Ethics in the workplace: yours or mine?

Ethics in the workplace: yours or mine?

In this article we consider why workplace ethics are necessary, what they are, and how to introduce and run an ethics programme.

Are workplace ethics really necessary?

The first twelve years of my working life were for organisations which existed entirely for ethical purposes, were staffed by passionate people with strong consciences, and whose reputations were untarnished by accusations of underhand behaviour. Neither of them had a code of ethical conduct, ethics programmes or mandatory ethics training. They assumed that staff would act ethically, and staff assumed that they were required to.

That was then, and this is now. Since then we have had the Enron scandal, the banking scandal, and, this week, the Panama tax-haven scandal. Major clothing brands have been found to be sourcing through child labour, questions have been asked about the supply chains of the world’s biggest electronics brands, and even a healthcare contractor must now sign a commitment against bribery and corruption.

Ethical trade has been the backbone of British and later UK business since the industrial revolution. The non-conformist work ethic is widely credited with creating the conditions for successful commerce. Companies such as Cadbury and Rowntree invested heavily in worker welfare.

So what has changed? Why do we need ethical codes of conduct now, when we didn’t then?

What has changed is social media, turning everyone into a potential citizen journalist. In the past, the whole of society turned a blind eye to things which—today—would be viewed as deeply immoral. If someone wanted to get up a campaign, such as the abolition of slavery, it took a generation to get things to the point of legislation.

At the same time, people’s view of what is ethical is much more diverse than it ever was. According to the 2015 Ethics at Work survey, by the Institute of Business Ethics, awareness of ethical standards has risen from around 65% in 2005 to 86% today, but there is still a wide range of what people regard as ethical. 8% say that minor fiddling of travel expenses is acceptable, 90% say it isn’t. 21% say that favouring family or friends when recruiting or awarding contracts is acceptable, 76% say it isn’t. 25% say taking pencils and pens from work is acceptable, 74% say it isn’t. 39% say using the internet for personal use during work hours is acceptable, 59% say it isn’t.

Some of the disparity may be down to how respondents read the questions, but the 21% of people who favour family or friends when recruiting or awarding contracts, however, may passionately believe that it is their duty to do so when running their own company.

Who is right?

The answer is, in many cases it should depend on published company policy. Which is a problem when there isn’t a policy.

What should company ethics be?

Is it acceptable to take pens and pencils from work? This was the crunch question thirty years ago when workplace ethics was discussed. As someone who has distributed tens of thousands of branded pens and pencils in the workplace over the last twenty-five years, my answer would be: ‘yes, please, if we give you a branded writing implement, please take it home, use it, pass it on!’ On the other hand, when I discovered that someone had been using the corporate colour photocopier to print fake DVD covers (most likely for car boot sales) I was absolutely furious, and immediately had all the copiers pass coded and audited.

These, however, are trivial examples. If you have a company code of ethics that tries to specify when it is acceptable to take a pen home, when it is acceptable to make a personal call, and so on, then it will be so long and so detailed that no one will read it, and even people who do won’t be able to remember it.

When we opened up internet and intranet use in one of the organisations I worked for, we were anxious to encourage staff to improve their IT skills by using the web (it was the early 2000s). The policy we introduced—which I still think is a good one—and which we put on big stickers by all the hot-desk machines was ‘nothing illegal, unprofessional or offensive’. It helped us to develop an open culture, moving us from the bottom of the staff survey results to being the top of our peer group.

Internet usage can create dangers for an organisation, but the big dangers are not to do with what staff might do (it would take an awful lot of thefts of pencils to start eating into your profits), but what the organisation does, or allows to happen.

Consider the following scenarios:

  • You are a supermarket chain, and you receive a tip-off that your most popular brand of tuna is sourced through coerced labour in the Thai fishing fleet. The estimated cost of switching to another supplier is £780,000—and there are no guarantees that you won’t discover that supplier also has slave-caught fish in its supply chain.
  • You are a healthcare commissioning organisation. You are following official guidance in not providing a particular course of treatment. However, you are tipped off that the officially sanctioned treatment you do provide is less effective, and that there are ongoing questions of bribery relating to its approval.
  • A member of staff raises an accusation of bullying against a senior manager, on whom the organisation depends. Once investigated, you discover that there have been numerous allegations over the years which have not been properly dealt with. The organisation is going through a crucial phase of development, and it seems likely a scandal at this point could have grave consequences.

These, by the way, are all real, though anonymised, cases.

The question is not: ‘how do you deal with these?’, but rather, ‘do you have a framework in place that would ensure they were dealt with ethically and transparently?’ If you don’t, then you are relying on the consciences and good judgement of the people who come across them. Sometimes the most ethical people take the most unethical actions. For example, in one organisation I was in contact with, the chief executive sacked a bullying senior manager in a summary fashion. Though the accusations appeared well-founded and the charges grievous, the individual in question was not allowed due process to make their case. The resulting payout for unfair dismissal cost something in the region of £.75 million. In that case, moral outrage led the CEO to unethical action.

A company’s programme of ethics needs to include the following to withstand the very real moral dilemmas that are becoming all too frequent.

  • It must be based on a short list of easily remembered principles.
  • There must be a clear method for the wider principles to be applied to specific circumstances.
  • There must be a process for impartially investigating allegations—including reciprocal arrangements with other organisations where necessary.
  • There must be a mechanism for staff, customers, suppliers and the general public to raise ethical concerns confidentially, safely, and with the confidence that they will be properly investigated.
  • There must be clear authority for managers to make decisions which are ethically necessary, but which are costly.
  • The organisation must have an active programme of audit to uncover ethical issues which are not reported.
  • The organisation must publish its code of conduct, its processes, and the issues it has dealt with as part of its annual report.

Introducing and running an ethics programme

Many company ethics policies are introduced retrospectively—telling a member of staff that they have acted unethically after the event. It should not take a great deal of thought to realise that this is, in itself, unethical. Senior managers, in such circumstances, may be tempted to raise their hands to heaven and say ‘isn’t it obvious that that was unethical?’ Ethics begins where law stops. In today’s Britain, there are adherents of all five of the world’s major religions and hundreds of minor ones. There are secularists, atheists, humanists and people who are yet to decide on what they believe. There are at least six popular ethical systems in use. So, no, it is never obvious. Some things which you feel ethically compelled to do may be unspeakable in someone else’s moral framework.

Law, Ethics and Morality do not overlap, and there is an area between them of opinion


Workplace ethics are what we agree within the organisation will be our ethos. Law is what the law of the land requires. Morality is a person’s own moral beliefs. One of the biggest problems in workplace ethics is imagining that they overlap. There is no particular reason why they should, and there is also a gap between them which is the area of opinion. ‘My view is…’ may seem entirely reasonable and compelling to me, but it isn’t binding on anyone else, even if we share the same moral framework, the same ethical code and live under the same law.

We introduce company ethics precisely because they are not obvious.

Another common problem with ethics is programmes is the idea that if we only get everyone to sign a code of ethical conduct, our job is done. Enron had exactly such a code, and everyone had to sign it. The results speak for themselves.

Because ethics are not the same as morality, we cannot expect to engage someone’s conscience to enforce them. We need a proper programme of staff engagement to do it.

