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What’s your typeface? It's more important than you may think

Lady Gaga may have a new single and Justin Bieber a new haircut, but for far-reaching cultural influence, only one new release matters: Matthew Carter has a new typeface. Carter is one of the most influential designers of fonts (though he prefers "typefaces") in the world, a 72-year-old pony-tailed Brit based in Boston who last year became the first person to earn a MacArthur Fellowship specifically for typeface design.

The man who invented Verdana, Georgia and new typefaces for The New York Times and Wired has just released a font bearing his name: Carter Sans. Breathlessly awaited by the industry, Carter Sans made its pre-debut last fall at a New York gala for the Art Directors Club Hall of Fame.

Though Carter has said he doesn't consider himself an artist, to font-fetishists, the Carter Sans is a thing of beauty: solid, vigorous, with just the slightest whiff of serif (the small flares at the ends of the letter). The "stroke endings show the effect of the chisel more than the pen," Carter has said, poetically.

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While Carter gets his deification, and a 2007 documentary on Helvetica becomes an art-house hit, handwriting appears to be a dying art. In the book Script and Scribble: The Rise and Fall of Handwriting, Kitty Burns Florey recounts how, in the 18th century, writing masters urged six to 12 hours a day of practice. But in 2006 only 15 per cent of students taking the SAT wrote out their essays in cursive script, with the other 85 per cent using block letters. Learning cursive takes up less time in classrooms these days, as "keyboarding" becomes the educator's priority.

Good, says Oberlin professor Anne Trubek, who wrote a piece picked up by MSNBC arguing that handwriting deserves its demise. Her son, who struggled mightily with writing, was liberated by the keyboard, finally able to express himself in a way the pen never allowed. According to Trubek, bad handwriting creates unfair bias while computers are truly democratic.

For this, she took an online body check. Over 1,300 pro-handwriting (yet typing) commenters broadcast their outrage in a chorus of nostalgia: "Good penmanship shows the world we are civilized."

Then I am a cavewoman. My handwriting is appalling, and becoming worse. It takes a half hour and several efforts to write a legible, all-caps four-line note to my child's teacher (on the subject of handwriting homework). I've seriously looked for a handwriting coach (an unfilled niche) and am thinking of tracking down an old manual from the "Palmer Method," the dominant mode of handwriting instruction in the U.S. in the early 20th century.

But why does my bad handwriting feel like a failing? I manage to make a living as a writer regardless, and the tool that allows this is only improving. But I understand the mourning that runs beneath the pro-handwriting comments. The computer, as opposed to the pen, feels like a barrier between human and idea. The romantic concept of inspiration invokes the physical pouring of the idea from hand, to pen to paper. Having that idea mediated and converted by a machine into binary code of Xs and Os somehow drains it of a certain humanity – doesn't it?

Maybe not. Looking at Carter's work, it's clear that typefaces breathe with their own kind of life. The font that one chooses to work in is deeply personal. The design consultancy company Pentagram offers an on-line personality test to diagnose your true font ( I felt deeply misunderstood be labelled a van Doesburg user, a font as boxy and tyrannical as an eye chart.

Yet a study came out of Princeton this year suggesting that the fonts that communicate best are the ugliest. People find it easier to retain information delivered in a mess of weird, italicized and bold fontsthan in some sleek, clean sans-serif. This will surely confuse the online campaign against the most hated font of all, the goofy Comic Sans.

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Perhaps the strong feelings we once held about handwriting are now being transferred to fonts. "What matters most is readability," Carter has said. But the response to a typeface is emotionally infused, too. Font selection becomes its own kind of signature, weighted with one's own personal history and conception of beauty. A friend of mine was recently introduced to Century Gothic and felt rejuvenated. "I had been looking for a new font," she said, as if talking about a new lover.

Slate magazine surveyed writers about their favourite fonts, and short-story author Maile Meloy revealed her dedication to Times. She made no mention of the font's utilitarian quality, but rather, wrote how it stirred something entirely individual to her: "That was the year I started writing stories, and by now I'm so used to Times that other fonts look strange and unfamiliar. It might as well be my own handwriting on the page."

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