Straying from the typescript

Once in a lifetime, an event occurs, an event so rare, so significant, so truly reach-for-the-thesaurus, that one feels one must devote an entire column to it, possibly without jokes. This week, after more than two decades, five (and a half) prime ministers and very approximately 1,500 columns, amid the waxing and waning of power, the weft and warp of history, and amid the qwert and yuiop of a keyboard, I changed my font.

To those of you who do not make a living tapping away at a keyboard, it may seem unremarkable. But in a small, ten-point, Trebuchet-MS-sans-serif way, I made my own little bit of history this week. This is the first article I have ever written in Trebuchet MS.

Changing Times

It all started at the Jobcentre (another story, for another time). A nice, overweight man, call him Mick, with the gentle sardonic air of someone who has shuffled pieces of paper around pointlessly for 30 years, asked about my CV: what were my "achievements"? Twenty years in journalism, I muttered; barrister; bit of telly; couple of awards; er, just my work? "But what achievements do you have?" I shrugged. Mick looked concerned and decided to lower the level of questioning. Which font did I use on my CV? Well, I hadn't written a CV for 20 years and, at that time, you were considered quite modern to be tapping it out on an Amstrad. I don't think we had fonts, so I hazarded a guess: Times New Roman? He looked sad. "Too many serifs," he said, and swung his screen around to show me. "Look, there are too many serifs. Your typescript has little hats all over the place. It's too cluttered."

He gave a sigh; another unemployed loser . . . "Gives you a headache," he said. "Imagine you have 180 of these to read. I'd never get to the end of that page."
I had to concede that Mick had a point. All those little hats were tiring. He recommended the Trebuchet MS font instead. And I tried really hard, in the past year, writing essays and composing articles, to make the switch, but I faced a problem: I think in Times New Roman. I played with Trebuchet, a bit of Arial and a touch of Courier, but always ended up going back, like a guilty addict, to Times New Roman. Because the others didn't look right. Everything else looked like baby writing. I think, and write, in Times New Roman. I even handed in a few essays printed in Trebuchet MS, thinking that academics like clarity. My marks went down. As any social scientist will tell you, correlation does not prove causation - my work may have simply got worse - but still, I wondered . . .

In the midst of a "critical review of methods" this week - my Master's course has hit a really, really dull spot - I was tapping away in Times New
Roman, the BBC's Election 2010 live stream running in the background, listening to the commentary, glancing at the Nick'n'Dave handshake, switching back to "participatory mapping" (this mode of essay-writing may account for the falling marks), when suddenly I stopped and thought: that looks wrong. No, no, not the handshake, which looked alarmingly right. It was the typing. Somewhere amid the methodology and the momentous events of the past fortnight, between Mick and Nick'n'Dave, I have started to think in Trebuchet MS.

What can I say? The hand of history strikes each of us uniquely.

Devil in the detail

One of the astonishing things about academia is that, no matter how silly one's theory is, you usually can find an academic who has studied it. So I wasn't that surprised to discover that a PhD student in Wichita once wrote a thesis - three years, 624 pages - on the "psychology of on-screen type". It turns out that Times New Roman is judged the most professional font, with the least personality; you can see why it might appeal to an academic marking an essay.

As I skimmed through the PhD thesis, Susie Orbach was being interviewed on the news about the psychological effects on the nation
of coalition government, of needing to come to terms with occasionally warring parents, getting used to the language of reconciliation, embracing change and all that, and I was thinking what a load of guff that was.

So it is with caution that I set out the interpretation this PhD thesis would suggest of my recent switch to a new font. Which is that the change, from Times New Roman to Trebuchet, may demonstrate that I feel a tiny bit harder, less stiff, more active, happier, stronger, warmer, younger - and cheaper - than I did last week. I only mention it; history teaches us not to ignore the little things.

This article first appeared in the 24 May 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Greece now, Britain next