The process I would recommend—having implemented various versions of it in different organisations—is as follows:

  1. Audit of existing culture and practice
  2. Adoption by the Board of a Code of Business Ethics
  3. Creation of confidential mechanism for staff, suppliers and customers to raise concerns
  4. Internal communications campaign to raise awareness (events, newsletters, briefings, social media)
  5. Ethical behaviour incorporated into regular programme of staff meetings, training and appraisals
  6. Action taken and publicised when ethical issues are identified
  7. Inclusion of ethics section in Annual Report.

These are just the steps. Although they can be done quickly, and, in many cases, without great cost, they should not be done lightly. I have seen howls of derision by staff when given a copy of an organisation’s ethical code. An ill-advised ethics programme can be seen as ‘more red tape’, a new mechanism for sacking staff who get out of line, or as a temporary management fad.

A good code of conduct will be both give and take. Everyone is managed by someone, and there is often a tendency to draw the ‘us and them’ line just above one’s own level of authority (‘we are the workers, they are the managers’). The code needs to give something to the workers—strong protection if they raise a concern confidentially, guarantees of fair handling if they are accused of something—as well as including things which can be perceived as benefiting management, such as a clampdown on misuse of travel expenses. A good code should make people proud to work for the company, rather than make them think that they have to look over their shoulder. As well as give and take, the code should place the organisation in its wider role in society.

In writing such a code, someone with a good sense of humour needs to go through and strip out every phrase that sounds pompous. ‘We are committed to the highest ethical standards’ may sound great to the Board, but it is either trivial or meaningless, unless those standards are actually set out in writing. If they are, the phrase is redundant. Ethics jargon also needs to be deleted. ‘Transparency’ relates to light passing through materials. Committing your organisation to ‘transparency’ is far too vague to be of any help—unless you really mean to write every internal memo in plain English and post it on the web for all to see.

What is in it depends a lot on the kind of organisation you are, however, the following may help:

  1. The introduction should set out that the code is part of everyone’s contract, whether they have signed it or not.
  2. The introduction should specify that both staff and the organisation itself are being held to the same code.
  3. There should be a section setting out what business the organisation is in, and what business it will not engage in.
  4. There should be a section setting out the organisation’s aspirations in the wider community.
  5. There should be a section setting out what the organisation expects from its staff, and what it gives in return.
  6. There should be a section on ‘what to do if you have a concern‘.
  7. There should be a section on ‘what the organisation will do when a concern is raised‘, including fair dealing for the accused.
  8. There should be a section setting out what is confidential in the organisation.
  9. There should be a section setting out what the organisation will publish.
  10. There should be a section setting out how contracts and employment are awarded.
  11. There should be a section on ongoing audit.
  12. There should be a section on how results and ethical issues are published.

Ideally each of these sections should be one or two sentences long, so the whole thing fits onto a single side of A4. If this isn’t possible, there should be a memorable header sentence for each section which can be easily reproduced, preferably combining to make an easy-to-recall mnemonic. If your staff can’t recall what your ethical policy is when they make a decision, then you don’t actually have one.

With the code of conduct, publish a list of Frequently Asked Questions. This is where you cover the questions of ‘can I make personal calls on my free minutes?’, ‘can I use the internet in my lunch break?’, ‘can I claim mileage if I combine a work trip and a personal trip?’, ‘can I take promotional pencils home?’, and so on. This list can be as long as you like. As a way of promoting the ethical programme, you can ask staff to contribute their questions (anonymously, perhaps). My view is that you should be as liberal in these things as the law allows: the more freedoms you create, the more power you give to things you do want (and need) to enforce.


Ethical companies:

  • have clear policies which authorise staff to act ethically, even under pressure
  • build ethical behaviour into corporate culture, modelling it from senior leadership
  • have a plan for addressing ethical issues as soon as they arise
  • actively audit themselves to ensure that bad practice is neither condoned nor overlooked.

Ultimately, acting ethically is the best insurance against scandal. Everything else will out, in time.

Cooking the Books

A culinary inspired approach to writing fiction

Quite possibly the mark of a truly literate society is not how much we read, but how much we write. Of course, a high proportion of what we write is rubbish (the M6 Toll has a substratum of discarded Edwardian novels, most forgotten within a year of their publication), but nothing good was a ever written without the writer taking the risk of writing rubbish.

If you are a writer —  and almost everyone seems to be these days — then good for you. Publishers — a publisher’s bookseller told me recently — are becoming more and more risk averse, and so less and less likely to publish anything new and interesting, but that matters less and less. If you have something to say, set up your own blog, or post it on Wattpad, or Figment, or wherever you read. I met for the first time a few months ago an avid reader who only reads things on Wattpad.

We may read (as we learned in the film ‘Shadowlands’) to know that we are not alone, but we write in order to be read. In return for someone giving us their time, we promise them a feast of imagination, at least for fiction. Your writing may never pay off the mortgage (though, if you’re also prepared to write long business documents, it may well do), but if one person’s life is turned around because of it — even if they were the only person who ever read it — then it may be the most important thing you ever do.

The promise of a feast takes us to this article. There are many ways of constructing your novel, screenplay, short-story, epic poem or triple-album length narrative song. There is the plot method, as championed by Aristotle (and by me, but I suspect Aristotle’s name carries more weight), the character method, as championed by the whole of modernism, the snowflake method, as championed by much of the internet, and the ‘pants’ method (or, in proper English, ‘trousers’), much favoured by NaNoWriMo writers, also known as ‘making it up as you go along’. I was a firm ‘make it up as you go along’ person for years (I cannot bear to use the term ‘pantser’). However, this only resulted in me actually finishing two novels over twenty years. If trousering works for you, please, go ahead and keep using it. If you are looking for a new method though, less Greek than Aristotle, less Cold War than modernism, then allow me to offer you:

Cooking the Books: the Culinary Method for Writing Fiction

I owe the inspiration for this, as with so many other things, to JRR Tolkien, whose seminal essay ‘On Fairy Tales’ should be read by everyone who likes story, even if they hate fairytales. The other best book to read, in my opinion, is ‘The Way To Write For Children’, by Joan Aiken, even if you hate children (or, more probably, books written for them).

In On Fairy Tales, which is published in the book ‘Tree and Leaf’, Tolkien talks about the ingredients of story. He does not go so far as to propose a method—he was not that kind of scholar—but I think we can take his idea and usefully extend it.

I love cooking. My favourite dishes are Steak Provençale, Chicken Xim Xim, Balti Chicken Danzak, Flemish Stoofvlees, Bolognese sauce with pasta, Chilli Con Carne with bulgur wheat, chargrilled hamburgers with fresh pineapple, Cassoulet, and Chicken and Apricot Tagine, with cous cous. It seems to me that there are four aspects of cooking which can readily be applied to writing. They are these:

  1. The ingredients
  2. The method of preparing the ingredients
  3. The method and length of applying heat
  4. The presentation.

