At least 222 typefaces are named after places in the U.S. — and there's still room for more.
- Here's one pandemic project we approve of: a map of the United Fonts of America.
- The question was simple: How many fonts are named after places in the U.S.?
- Finding them became an obsession for Andy Murdock. At 222, he stopped looking.
Who isn't fond of fonts? Even if we don't know their names, we associate specific letter types with certain brands, feelings, and levels of trust.
Typography equals psychology. For example, you don't want to get a message from your doctor, or anybody else in authority, that's set in comic sans — basically, the typeface that wears clown makeup.
A new serif in town
If you want to convey reliability, tradition, and formality, you should go for a serif, a font with decorative bits stuck to its extremities. Well-known examples include Garamond, Baskerville, and Times New Roman. Remove the decoration, and you've got a clean look that communicates clarity, modernity, and innovation. Arial and Helvetica are some of the most popular sans serif fonts.
There's a lot more to font psychology, but let's veer toward another, less explored Venn diagram instead: the overlap between typography and geography. That's where Andy Murdock spent much of his pandemic.
Mr. Murdock is the co-founder of The Statesider, a newsletter about (among other things) travel and landscape in the United States. He remembers his first encounter with a home computer back in 1984 and learning from that Macintosh both the word "font" and the name for the one it used: Chicago.
A map of the United Fonts of America — well, 222 of them.Credit: The Statesider, reproduced with kind permission.
You can see where this is going. Mr Murdock retained a healthy interest in fonts named after places. Over the years, he noted Monaco, London, San Francisco, and Cairo, among many others. "And then, the question of how many fonts are named for U.S. places came up in an editorial meeting at The Statesider," Mr Murdock says.
It's the sort of topic that in other times might never have gone anywhere, but this was the start of the pandemic. "I was stuck for days on end, so I actually started looking into it. At some point, I realized that I could probably find at least one per state." Cue the idea for a map of the "United Fonts of America."
Challenge turns into obsession
But that was easier said than done. Finding location-based fonts turned out to be rather time-consuming. "I definitely didn't realize what I was getting myself into," Mr Murdock recalls. "I could quickly name a few — New York, Georgia, Chicago — but I had no idea that I'd be able to find so many."
What started as a quirky challenge turned into an obsession and a compulsion that would have the accidental font-mapper wake up in the middle of the night and think: Did I check to see if there's a Boise font? (He did; there isn't.)
"The hardest part was knowing when to stop," said Mr Murdock. "Believe me, I know I missed some." In all, he found 222 fonts referencing places in the United States and its territories.
For the most part, these fonts are distributed as the population is: heavy on the coasts and near the Great Lakes, but thin in most parts in between. California (23 fonts) takes the cake, followed by Texas (15), and New York (9).
Some of the fonts have interesting back stories, and in his article for "The Statesider", Mr Murdock provides a few:
- Georgia was named after a newspaper headline reading "Alien Heads Found in Georgia."
- Fayette is based on the handwriting of the record-keeper of a place called Fayette, now a ghost town in Michigan's Upper Peninsula.
- Tahoma and Tacoma are both pre-European names for Mount Rainier in Washington state.
Mostly, the fonts repeat the names of states and cities, but some offer something more interesting, such as the alliterating Cascadia Code or the lyrical Tallahassee Chassis. Other less than ordinary names include Kentuckyfried and Wyoming Spaghetti.
Capturing the spirit of a place
As an unexpected expert in the geographic distribution of location-based fonts, can Mr. Murdock offer any opinion on the qualitative relation between place and typeface?
"Good design of any sort can capture the spirit of a place, or at least one perspective on a place," he says, "but frankly, that only occasionally seems to have been the goal when it comes to typefaces."
In his opinion, the worst fonts reflect a stereotype about a place, rather than the place itself: "Saipan and Hanalei are both made to look like crude bamboo. Those are particularly awful. Pecos feels like it belongs on a bad Tex-Mex restaurant's menu."
California (lower left) is a rich source of location-based typefaces.Credit: The Statesider, reproduced with kind permission.
"Santa Barbara Streets, on the other hand, is quite nice because it captures the font that's actually used on street signs in Santa Barbara. I prefer the typefaces that have a story and a connection to a place, but it's a fine line between being artfully historic and being cartoonishly retro."
Let's finish off Route 66
Glancing over the map, some regions seem more prone to "stereotypefacing" than others: "Tucson, Tombstone, El Paso — you know you're in the Southwest. Art Deco fonts are mostly in the east or around the Great Lakes. In general, you find more sans serif fonts in the western U.S., and more serif fonts in the east, but that's not a hard-and-fast rule."
