dealt with 1,000+ items. IN 2004, Fortune magazine estimated that UPC was used by 80-90% of the top Fortune 500 companies in the US. It improved not only retail check-out speed; it provided statistics about what was being sold, leading to valuable consumer data. Woodland ultimately received a National Medal of Technology by President George Bush in 1992. 

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Key takeaways: 

  •  Amazon Go stores offer a "just walk out" shopping experience with no traditional checkouts or cashiers.

  •  These stores utilize advanced technologies like computer vision and deep learning to track products and charge customers automatically.

  •  Amazon is committed to expanding its Go and Fresh store concepts globally, with plans to open thousands of grocery and convenience stores in the future.

Amazon has been operating its Amazon Go convenience stores for a few years in the US and in London and one of its unique features is the "just walk out" experience. Customers just walk in, pick out what they want and simply walk out, and the bill is directly charged to their Amazon account. The technology involved includes computer vision, sensor fusion and deep learning. To use Amazon Go, you download the Amazon Go app scan and start shopping, no need to scan each item.  Go stores sell ready-to-eat meals, grocery essentials, local favorites and Amazon-branded items. 

Blogger Anne Theriault shares her experience traveling in Italian enjoying the culinary delights through reading traditional fancy Italian menus under the Tuscan sun. "Maybe that’s why I love restaurant menus so much—a well-written one can feel like a piece of literature in and of itself." For her, meals in North America was a mood killer, because many restaurants now show you the menu via a QR code. 

QR code was invented by a team led by Masahiro Hara in Japan in 1997 and mainly was popular in Asia. During the pandemic, to avoid social interaction, they were adopted in North America and stayed after Covid. "Hospitality Technology’s 2022 Restaurant Technology Study reported that 66 percent of restaurants in the US used QR code menus, and 19 percent of restaurants planned on adding them."

The blogger described how she hated scrolling down, squinting and the loss of privacy. "Bloomberg reported in 2021, technology that promotes contactless dining has already been linked to job losses in the service industry." To some, menus are historical documents and signs of civilization. The New York Public Library has approximately 45,000 menus dating from the 1840s, a collection that they’re in the process of digitizing through their “What’s on the menu?” project, and it’s amazing how much can be gleaned from those documents. 

A lot can be communicated from menus. One tragic example was the "passenger pigeon pies." Passenger pigeons were eaten into of extinction but having them on the menu falsely hinted to their abundance. Also, menus could reveal signs of gender inequality. Ladies menus were menus that were printed without prices, luckily a Californian woman sued, and this practice is out. 

Personally, I feel menus are like the diaries of a restaurant, capturing its offerings, favorites and the culture of its diners. Technology takes over many aspects of world, yet there will always be a place for physical leather-bounded menus, just like beautiful, elegant calligraphy is making a comeback!

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