The Ingredients

There is nothing wrong, it seems to me, before writing, in saying ‘what ingredients do I like to have in a story?’ A lot of writing takes the ingredients, briefly fries them, and presents them in the simplest possible way on a plain plate, in the way you might receive them in a cafeteria. Nourishing, I am sure, but not creative. For example, if you always like to have a murder (in fiction, of course), then a police, crime or detective story would be the equivalent of briefly frying and then plainly presenting. Genre fiction, in as much as the disparaging term is useful, is often a question of taking the genre ingredients, cooking them as little as possible, and presenting them as much like other dishes in the genre. Of course there is merit in that. If you go for a pub meal and order steak and chips, you don’t expect the chips to be sweet potato chips marinated in Welsh yoghurt, and the steak to be an ostrich steak in a Polynesian sauce. If you want to read a good whodunnit, then nothing will satisfy the craving like a good whodunnit.

Nonetheless, for the more adventurous — or perhaps if you have been serving up steak whodunnit for a while, and want a change — that ingredient can be combined with other ingredients which will give it quite a different tang than the plain taste of frying.

I introduced my brother-in-law to steak Provençale the other week. He said he enjoyed it, and wanted to know what gave it the ‘kick’. The answer, of course, is half a rasher of bacon, soften the onions in olive oil, add a glass of red wine, add Provençale herbs (rosemary, thyme, sage, oregano, or whatever you prefer), pepper, fresh chopped garlic (not crushed, please), cubed tomatoes, and allow to simmer for an hour. After that, add in chopped carrots, and a quarter of hour later, chopped mushrooms and half a glass of port. Get a griddle really hot. Season the steak with fresh ground pepper and Maldon sea salt, and then griddle for exactly 90 seconds each side. Serve in the Provençale sauce, either with frites or cous-cous.

A different choice of ingredients — for example, the addition of paprika and fresh peppers, to make Steak Piperade — would have given quite a different dish.

If you want to have a murder in your story, what other ingredients do you enjoy tasting? Very few Shakespeare plays (I can only think of Henry V) fail to involve a trick of some kind, whether it be the poison blade in Hamlet, or the Dover cliff trick in King Lear, or the trick played on Malvolio in Twelfth Night, or the disastrously unsuccessful ruse at the end of Romeo and Juliet. No one would try to characterise Shakespeare as a ‘trick’ writer, and you could not possibly say that the principal enjoyment of his plays is in the tricks (though the trick which ends the rebellion in Henry IV part II is staggering). However, for the connoisseur, ‘trick’ is a Shakespeare signature ingredient, in a way that it is not in Dickens or Austen.

So, the first part of the culinary method is to make your list of ingredients. A murder? A trick? Templars (someone once told me to always include Templars. I confess that I have yet to include them even once)? For myself, I always like to have a fight, preferably with swords. Perhaps you enjoy some element of the supernatural, or, in classic Scooby-Doo fashion, something which looks supernatural but isn’t. Many readers like a puzzle of some kind. If you enjoy reading it, by all means put it in (but let nothing tempt you to put in an ingredient which you dislike in order to pander to the readers).

Use many different kinds of ingredients in preference to many variations of the same ingredients. In my kitchen I have some sixty bottles and tins of herbs and spices. However, a dish into which I poured a little of all of them would have no distinctiveness at all. In cooking Cassoulet, it is better to include carrots, leeks and parsnips rather than just more carrots, and including two different kinds of carrots would do no good at all. In Lord of the Flies, having begun with the ingredients of a choir school, an air crash and an island, William Golding goes on to add the ingredients of democracy, a crashed pilot, and the Biblical image of the Beast. He could have proceeded to simply explore the island, but the result would have been no more than a rehashed Robinson Crusoe, or, worse, Swiss Family Robinson. By including different kinds of ingredients, he produced a book so powerful that everyone should read it once, but (in my opinion) no one should be forced to read twice.

Use fresh ingredients wherever possible, rather than quickly microwaving something from Iceland (the supermarket, rather than the country). By this I mean do your own research, draw on your own experiences, imagine your own things, rather than recooking them from other novels. Joseph Conrad used ingredients from three newspaper stories to trigger The Secret Agent. Any number of different stories could have been told with those ingredients, but the story he did create was uniquely compelling.

Television may be our greatest enemy in this respect. Literary TV Dinners offer us every kind of proxy experience, and the arrival of Netflix (without ‘chill’) and Amazon Video make it even worse. You can now rewatch all the episodes of Jonathan Creek before writing your locked-room mystery. I love Jonathan Creek (even the most recent series, which everyone else seemed to hate), but too much Creek and your story will be little better than fan-fiction, once removed. I’ve seen a fair few hospitals on television, but actually working in one (Birmingham Children’s, as it happens) was nothing like anything I’d seen on TV. In a bizarre twist of Providence, I once investigated a confidence trickster, finally presenting my findings to the police, who arrested and prosecuted him. It did not in any way resemble any police or crime drama I have ever seen.

Whether you make up your ingredients entirely out of your head (in which case, you do not need to seek ‘authenticity’), carefully research or vividly remember them, these fresh ingredients will be much more tangy than anything you could get out of a box, reheat from a TV dinner, or rehash from a novel you enjoyed reading.

Finally, on ingredients, do you have a signature ingredient? For me, if cooking from the East, it is freshly crushed Cardamom, and if from Europe, red wine. Graham Greene always included an element of Roman Catholicism, Dickens always included at least one outrageously larger-than-life character (Captain Cuttle, Uriah Heep, Magwitch in the graveyard, and so on). To read Jane Austen is always to taste the inherent injustice in regard to women of the inheritance laws of her day. The signature ingredient cannot be the main ingredient, at least, not after the diners are used to it, but keeping it in helps to identify the cook.

Method of Preparation

How do you prepare an onion? You can blanche it, soften it in oil, soften it in butter, present it raw, fry it, batter it or bake it. You can also just put it in with the stew and allow it to look after itself, but onions generally taste more distinctive if prepared in one of these distinctive ways. Some dishes are always the poorer for being prepared in one way rather than another. My wife, who is Dutch, despairs of the British habit of boiling vegetables until they are completely soft (is it that we are afraid the vegetables, if not entirely cooked, will attempt to mount some kind of rebellion?) Cous cous, when merely prepared in hot water, is to me utterly bland by comparison with the method I learned in Paris, which was to soak in warm water for fifteen minutes, steam for fifteen minutes, toss in oil or butter, and serve while still crackling in the pan.

The same is true for fictional ingredients. Consider a simple story about insurance fraud—but with the ingredient of murder added. Imagine, if you will, an insurance company which is losing millions through bogus ‘crash for cash’ scams. The Board takes the (unethical) view of ethics that if you are going to act unethically, you may as well act utterly unethically, so they hire a hitman to drive around in areas where scammers are active, and, once a crash has been forced on them, he shoots the scammers in the head and makes his getaway. The insurance company then orchestrates a ‘viral’ (or astroturfed) social media campaign to spread the conspiracy theory that the scammers were killed by insurance company for that very reason. A couple of months later, once the fuss has died down, they do it again.

To the best of my knowledge, this is an original plot. The ingredients, scam, unethical Board, business buying a hit to send a message to criminals, are not new, but the combination should have a bit of tang to it.

However, they way those ingredients are prepared will either make this an entirely original story, or will simply boil it down to being a hitman thriller, of which there are very many.

So, what can we do with those ingredients?

First, we should take the freshest ‘crash for cash’ scams, of which there are many news reports. A bit of research into how they operate will not go amiss, right down to the business of false invoices, dodgy doctors signing off people with whiplash, and so on. That, in itself, will not ensure originality. Indeed, fifteen years ago an episode of Due South pursued exactly that same line. So, what can we do about it?