Noticing a few blank spots on the map, Mr. Murdock helpfully suggests some areas that could do with a few more fonts, including the Carolinas, the Dakotas, Maine, Missouri, West Virginia, New Jersey, and Rhode Island.
Oh, and Route 66. Nearly all of the cities mentioned in the eponymous song have a typeface named after them. "We need Gallup and Barstow to complete the set."
And finally, America's oft-overlooked overseas territories could be a rich seam for type developers: "Some of these names are perfect for a great typeface — Viejo San Juan, St. Croix, Pago Pago, Ypao Beach, Tinian."
To name but a few. Typeface designers, sharpen your pencils!
Map found here at The Statesider, reproduced with kind permission. For more dispatches from the weird interzone between geography and typography, check out Strange Maps #318: The semicolonial state of San Serriffe.
Strange Maps #1090
Got a strange map? Let me know at email@example.com.
They're fun, so why not? Well, maybe because they're often inscrutable.
- A new paper looks at the 👍️ and 👎️ of using emojis in biomedical documentation.
- It's the return of pictographs, millennia later.
- Do your thumbs even know how to avoid them?
Did you know that the Oxford Dictionary selected the "face with tears of joy" emoji as Word of the Year for 2015? You know, this one: 😂. Putting aside for the moment that the symbol's official meaning is a phrase, not a word, we might also remember that its everyday meaning is actually a bit different: "laughing so hard I'm crying." Such ambiguity aside, it's indisputable that emoji — which have only been universally implemented since 2010 — have become important tools for shorthanding communication, especially for thumb-typists.
Vikas O'Reilly and colleagues at Emory University have therefore raised a question about leveraging the communicative power of emoji in a more serious context: "Is it time to start using the emoji in biomedical literature?" Their thoughts are published in The BMJ, and they're thought-provoking.😬
O'Reilly's team lays out the 👍️ and 👎️.
👍️ : Spin power, plus more fun and real-estate savings
Emoji are undeniably fun as a means of imparting intended subtext. O'Reilly furnishes a handful of examples to make his case, including:
- "In this issue Dr. Superstar and colleagues report miniaturising themselves and repairing. oncogenic DNA mutations by hand 😱🙏."
- "It is with great interest that we read the article by Dr. Doe and colleagues 🙄 👀."
Emoji's side-commentary powers have found a welcome place in today's snarky culture. It could be argued that the habits of the next generation of future medical researchers and writers may simply require accepting their use in a professional context since almost everyone under 30 uses emoji all the time.
Might emoji, asks O'Reilly, make medical documents more visually meaningful and fun? They could replace dry ranking symbols, such as asterisks and such, with pictographs. For example:
- * This is a three-level list
- ** Here's the second level, with two asterisks
- *** Here's the third, with three
But it could be:
- 👍 This three-level list starts with Good: thumbs-up
- 💪 Here's the second level, moving onto Better, with strong approval
- 🏆 Here's the third level: The Best
👎️ : On the other hand, what’s an emoji really mean?
Well, depends who you ask, as in the case of the "face with tears of joy" character. An emoji's message may be dependent on one's culture and what an image, object, or expression means in that particular place and at that particular time. O'Reilly mentions as an example the "call me hand" (🤙), which "is likely to be interpreted very differently by Hawaiians, Southern Californians, and coastal Brazilians (ie, shaka brah 🏄)." Likewise the peace sign (✌️) in America, which, turned around in the UK, is "f#%k you."
What's tempting, though, about emoji is the way in which they can often seem to convey a complex meaning in a single character. O'Reilly offers an example of how much space could be saved if:
A young child admitted by ambulance to an emergency department, in whom a rare disease is uncovered after unrevealing diagnostic studies and failed attempts at conventional treatment. She undergoes a surgical procedure, is discharged home, and makes a full recovery
Obvious, right? No?
This is a problem. Medical documentation has an obvious need for an exemplary level of clarity, since misreadings could be devastating for researchers, doctors, customers, and/or patients. It seems obvious that the introduction of emoji would make biomedical writing less clear, not more.
"Ask your doctor," for example, becomes the iffy "🙏 your 💊."
It's nearly impossible to construct complex emoji passages that can be reliably translated. Consider this: If you search for emoji translators on the web, nearly every one you find, and there are lots of them, translates your language into emoji, not the other way around. This suggests creating an emoji story is a lot easier than interpreting one.
