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The art of the ordinary

Dictionary typefaces should not be too interesting

Type designers who want to sell their wares to dictionary designers need to make sure their fonts are not too interesting, Prof Paul Luna told them on Friday.

Paul, long-time design chief of Oxford University Press’ dictionaries and reference division, surprised many with his explanations about how dictionaries get designed and the appalling things that designers do to type when faced with distinguishing between eight or nine different types of information in an entry– all in 6pt.

The key characteristics of a ‘good dictionery type’, he said, are clarity at small sizes, a range of available weights, and a certain neutrality. Nimrod, designed by Monotype for setting newspaper text on the first generation of photosetters, has become the ‘default font’ for dictionaries for this reason.

Paul showed sample settings from the new Shorter Oxford Dictionary, out soon, which is, typographically, an Unger-fest, set in various weights and sizes of ATypI member Gerard’s Argo and Swift. Argo, said Paul, performs well when abused. He showed Argo compressed by up to 60% and still looking like a typeface, compared with Arial, which ceases looking like type at about 80% compression (Helvetica Narrow, anyone?).

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