Well, we could either look at preparing that ingredient differently, or perhaps one of the others.

What about the hitman? Crash for cash scammers tend to target elderly drivers or young women with children — people they think are going to be most shaken up by the crash, and therefore the least likely to protest or ask too many questions. A young woman hitman (or hitwoman) with children at least gets us away from the stereotype, but we are in danger of rehashing TV’s Sherlock or the film The Long Kiss Goodnight. What about an elderly hitman? A Miss Marple or George Smiley gone rogue? Or a hitman in a wheelchair — not just someone pretending to be in a wheelchair (which has been totally done to death) but someone who genuinely has to be in a wheelchair. Or what about a young woman who is a genuinely terrible driver, who the insurance company trains as a hitperson? We may be getting close to Nikita territory here, but we can make sure we prepare the ingredient so we don’t get there.

There is a level of diminishing returns in over-preparing the ingredients. Miss Marple’s evil twin, who happens to be a terrible driver, who is also in a wheelchair and has to take care of two troublesome grandchildren is not really going to have much more impact than developing the ingredient with just one of those things, and perhaps characterising in other ways.

We ought to consider how we prepare the other elements as well. For example, it may not be the Board at all who are behind this, but a rival company that wants to take over their business. It is going to use the scenario first to scare off all the crash-for-cash scammers, and then to utterly discredit the first company. And so on. There is no ingredient that might not benefit from a little consideration, a little care in its preparation, rather than just being chucked into the stew with everything else.

Cooking time

To bake, boil, stew, grill, griddle, or put in a pie? Just such a question, of course, kept Tolkien’s trolls talking until dawn came and turned them to stone. Steak can be eaten almost raw (indeed, in the Ardennes, they eat ‘Americaine’, which is raw steak, to the consternation of any actual Americans who try it), whereas pork must be thoroughly cooked.

There are fictional ingredients which — to my palate — need more cooking than others. I felt the issues of child-abduction and torture in Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights were presented too raw, especially when used to attack the Roman Catholic church (I am not a Catholic, and have no axe to grind here, still, I found it tasteless). At the other end of the scale, the whole rigmarole of Tess of the D’Urbervilles which was plotted to allow an innocent woman to hang for a crime she did commit (paradoxically) seems to me overcooked. Indeed, the story would have been all the better for not ending as it did, which would have allowed many of the other flavours to come out, rather than be dominated by the conclusion. As it stands, Tess of the D’Urbervilles can be (and has been) summarised as ‘Tess is going to die, and she does’, whereas, up to the point that we know she is going to, there is a great deal going on of remarkable subtlety.

JRR Tolkien always denied that the Lord of the Rings was about the wars in Europe, but his descriptions of the battle scenes certainly owed a great deal to his own experience in the First World War. However, he left that on ‘slow cook’ for a very long time before allowing it out into fiction. Some ingredients need this. If you have just been badly hurt by an abusive relationship, writing a story ‘raw’ about it will give an entirely different result from keeping that ingredient back until you can write with more perspective. That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t write it. Having cut my cooking teeth (as it were) in Belgium, I despair of the British habit of ageing steak for thirty days before cooking it. I want to take the freshest possible steak, and sear it for exactly 90 seconds on each side on the hottest possible griddle. Most of Britain, it seems, would disagree with me. The result is quite different, which is why I generally don’t order steak in British restaurants, and, when I do, as often as not wish I hadn’t afterwards.

Generally speaking, as with cooking, the richer the idea, the longer the cooking time. Jerome K Jerome one day started writing Three Men in a Boat, and it more or less came to him as he wrote, which may explain the appallingly weak ending, preceded (and, for once, not spoiling) the utter delight of the chapters up to then. Three Men in a Boat is a light work, of delicate touch. If he had let it stew for a couple of years, I doubt it would have been so good. Nostromo, on the other hand, is richer fare, and before he wrote it, Joseph Conrad imagined every street in his fictional Sulaco, and then told the story second hand through his raconteur Marlow.

Returning to our putative crash-for-cash story, we can go in two directions with cooking time. On the one hand, as a short story or as a thriller, this deserves to be written right now while the whole crash-for-cash thing is topical. Hopefully, insurance companies will have found a way of dealing with it in a couple of years (and, hopefully, not by the method in the story). On the other hand, if divorced from its topicality, it might deliver a better result. What about setting it in the 19th century, or in the Byzantine Mediterranean? What about in the far future (though not aboard a spaceship called ‘Nostromo’), where the ‘crash for cash’ notion has been transmuted into something else?

Baking a dish gives it a hard crust, while stewing it lets the flavours of all the ingredients infuse each other. In ‘hard boiled’ detective stories, now conflated with roman noir, we feel every blow of every fist. Raymond Chandler took the hard boiled style epitomised by Sam Spade of The Maltese Falcon fame, and gave it a longer cooking time over a softer flame. The film The Maltese Falcon is better than any of the Sam Spade stories, including the one it was based on, but no filming of The Big Sleep or the other Marlowe stories has ever come close to Chandler’s ‘hero in the wrong story’ protagonist, partly because of the way he allows other interests to work their way in, most particularly in The Long Goodbye.


About half the days of the week, I put the pans on the table and we serve from them. They are nice pans, and it has a slightly rustic feel, not out of place given that we live in the countryside five minutes walk from Shakespeare’s Avon. One day a week, typically, we eat Balti, for which I have heavy iron Balti dishes, purchased from a commercial catering supplier in Birmingham twenty years ago. The other days I present the food with varying degrees of elaboration, sometimes including a five-fold candelabra. We always have music and soft lighting, and follow the meal with coffee. We rarely eat dessert, but sometimes we do. Occasionally, I do a seven course meal with aperitif, two courses of starters, main course, dessert, cheese, and coffee to follow.

How you choose to present the meal depends a lot on what you are cooking, or alternatively, if you have decided on a particular presentation, you have to decide what to cook differently.

I like hamburgers with fresh pineapple, but wouldn’t do them as part of a seven-course meal. On Tuesday evenings, we fence (we are a couple that makes sure we fight once a week). That generally means a pasta dish, and eating early. Thursday evenings I fence, so Cassoulet.

Once you have your story, presenting it can take it in different directions, but over or under-presenting it can damage it. The ‘Encyclopdia Galactica’ entries in the original Foundation trilogy were inspired, as were the Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy entries in the series of the same name. The equivalent sections in Dune (with deep apologies to people who love every word of that book) are tepid by comparison. Three years ago, I wrote a novel called ‘the Saxon Thief’. Last year, my mother indicated she would quite like to read it. It was in an unfinished state, so I finished it off and sent it to her. She commented that all the characters seemed to have the same ‘voice’, so I went back and rewrote every single line of dialogue (notwithstanding that, the two agents I pitched it to, curse them, showed no interest. I suppose I had better circulate it more widely). At least my mother preferred the new version. No one else has read it.

John Masefield’s The Box of Delights is, apart from the ending, one of the most perfectly presented books in English, with all the poet laureate’s art going into every page (he also wrote Sea Fever, voted as Britain’s favourite poem). He earlier novel, Dauber, by contrast, is almost unreadable — the slow writing combines with the Rizla-thin plot to make a book which should really never have been published. A sharper, less self-indulgent presentation would not have made Dauber into a good book, but it would at least have made it less painful reading.

