A typeface is not a tool
The assertion “a typeface is a tool” is a typical justification for making new typefaces. It’s convenient, reassuring and sounds practical. It’s also false.
It’s natural to make this connection — tools are linked to our development as a species. Along with language and abstract thought, they make us human. The concept of a tool is intermeshed with the craft history of type foundries. To say “a typeface is a tool” is like saying it’s engineered, hand-crafted, built. It implies “this font is well made” while evoking the manual, physical processes of the old days.
Yet the contemporary definition of a tool is worryingly broad. Traditionally a tool was understood as “device held in the hand used to carry out a particular function”. The definition has loosened to “a thing used to help perform a job”, which means almost anything can be defined as a tool. Language is malleable, adapting to circumstances over time. Meanings change. But is it accurate to define a typeface in this way?
What job is a typeface performing? A typeface makes spoken language visible — a function performed adequately by most typefaces. This is the root of the perennial question: “Why do we need new typefaces?” Applying the broad definition of a tool, this is another way of saying: “Why do we need new tools for performing the same job?”
In theory, designers could perform all of their typesetting jobs with the same one or two typefaces.¹ But they don’t. I can almost guarantee this comes down to aesthetics. They choose a typeface for its emotive, visceral and visual qualities — how it looks and feels. Designers don’t use typefaces like a builder uses a hammer.
The function of a typeface is to communicate visually and culturally. We crave new letterforms, finding them at once fascinating, repulsive and intoxicating.
To say “a typeface is a tool” isn’t a fact or truism. It’s a signal of philosophical intent by the designer. When Le Corbusier said “a house is a machine for living in”, it was a statement of his particular philosophy of architecture.
The earliest assertion (I can find) that a typeface is a tool is in Adrian Frutiger’s Denken und Schaffen einer Typographie from 1994.² It’s a relatively recent phenomenon. Perhaps type designers have become overly self-conscious of their work. We’ve been asked, many times: “Why do we need more fonts?” Do we so doubt the validity and necessity of our work that we double down on the idea we’re merely making tools — and nothing more?
In the translated version of Adrian Frutiger Typefaces. The Complete Works, he doesn’t expand on the concept directly in the essay. “Tool” is only mentioned in the title and the conclusion: “The best typeface is the one that impinges least on the reader’s consciousness, becoming the sole tool that communicates the meaning of the writer to the understanding of the reader.”⤴
Conceding that a typeface is a tool sounds dangerously close to an excuse: toolmakers cannot be held responsible for things made with their tools, or the tasks leading up to those things. They are only responsible for the making of the tool itself. If a person decides to use a hammer to drive home a screw, then so be it. The hammer was only designed for nails. It’s not our fault the typography doesn’t look good. The typeface is just a tool — you’re using it wrong.
A tool is part of the process of making; it’s not visible or part of the end product. You can see vestigial traces of its use: the sliced vegetable, the smooth wood, the hemmed skirt. This is not true of a typeface, which is always visible. It’s part of the process and part of the product. It’s visible on the website, the poster, the app. It’s in the typography.
The software that enables the use of a typeface is a tool. For example: it is almost impossible to know which tool was used to make a modern lithographed poster; multiple software applications could generate the exact same outcome.³ Tools can vary, but the typeface is always visible and constant.
Taking refuge in metaphor doesn’t always help express what we really mean. In her review of the self-titled poetry collection Hera Lindsay Bird, Erin Cunningham notes Bird “deconstructs the poetic business of simile, ridiculing the idea that meaning can be accurately conveyed through far-fetched comparisons”. In “New Things”, Bird writes:
So maybe I can say jazz apothecary
Or ham pantyliner
But it gives me no pleasure
To mean so little
And get so far away with it.
“A typeface is a tool” is a weak metaphor sagging against the finite bounds of spoken and written language. It’s a false promise, an empty reassurance, a slack tautology. A typeface is not a tool.
A tool is for performing a specific job. You cannot use a hammer in place of a knife, but materials can be substituted. A house can be clad in tiles or timber, a painting can be made by watercolour on paper or oil on canvas. If Helvetica can’t be used, Arial can stand in its place.
Tools manipulate materials to make things. Materials are a visible constituent of the final thing. Typefaces combine with images on leaves of paper, bound together with string and glue to make a book. Tools are used to make the book from materials, the book itself is not made of tools.
Once upon a time, typefaces were made of materials. Letterforms were routed in wood, cut in steel and cast in lead. Now digital typefaces are immaterial. The letterforms in digital typefaces have fixed shapes, but they are still largely plastic.⁴ Their vector outlines are crystallised into font files, but may be decomposed (converted to outlines) and further manipulated. They can be scaled, warped, coloured, tweaked and distorted freely. Materials are not fixed in form or size, but tools are. ⁵
Typefaces are malleable, flexible and visible in the final thing. These are all essential qualities of materials, not tools.
A typeface is a material.