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The creator and the creation

Topics/tags: Miscellaneous, typography, rambly

Warning: Although this musing is ostensibly about a font, it mentions issues of sexual assault.

The other day, as I was browsing Amazon [1], a recommendation for a book entitled Never Use Futura appeared. I found the suggestion amusing because, well, Grinnell is using Futura as one of its two primary fonts. However, the book is not really about why not to use Futura; it’s a tribute to the font. At least that’s what I think [2].

But that’s not the subject of this musing.

In reading the reviews, I was struck by one that noted, If you want a very juicy history on a similar font, Gill Sans, try his biography.

I don’t think of Gill Sans as similar to Futura. Both are certainly sans serif fonts, but they seem to have taken very different approaches. Among other things, my quick view of the faces suggests that the x-height of Futura is much smaller and that the capital letters in Futura are much wider.

But that’s also not the subject of this musing. I was interested to discover the juicy history of Gill Sans, the font. I had expected something about decisions made during design, or perhaps an intellectual property issue. But what I quickly discovered was something horrifying about Eric Gill, the designer of Gill Sans: He’d sexually abused his daughters.

I made the immediate decision never to use Gill Sans again.

In one of those strange coincidences of life, the next day, someone added a comment about Gill Sans on a friend’s Facebook post about their disappointment in having to use Arial [4]. I responded with a note that I no longer use Gill Sans because of his behavior [5]. Interestingly, the person who had posted responded quite defensively. First, they claimed that Gill didn’t design it. Then they asked whether that meant I wouldn’t walk into a building designed by a racist. Then they said he’d been dead eighty years and implied that the act therefore didn’t matter.

But it does to me. Should it?

I know this fits into the broader question of "Can you separate a creation from the creator? And that question comes up in so many contexts. do you still listen to Bill Cosby’s records or watch The Cosby Show or Fat Albert? I don’t [6,7]. On the other hand, I’ll probably watch The Producers if it ever comes to town, even though Harvey Weinstein produced the first run. And I continue to listen to music that Phil Spector produced and to appreciate the art of Pablo Picasso [8]. I might even be tempted to watch a classic movie by Woody Allen.

I don’t know how I feel about the broader issue. But I do know that I am disturbed enough at Gill’s behavior, and free enough in my choice of fonts, that I will make it a point to avoid Gill Sans.

Postscript: Smarter people than I have written about the broader question in places like The New York Times and The Paris Review. The Guardian even has an article devoted to the question as applied to Eric Gill’s other works.

Postscript: The InterWeb has also weighed in on the particulars of Gill Sans, including on Reddit and some type sites. What surprises me there, as in the Facebook discussion, is how strongly folks react to the idea that someone might choose to reject a font because of the behavior of the designer. Here’s one of the first responses on the type discussion page.

Aside from Gill I avoid all italic types as their inventor, Griffo, was a convicted murderer. I also avoid the work of contemporary type designers who support pot-smoking. Outside the world of type I never use the month name July due to the various crimes of Julius Cesar, or the word Thursday due to its association with the Norsk god of war.

Sometimes I really hate the InterWeb.

Postscript: Veering away from the designer, we can also find critiques of the design, which also contains some alternatives. When next I look for a sans serif font, I may start there.

[1] Sorry Micki!

[2] I did buy the Kindle version [3]. I’ll let you know when I read it.

[3] Sorry Micki!

[4] Arial isn’t really all that awful. It’s just not very interesting, or unique. Here’s a nice little article about Arial. Here’s a fun quote from that essay.

Despite its pervasiveness, a professional designer would rarely—at least for the moment—specify Arial. To professional designers, Arial is looked down on as a not-very-faithful imitation of a typeface that is no longer fashionable.

[5] More precisely, I wrote

Gill Sans falls into the category of works I won’t use because of the behavior of its creator. Read about Eric Gill and then consider whether or not you want to use it.

[6] Nonetheless, I feel sorry for the actors on The Cosby Show who no longer receive residuals for that show because stations refuse to show it.

[7] And part of me wants to watch the old Fat Albert shows, in part to reflect on how they portrayed people of color.

[8] I know that Jonathan Richman says that Pablo Picasso was never called an asshole, but perhaps he should have been.

Version 1.0 of 2019-07-14.