I was, I’m afraid, schooled in Modernism, when Modernism was still a thing. My natural writing style is savagely minimalistic, giving the reader as few clues as possible and letting them figure out what’s going on for themselves. I’ve spent the last twenty years trying to unlearn that, especially because most of the things I want to write about don’t naturally lend themselves to minimalism, or Modernism.  Sometimes it takes someone else to look at your work (teenagers are the best, because they say what they think) to tell you that they really can’t follow what you’re writing, and please include more explanation.

The point I’m making is that the first three aspects—ingredients, method of preparation, cooking time—get you to what the story is, but thought must also be given to how you tell it. This goes far beyond deciding whether to write in the present-historic (personally I hate this, but will put up with it in the Hunger Games et al because of the quality of the story) or the past, first or third person, limited or omni, or other such mechanical choices. Presentation also goes beyond writing style. Except for the shortest of short stories, which are the literary equivalent of a snack, you are setting out not only the meal, but also the theme and decor of the restaurant, the demeanour of the other diners, the other items on the menu, and even the weather and time of day outside. The clearest possible indication that The Big Sleep is not going to be in the mode of Sam Spade is in the first three lines:

It was about eleven o’clock in the morning, mid October, with the sun not shining and a look of hard wet rain in the clearness of the foothills. I was wearing my powder blue suit…

This is to be a story in which time, date, weather, geography and personal grooming are all going to play parts. There is going to be time for reflection, for description, and for a languid self-observation. Chandler wasn’t merely trying to write a better Sam Spade (though he did think that he could write hard-boiled better than it was being written), he was also writing a riposte to Sherlock Holmes. Holmes always knows what’s going on, and chides others that they see without observing. Philip Marlowe never knows what’s going on, despite genuinely detailed observation. Indeed, we, the reader, observe far more through the eyes of Marlowe than we ever do through John Watson, and yet are left as bewildered and bludgeoned (frequently) as our narrator.

Making a meal of it

So, there you have it. Ingredients, Preparation, Cooking and Presentation. If this inspires you to write differently, or helps you get past a dry (or hungry) patch, then my best wishes go with you. If, on the other hand, it has done nothing for you, console yourself that it has taken you less time to read it than it did for me to write it—which, sadly, is all too often the fate of a meal. However, once, just once in a while, like the couscous I ate in Paris in April 1986, it will live forever in the memory.

Headed for unaffordability: the scandal of 21st century housing in the UK

Yesterday, we paid off our mortgage. When we (that is, my wife and myself) arrived in the UK in 1996, after about ten years working overseas, we had £60. Through a remarkable combination of circumstances, and the help of my mother as guarantor, we were able to buy our first house, for £53,000 with a 90% mortgage. In 2009, after that house had tripled in value, we were able to move to our dream home in Marlcliff, South Warwickshire. That we were able to pay off the mortgage is down to another remarkable combination of circumstances. We are (and feel) tremendously privileged and thankful to now own our own home. We are all too keenly aware that, for many people, circumstances are less kind.

A report released today indicates that today’s first-time buyers have now spent, on average, £52,900 in rent. Those who start renting now will, on average, spend £64,400 in rent before they buy. If they buy.

House prices are predicted to rise and rise. In December, Estate Agents calculated they would rise by 50% in the next ten years. I read the other day (but can no longer find the reference) that the average house price would rise into the millions. Rental is likely to rise even faster, according to the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors (RICS).

Back when I was a student, the belief was common that it was always best to buy, always worst to rent, because ‘property never loses its value’ and ‘rental money is wasted money’. Flooding, subsidence and a couple of house price bubbles later, it is no longer quite as certain. Many people lost money on negative equity, or on homes that became unsaleable. Likewise, people who exercised their ‘right to buy’ in certain parts of the country discovered that house prices went up dramatically everywhere else, but not where they lived.

Nonetheless, ‘getting onto the property ladder’ was and has been the dream, the aspiration and the aim of many newly married (or definitively not married) couples over the last thirty years. Thirty years ago, it was possible to buy a property by combining a couple of student grants and renting out the other rooms (one of my friends and his brother actually did this). Twenty years ago, as we found, a stable parental income as guarantor and help with the deposit could get a nice, four bedroomed house in the most deeply unfashionable part of Birmingham for a couple of ex-charity workers. Ten years ago, those without access to the bank of mum and dad were already struggling. Today, most couples who do buy don’t buy until they are in their 30s. If they pass 40 without buying, they will find that mortgage lenders eye them with the deepest suspicion, unless they already have a very sizeable sum to put into the deal.

That’s couples (of all kinds). What about singles? Not everyone wants to commit their life definitively to another person. Many people who do want to discover, after some time, that somewhere something breaks down, and the life together becomes the life apart. Our society idealises the single state, and yet conditions for singles when it comes to buying a property are worse than they have ever been.

How much is a house really worth? The answer, as the TV show tells us, depends on three factors: location, location and location. London is clearly a very good location (if you own) or a very bad location (if you rent), but the whole of the UK is dramatically overpriced compared to the rest of the Western World. It is not because Britain is overpopulated. Belgium and the Netherlands have dramatically denser populations, and yet don’t suffer the housing pressures and costs that we do. This is one thing that no one can blame on the EU (though I’m sure someone will try).

To a large extent, it is something we have done to ourselves: we all want to live in the most desirable locations. The presence of a good school pushes property prices (pardon the pun) through the roof. For three generations, since the Second World War, we have been willing to pay over the odds to get the house we want, knowing that gradually rising salaries, and the glorious day when we finally pay off the mortgage, will make it all worthwhile.

This is not in any sense a matter of ordinary inflation. Housing is a scarce commodity, and scarcity puts prices up. And so, those with access to bank of mum and dad, or highly paid jobs early in their careers, or legacies, or trust funds, are able to buy straight away. Those without, but in good jobs with stable dual incomes, perhaps putting off kids until later, will pay rather more than the average of £53,000 in rent before they buy. Many others will never get onto the property ladder, and will see other people’s portfolios get fatter and fatter, while their hard-earned cash goes into the hands of landlords (which is not to say that landlords are not facing their own problems as well).

Everyone is behaving—as economists would put it—rationally. No one is behaving maliciously. And yet, the result is that the rich get richer, and inequality in British society grows—not only between the haves and the have-nots, but between south and north, London and everywhere else, the nice parts of town and the less nice.

At the last election, every party promised to sort this situation out, building (as an average among party promises) 200,000 new homes a year. Where are these new homes? This is not a pop at the Conservatives. The Coalition did little better, and the Labour government before it did equally badly. The Scottish parliament and Welsh assembly have done little to address it.

Everyone needs somewhere to live. Only about 5% of Britain’s surface area is built on. How can it be so hard?

Of course, everything is much harder than it appears. The nest of problems which sees property prices soar in London and actually sink in other places, which makes it hardest to build where it is most needed, which makes it advantageous for property developers to ‘land bank’ until the prices rise, which pushed up an unsustainable rise in buy-to-let, which for generations distorted the market through an ungraduated stamp-duty (mercifully corrected by the Coalition), which continues to distort the market through an unreformed council-tax banding system which makes property dramatically undertaxed compared to other things—these and ninety-nine other things cannot be unpicked by one sweeping gesture, but must be dealt with one by one.

