A brief history of typeface

Life must be hard for Comic Sans. Having to compete with titans like English Towne’s lofty imperialism (think New York Times headlines) or Salinger’s breaking news bark (Toronto Sun) has got to be difficult for the little joke font that everyone loves to hate.

Life must be hard for Comic Sans.

Having to compete with titans like English Towne’s lofty imperialism (think New York Times headlines) or Salinger’s breaking news bark (Toronto Sun) has got to be difficult for the little joke font that everyone loves to hate.

But in order to know why we don’t like Comic Sans’ cheeky impudence, we need to know where it and all the other typefaces came from.

Enter Ben Barrett-Forrest, a freelance graphic designer from Whitehorse whose five-minute video The History of Typography has gone viral on YouTube.

Barrett-Forrest, a third-year graphic design and multimedia student at McMaster University, set out to make the video as a school project.


RELATED:View Barrett-Forrest’s History of Typography video here.


“It was for a third-year animation course, and we were asked to make a short animation. I think the expectation was that you’d spend probably 15 or 20 hours doing it.

“I started doing it, and quickly realized it would take so much more than that, and would go way beyond what was expected or required, but I was OK with that,” Barrett-Forrest said.

Barrett-Forrest spent two months sitting in his darkened bedroom under the heat of two 500-watt bulbs assembling 292 hand-cut cardboard letters into 2,500 still photos which he then compiled into a stop-motion video that lays out nearly the entire 1,000-year history of typography in just over five minutes.

“It sometimes got so hot that I’d be sitting there animating for hours in nothing but my boxers,” he said.

“If you watch the video carefully, you can see that at the start of each segment, my hands start out nice and normal-coloured, but by the end they’re starting to get all red and sweaty.”

Barrett-Forrest has always been intrigued by design and typography. He created his first original typeface when he was five years old, but he never expected his video to catch on like it did.

The video has now been viewed more than 400,000 times. It was tweeted by the Economist magazine and the Miriam Webster dictionary. It earned him an interview with Co.DESIGN, a leading design web-magazine.

It’s also gotten nearly 400 comments online, with some heated debate over which typefaces he chose to include.

To make the video, Barrett-Forrest condensed a 4,000-word essay on typography into 300 words that he could fit to pictures, but the challenge of covering such a span of typeface history left a few people feeling a bit miffed.

“I started getting comments like, ‘How could you forget about Times New Roman?”

Barrett-Forrest created the video under his freelance business name, Forrest Media, which he’s been building for a number of years.

He’s done work for local vendors and an orchestra in Hamilton, and created the poster for this year’s Sunstroke Music Festival.

He acknowledges the amount of nuance and meaning that goes into something like a simple festival poster is lost on most people, as they bee-line past the hand bills at the coffee shop door, focused only on attaining caffeinated bliss.

Designers value subtlety over nearly everything, he explained. If someone is distracted by a garish font on a poster or a building’s overwrought roofline, the designer has failed. Good design helps send a client’s message quietly, sometimes in subconscious ways.

“People don’t really notice good design, but they sure recognize bad design,” he said.

Barrett-Forrest is spending the summer working for Aasman Design in Whitehorse before going back to school for his final year, where he will be the designer and multimedia editor for McMaster’s student newspaper.

He’s got some big plans for after he’s finished school. He hopes to eventually work for a big design house in New York City or San Francisco. If he’s lucky he might get the chance this fall to go to Geneva to study Swiss design, the world masters and birthplace of the mighty Helvetica, “the world’s favourite font.”

His video starts off by explaining that “type is power; the power to express words and ideas visually. It’s timeless, but always changing.”

Johannes Gutenberg is considered by many to be the father of typeface. Before he invented the printing press and created his Blackletter font in the mid-1400s, books had to be scribed by hand by monks.

While Blackletter was easy to write, it was very difficult to read. In the 15th century, Nicolas Jensen created the first Roman typeface, which formed the basis for Cambria and most of the popular serif fonts that we use today.

The video goes on to explain the arrivals of other typefaces, and how changing societies lead to innovations in typography.

The Internet gave birth to a whole world of specialized fonts, some very popular and some, like poor Comic Sans, which were duds.

“I think it’s great that they exist. It’s amazing that people are willing to spend so much time making these joke fonts that are made out of leaves, or human hair, or curlicues,” he said.

Barrett-Forrest’s favourite font is Bebas Neue, a sans-serif headline font similar to Helvetica. But everything, even the much-maligned Comic Sans has a place, he said.

“It’s definitely the most hated font but it’s also the most talked about font of all time. It would be more suited for children’s books, and things that are supposed to be light and casual, but it’s just used too much,” he explained.

“But please, just don’t put it in italics.”

Contact Jesse Winter at