To illustrate a point, here are four of the web's big science/medicine headlines of 2018 in emoji form, translated by one of those online emoji translators. Easy-peasy, or no thanks? (Answers are at the bottom of the article.)
1. Can half 🅰️ 🎓 📑 🇺🇸?
2. 🔝 🔟 things ➡️👤 didn't 💡 about your 🍆
3. ❓️ ➡️👤 💆♀️ 😫 all the ⏱️
4. 👨💼 Giants 👀 To Become 📐🐘 Players In 👨⚕️
👎️ : To sum this ⬆️
Even if using emoji in biomedical documentation made sense, there would still be technical issues. First, there's the lack of standardization. O'Reilly notes as an example just how many versions of Santa and Mrs. Claus there are, not that they come up in much in the life sciences.
In addition, some medical publication platforms don't yet even support the emoji character set.
It seems the whole idea of using emoji for critical communication is a bit 😜 as things currently stand — or at least way ahead of its time — in biomedical documentation. This would be true, in fact of any writing that's a matter of 🧬 or 💀.
1. Can Half A Degree Save Us?
2. Top 10 Things You Didn't Know About Your Penis
3. Why You Feel Tired All The Time
4. Business Giants Look To Become Big Players In Healthcare
As this typewritten map shows, constraints can be freeing.
- An old Royal Safari II typewriter was used to make this effective and attractive map.
- Although they're relatively easy to make, typewriter maps are rare.
- The mapmaker has received numerous commissions; will typewritten maps be the cartographic hype of 2019?
To anyone familiar with North America's geography, the shape on this map is instantly recognisable. This lookalike of Sweden (1), similarly drooping, is Lake Michigan. What sets this map apart, though, is not its subject, but its presentation.
This lo-fi map somewhat recalls the stock cartography used by newspapers a couple of decades ago, perhaps not just because it shares their minimalist aesthetic; maybe also because it was produced using a technology that became obsolete around the mid-1980s – the typewriter.
Lo-fi method, cool map
Daniel P. Huffman made this on his dad's Royal Safari II. "I can't remember why my mind turned toward the thought of the typewriter in my basement," he writes, "but I always wanted a good reason to use it, so I fell back to my default excuse: maps."
So, how do you make a typewritten map? Mr Huffman's instructions are quite simple:
- draw out a grid and plan what characters go in what spaces; and
- spend a bunch of time messing around on a typewriter.
In this case, lines of dots (…) represent water, while asterisks (***) form state borders. The @ sign has been sprung from its prison inside the email address (2) and now marks the location of cities, typed out in the Safari's elegant Prestige Elite font (3).
City and river names are in lower case, state and lake names are in upper case. The rivers, made up of straight and slanted lines, and their names are in red (yes, kids: typewriters could do two colours). Where it doesn't slant, the water's edge is rendered by exclamation marks – adding emphasis to the name of Beaver! Island! in the northern part of the lake.
What makes this map so appealing is that its cartographic effectiveness is achieved, and perhaps even enhanced, by the limited means offered by the typewriter – never intended for something as graphic as mapmaking. As Mr. Huffman points out on his blog, which showcases some of his other self-made maps, "constraints can be freeing."
That statement is a bit reminiscent, if you will allow the conceit, of Dogme 95, the filmmaking movement started by Danish directors Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg: a radical rejection of special effects and high technology in order to focus on old-fashioned storytelling.
This resolutely spare map took a couple of hours to plan and trace in Illustrator, and then about five hours from testing and false starts to finished product. Since Mr. Huffman, a cartographer and Director of Operations at the North American Cartographic Information Society (NACIS), tweeted the map, he's received numerous requests to type up similar maps.
Given the visual appeal of this typewritten map of Lake Michigan and its fairly easy (if somewhat time-consuming) method of contrivance, it's strange that there isn't a bunch of such maps out there already.
There are a just few hints of typewritten cartography findable online. This entry on Making Maps gives some examples of using typewriter characters for legend-making. An earlier entry on this blog discussed the Chaffinch Map of Scotland, a typewritten poem (#329).
But perhaps the Dogme movement of mapmaking was just waiting for its prototype to take off. If you find (or make) any nice ones, I'll show them here.
Strange Maps #950
Got a strange map? Let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org.(1) Lake Michigan and Sweden are but two of many 'map twins' around the world. (#675)
(2) "What's an email address?" the typewriter wants to know.(3) A slab serif monospaced typeface designed in 1953 for IBM by Howard Kettler.