It is the job of government to do this. We have been distracted by an unnecessary collection of referendums, an entirely fruitless Conservative party internal wrangle over Europe, which we, the public, are now forced to adjudicate, by an obsession with the national debt and the needs of austerity, by an entirely unnecessary and costly reorganisation of the NHS, by a misconstrued attempt to reorganise education which failed to ignite any support from teachers, and by a mean-spirited response to the needs of refugees which casts us as a nation in an extremely (but sadly not uniquely) poor light.

I would love to be able to thump the table at this point and say ‘and what government must now do is…’ But, as I said before, there is no single, sweeping solution. What government must do now is what government should do, always: administer diligently for the benefit of all, not merely for the quarter of the population that actually voted it in. In this matter, diligent administration requires listening to RICS and other industry bodies, actively consulting with local people who, if not brought round, will naturally and not unreasonably oppose the unknown of a new housing estate built right on their doorstep where a coppice with owls currently stands, and redesign its own instruments, including taxation and planning, to make housing as a whole affordable to all—rather than merely building in a proportion of ‘affordable’ homes within estates of luxury accommodation. There is an element of haste in this. The current generation of home-hunters will have to scrimp and save if they want to buy, and quite possibly end up paying more if they decide they can’t. The next generation, if the trends continue, will be camped out in mum and dad’s garage, or occupying abandoned public buildings, or working three jobs and impossible hours, all just to get by. We cannot wait for this problem to solve itself. It has never shown any sign of doing so, and there is now no time left to wait.

Somewhere to live is a fundamental human right. If we, as a nation, cannot structure our housing market so that everyone has a home that they can afford, then, really, what good are we? Shame on us.

Archetypefaces: how to choose the right font, without choosing the same fonts over and over

Archetypefaces: how to choose the right font, without choosing the same fonts over and over

At the age of fourteen I was given an art class assignment: design a typeface. I failed miserably (2/10). That began a lifetime struggle with understanding what typefaces were, how they worked, and how readers responded to them. Like everyone else with similar interests in those days, I bought the Letraset book and pored over the weird and wonderful typefaces like Odin and Galadriel. Like almost everyone else who has retained their typographic passion, over the years my interest in the wonderfully weird has faded. It is the hard-wearing, hard-working ‘bread and butter’ typefaces which we see thousands of times a day as body text which set their design stamp on our visual world.

However, over the last five years, I’ve run into a problem. It seems that there is no accepted theory of how to choose a typeface. There are some very useful classification systems, but just because a typeface is a uniform slab-serif geometric (such as Rockwell), this doesn’t mean that it will make readers respond in the same way as other uniform slab-serif geometrics, or differently from a transitional humanist serif, a didone or a Swiss sans serif. In other words, being able to categorise a font is useful for librarians, but not for designers.

Let me say at this point that you do not need to be a designer to be reading this. Every one of us faces font choices every day—something which could not be imagined even thirty years ago. The most universally derided font in the world is Comic Sans. However, every time that you see a document printed out or emailed in Comic Sans, it means that someone has made a deliberate (but entirely misguided) choice to use it rather than whatever their computer helpfully offered them.Hand-2

A few studies have been done into reader responses to a handful of typefaces. A newspaper article set in Baskerville, for example, comes across as more credible than one set in Georgia, Helvetica or Trebuchet. On the other hand, Arial and Times Roman appear to have no appreciable difference from each other in how readers respond, despite the fact that they look totally different.

In this article, I want to offer a method and a system, and I want to discuss 21 ‘archetypefaces’. These are archetypal in the sense that if you read about fonts at all, you will see these names coming up again and again, and they each represent a distinct kind of face and feel. Many familiar typefaces are not in the list: no Caslon, no Goudy, no Avant Garde Gothic, no Palatino, and so on. But those missing typefaces are each similar to one (but no more than one) of the archetypes I’m discussing.

I also want to suggest three essential tools for choosing fonts. I will look at these first.

The tools

The three tools I want to suggest are:

  1. A laser printer
  2. TypeDNA
  3. FontBook, the ultimate font catalogue, available as an iPad or iPhone app

You need a laser printer because print is still king. In fact, print is becoming more the king as the world digitalises. Things which are printed in black and white are becoming more powerful and more credible, whereas internet and email text is becoming more transitory and less credible. It is trivially easy to email ten thousand people, or to post something on Facebook, or edit an entry in Wikipedia. Something which is published in a printed newspaper, sent as a letter through the post, or in a book in a bookshop carries vastly more authority. To understand and choose typefaces, you have, at some point, to print them out and see how they appear on the page.

TypeDNA is a piece of software which scans all the fonts on your computer and tells you what is similar to what, and what goes with what. It works pretty well, as long as you are sensible and avoid its offers of ornate or display fonts for day-to-day work. It works on Mac or PC, and there’s a trial version. Google it.

FontBook lets you look quickly at pretty much every font there is, by category, period, use case, and so on. If you don’t have an iPad, you can do this on the web, but FontBook is quicker and generally more useful. Often, if you can understand what kind of font you are looking for, FontBook will help you find something that looks like that.

The archetypefaces

Full set-Jan 13 2016-67My archetypefaces are Garamond, Jenson, Walbaum, Bodoni, Baskerville, Clarendon, Friz Quadrata, Rockwell, Bembo, Cambria and  Caecilia (serifs), with Franklin Gothic, Futura, Gill Sans, Helvetica, Univers, DIN Mittelschrift, Eurostile, Frutiger, Optima and Avenir (sans-serifs).

The notion: Intrinsic + Implicit + Association

So, my notion is that how we respond to typefaces is based on three factors: Intrinsic, Implicit, and Associative.

Intrinsic factors are design universals. They are based on the shapes of the letters. We can argue about whether the Golden Section really is an intrinsic rule, or merely a Renaissance aesthetic read-back to the classical period, but we can certainly agree that factors such as negative space, leading lines, and all the other principles of composition play a role.

Implicit factors are the methods of production implied by the letter forms. A script font implies that it was written with a pen. Of course, everyone knows that it wasn’t, especially if it appears in sixty foot neon letters. Nonetheless, it carries implications. A narrow font with strong serifs may imply that it was carved in stone. Trajan, a font which appears ubiquitously on movie posters, was drawn from Trajan’s column. The implicit production value suggests permanence, authority and cost.

Associative factors are where we’ve seen that font before, or something like it. Why is Comic Sans so universally derided? For what it is, it isn’t bad: as the name implies, it’s derived from comic book writing. Intrinsically the letter forms are uninteresting, but the shapes imply that it is swiftly written with a marker pen, made to be consumed in small chunks of text next to an illustration. There are many marker fonts and comic fonts out there which are not intrinsically better, and which imply the same production. The problem is association. We have seen Comic Sans used inappropriately for everything. Office bosses use it to soften a message which can’t or shouldn’t be softened: “To all staff, John Wiggins will be leaving us today, following a disciplinary hearing.” People have received hospital letters in Comic Sans telling them they need a serious operation (one reason why the NHS is now so serious about using Frutiger, or, when not available, Arial). We’ve seen it used to advertise products which have no comic heritage, to invite us to black-tie parties, and as a ‘friendly’ font in hundreds of emails from people we’ve never met. Association with excessively bad font choices has ruined Comic Sans.

Fonts which call attention to themselves (always a bad choice for body text) attract associations much more quickly, which is one reason why Times New Roman and Arial are tolerable, whereas Comic Sans (or, for the only slightly more discerning, Papyrus) is derided. Actually, Times New Roman, which once had the associations of the most respected newspaper in the world, is generally regarded as low credibility. Why? Because, like Comic Sans, we’ve seen thousands of letters and other documents which should never have been set in a newspaper font, and whose content we disbelieved, or regarded as not entirely honest.

If you want to weight these factors, I would say that it’s 1 x intrinsic, plus 2 x implicit, plus 10 x association. Associations, of course, are different for different people, and they can change quickly with time. They are also a good reason to go slightly off the beaten path. If you’ve decided that Bembo is exactly the font you need, you might consider ITC Leawood. It does all the things Bembo does and more, but it isn’t Bembo, and so the chances that it will be suddenly associated with something you don’t want after someone else’s major marketing campaign are less.

In depth: intrinsics

Metal type at the Plantain Museum in Antwerp

Metal type at the Plantain Museum in Antwerp

The original type designers, from Gutenberg onwards, were not particularly concerned with intrinsic properties of design. As much as possible, they were trying to reproduce the look and feel of handwritten manuscripts. However, they were extremely responsive to the reading public—if noone bought they books, they went out of business—so the black letter manuscript forms gradually evolved towards greater legibility. This, too, was not just a public service. A more legible font can be set smaller and still read easily, which means less pages to set and less paper costs. Moveable type was an enormous innovation and made the widespread distribution of books (and hence literacy) dramatically cheaper and easier. Still, if you’ve ever actually tried to set metal type, you’ll know that each page takes a lot of skill and time. The page, once set, could not be stored, so a reprint required doing the whole thing over again.

Up to the end of the 19th century, type evolved according to universal design principles (better balance of positive and negative space, widening of the ‘m’ and ‘w’ to make them more legible, greater distinction of forms, and so on). At the beginning of the 20th century designers, especially from the Bauhaus, constructed entirely new forms based on their modernist design aesthetic. Until then, letters tended to be Classical, in the sense that they used the proportions of Greek and Roman stone cut letters, Uncial, in that they used the forms of mediaeval manuscripts, or Humanist, in the sense that they used proportions reflecting Leonardo’s drawings of the human proportions, and also the mathematical Golden Section. The 20th century brought us Geometrics, which used forms drawn with a ruler and compass. These intrinsically have a different set of properties from classical, uncial or humanist letter types.


Futura, a geometric

Intrinsics are not very useful when distinguishing between different kinds of good letter types, because in all of them, the intrinsics are essentially right, otherwise they would never have survived to the present day as body text. Where the intrinsics are poor, letters have often been used for display typefaces. Stencil, Broadway, Mistral, and every other weird and wonderful typeface has intrinsic qualities which make it hard to read—except when set large. There is a place for this, which we’ll look at in the third section.

In depth: implicits

Implicitly, things which look like they are written with a pen appear more personal. Things which look like they are carved in stone are more imposing. Things which look like they have come out of an early computer printer look more futuristic. Those are essentially the three technologies or methods of production which most people have some awareness of. Real connoisseurs of print production methods may be able to separate in their minds flexo, thermal, moveable type, hot metal type and digital, but, for the most part, it’s pen, stone or computer, with ‘printed’ being the neutral mean.

What does this mean, practically? All fonts either have uniform strokes or some deviation from uniform, and all fonts either have some kind of serif, or they don’t.

Cambria JensonAlthough it’s possible to have a non-uniform font which is not more pen-like, in practice you never see this in body text fonts. Most serif fonts have some pen-like variation in stroke. Cambria, a recent serif font, has quite strong variation, as would be made by a very flexible pen, such as a quill pen. Jenson, a much older font, still has variation, but is more uniform. Slight variation in weight gives a font a sense of humanness and personality. Strong variation gives a distinctively old fashioned feel, mainly because handwriting now is almost uniform, even when done with a fountain pen.

RockwellGarmaondOptimaFuturaSerifs—the little terminations at the end of strokes—appear in almost all Western stone carving, although runes, also designed to be carved in stone, were unserifed. As a rule, handwriting is unserifed. The more pronounced the serif, the stronger the association with stone carving, as in Cambria above. You can have fonts with heavy serifs like slabs, such as Rockwell, lighter serifs, such as Garamond, flares which imply serifs but aren’t, such as Optima, and no serif at all, such as Gill Sans. Fonts like Jenson, and Garamond give the strongest implication of stone carving, because they don’t have the strong pen-strokes of Cambria, and their serifs are true terminations. Glyphic fonts, such as Friz Quadrata, are designed to resemble stone-cut letters even more closely. The function of the terminations in stone carving was to stop the stone crumbling. Slab-serifs like Rockwell are ‘more stone than stone’—they give an almost cast-in-concrete feel. At the other end of the spectrum, sans-serifs such as Gill Sans, Helvetica, Univers, Futura, Frutiger, Franklin Gothic and Avenir are implicitly more human, in the sense that they reflect handwriting by not having any serifs at all.

OptimaPut the two together, and Optima is implicitly personal, because it has some variation in weight—like a pen—and no serifs. Univers is more personal than Helvetica, because, if you compare carefully, you will see slight changes of weight. Slight changes in the letter forms make for huge changes in the personality of the font when placed in body text on a page.

So, implicitly

  • heavy serifs suggest super-definiteness and authority
  • serifs suggest permanence, authority, prestige
  • sans-serifs suggest personal, human
  • strong variation in stroke-width implies calligraphy—prestigious, expensive, old but also human
  • weak variation in stroke-width implies handwriting—personal
  • no variation in stroke-width implies computer or machine production

In depth: association

Association is about what products, services, organisations, publications and contexts we associate with a font.

  • If you want to impress English-speaking committed Christians aged between 40 and 60, you could do a lot worse than set your text in Linotype Palatino. Why? Because the New International Version of the Bible, the most widely sold version (except among atheists, who prefer the King James Version) was originally set in Linotype Palatino. Under 30s will most likely have encountered one of the more recent reprints, but if 40s-60s is your target, and you want a Biblical level of authority, Palatino it is.
  • ClarendonWant to achieve the same thing, but for educated English speakers in the UK? Clarendon is your friend. Clarendon is the font in which the Oxford dictionaries have traditionally been set. It has a strong educational feel about it, which may come across as a little stuffy, but noone in the UK could doubt its authority. Go to the USA, where Webster’s dictionary was set in a ‘Scotch’ modern roman, not unlike Times New Roman, and Clarendon does not have this impact.
  • What do you think the ultimate heavy-metal font is, for loud music played by guitar bands? You might be thinking of something spiky, but the most photographed font in loud rock music, and the one you will see at most gigs, is the script letters used on the front of Marshall amplifiers. You can’t actually buy this font, and there appear to be no imitations available—perhaps there’s a reason for that.

There are—broadly speaking—two kinds of visual association which we make. We could call these ‘above the level of awareness‘ and ‘below the level of awareness‘. Above the level awareness tells us that Art Deco style fonts are reminiscent of the 1920s, brush style fonts are reminiscent of signwriting, stencil type fonts are reminiscent of the army. These types of fonts, which generally have poor legibility for the same reasons that make them distinctive, can be very useful for posters, as headers in ad hoc publications, and to instantly call up a particular sense. However, because they are above the level of awareness (we know we’re looking at an unusual font) they also lead us to question their credibility. An invitation to a 20’s style dance in Braggadocio might lead us to check just how 1920’s it really is: we would look for clues in other illustrations, perhaps cue words like ‘Charleston’, ‘Swing’, ‘Jazz’. The reason is that we’ve all seen that particular kind of font ‘misused’ by someone who just wanted to create a 20’s feeling to get your attention, before selling you tickets to the Freshers’ disco.

Below-the-level-of-awareness associations are much more powerful, especially when they are combined with colours, shapes and photography which all softly imply the same message.

Soft implications

Caecilia JensonThe most important soft implication is x-height, which is the proportionate height of the letter ‘x’ compared to the ascenders (‘h’,’l’,’f’,’t’,’b’,’d’,’k’) and the descenders (‘g’, ‘j’, ‘p’, ‘q’).  High x-height gives greater readability within the same point size, but this has only been discovered during the past fifty years. What this means is that the greater the x-height, the more modern the font appears. If you are looking for ‘modern’, look first for high x-heights, such as Cambria, Caecilia and Avenir. If you want to look more classic, consider a smaller x-height, such as Walbaum, Jenson or Bodoni, and most versions of Garamond.

BaskervilleMost books are printed with serif fonts, often of the Baskerville kind, with the leading set to 130% of the font size (in most print it is 120%). If you want people to settle down to read extended text, the associations of Baskerville and its ilk (especially with slightly more leading) are very helpful. This is the underlying reason why the famous study found Baskerville to be ‘more credible’ than Georgia, Helvetica or Trebuchet: we’ve seen lots of books printed with it.

Frutiger Din FuturaWant to give people instructions? Especially short instructions? DIN Mittelschrift, a version of which is now available as FF DIN, was the font on all the German motorways for decades. Frutiger was originally designed as the font for an airport. If you’re wondering where you saw it last, it is the official font of the NHS, used both in the NHS logo and also (supposedly) in all hospital and health centre signage. Railway stations in the UK are signed in Gill Sans, which was the official font of British Rail and remains the main font for Network Rail. It was based on an earlier font designed for London’s underground.

Helvetica UniversHelvetica is one of the most widely used fonts in the world, prized for its neutrality (after all, it is Swiss). It has perhaps thrived especially because it is subtly better drawn than Arial. While Arial was licensed on Windows computers, Helvetica came standard with design-focused Postscript printers, and with the Apple Macintosh, which, for years, was mainly used in creative industries. Result: you have seen a lot of good typography done in Helvetica, and a lot of very bad typography done in Arial. For something which isn’t Helvetica, but just very slightly more elegant and personal, you could look at Frutiger, but it would also be worth looking at Univers—it has slightly tapered strokes which imply a slightly more hand drawn, and therefore personal, origin.

It’s not possible to give a complete list of even the most common associations, nor is it necessary. If you are typesetting for a particular audience, just go out and look at the kinds of things they buy, use and experience. Want to reach teenagers between 13 and 17? Absolutely do not look through your font collection for a ‘teenage’ font. Whatever you think is teenage is probably identified with a previous era—eras lasting only five years in teen world. Go and buy some teenage magazines, wander round teenage sections of toy shops, look at some teenage websites, and look at the fonts on hit album covers. There’s no point asking a teenager to tell you what a ‘teen’ font is. You are looking for things below awareness, which, by definition, they aren’t if someone can point them out. Things above the level—display fonts, usually—are ‘old’ before they are even issued.

While you can search for a lot of this material on the internet, you can’t do a search for ‘what fonts are teenagers using’ (without getting a load of opinions from people fondly remembering their teenage years in the 80s and 90s), or ‘what font is good for selling pies at a football ground’. This is probably a good thing, because by it being a little more difficult, it slows the inevitable erosion of good typefaces used inappropriately by people trying to create a false impression. You need to go through at four steps—first, search for ‘top ten albums sold to teenagers in 2015’, then look up each album, and then use Fontedge (in TypeDNA) or ‘WhatTheFont’ (search for those exact words) to tell you what the font is. You can now do a search for ‘alternatives to…’.

All there is

type anatomyUltimately, there are only seven things which distinguish typefaces from each other:

  1. Letter shape — uncial, classical, humanist, geometric, square or ‘other’, in different forms and proportions
  2. Negative space — counters, being the ‘eye’ in the ‘e’, the ‘a’, the ‘o’, the ‘d’, ‘b’, ‘p’, ‘g’, and the negative space outside the letters.
  3. Stroke weight — from light to heavy and from uniform to strongly differentiated, possibly with some tapering, and possibly heavy at the bottom of the ‘e’ and some other letters.
  4. Proportions — letter width : descender height : x-height : ascender height
  5. Terminals — from slab serifs through different kinds of regular serifs to flared serifs to no serifs (ie, sans-serif)
  6. Ornaments — little additions, such as on the ‘e’ in Jenson, on the capital ‘Q’ in many fonts, lowercase ‘g’ (often)
  7. Flow and page colour — the look of the font across several lines of text

Garmaond BemboIf you know what is familiar for your target readers, you can analyse the letter-type you have found using these seven characteristics. What would happen if you changed one aspect? For example, you could be creating a magazine to rival one set in Avant-Garde Gothic. What would happen if you put a serif on that? The answer is you would get something like Lubalin Graph, similar to Rockwell (one of our archetypes). You would have an entirely distinctive look and feel, but it would also seem very familiar and appropriate.

Equally, imagine that you are updating a publication which has relied for years on Garamond, and is now feeling a little tired. You have a couple of choices here. You could move from the Garamond you are using (there are many variants) to ITC Garamond, which has a higher x-height and feels more modern (though many designers would disdain you, as ITC Garamond is widely considered to be an inferior version), or you could retain the same overall look but move to Bembo, which has a greater x-height, bigger counters, but the same stroke weight, approach to letter shapes (but with a better ‘a’) and general feel.

TypeDNA will help you to pair fonts, but, as a sanity check, it’s always worth looking through the set of characteristics. Two fonts which are more or less the same but one has a serif and the other doesn’t will probably work, if you set one of them in a heavy weight and the other in a book weight. Put them together in the same weight and it will look like a mistake: too similar, like putting 10 point text next to 11 point.

Finally, don’t be afraid to delve into FontBook to find exactly the font you need, rather than relying on the fonts that came with your computer or software (almost certainly overused, except for Franklin Gothic which always looks good) or on the free fonts from the web. If you are going to spend £5,000 on print over the next three years, it’s worth spending £500 (no, I mean, really) on getting exactly the right font, as opposed to one that is sort of right. If you’re spending £500,000 on print, you would be daft not to get exactly the right font. Even if your investment is your time, it’s still worth working out: what is that my readers are most familiar with in this context? Change one thing on that.

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