Why the Bay Area is swarming with people who love letters

A retro-swank groove brought us to Helvetica It Hurts, whose title made the audience members laugh out loud. A mesmerizing black-and-white meditation on a very popular font, its cool op art sensibility produced big cheers and whoops at the end, as compared to strong but polite applause for everything before it.

In every entertainment a little education must fall, and so it was with Typomania, an engaging seven-minute excerpt from a BBC special about typography set to disco, opera, and everything in between. Its bow-tied narrator was Erik Spiekermann, a part-time San Franciscan and full-time designer and writer who was at the film fest. His most salient point may help explain the ubiquity of type fanatics: "There are as many different typefaces as there are voices, languages, and emotions."

A remix of Billie Holiday singing "God Bless the Child" led into an ugly but gripping animated birth announcement, in which the streets and landmarks of New York City were replaced with words ("building," "taxi," "hospital"). After that came an excerpt from a Twilight Zone episode in which evil takes the form of Burgess Meredith, playing a scary whiz on the Linotype machine (which allowed printers to automatically set a complete line of lead type at once, instead of having to put each letter in place by hand). Ah, how technology has changed.

The last two films, both by Emeryville's "Cheshire Dave" Beckerman, were corny and silly but still amusing. Etched in Stone told the improbable story of a serial killer -- a personification of the overused real-life typeface Trajan, named after the Roman emperor -- who murders producers who stop using the font on their movies' promotional posters. Its animation was awful, but the argument was sound: Once you see the film's faked posters, you realize that Trajan really is everywhere. And Behind the Typeface: Cooper Black was a funny VH1-style exposé on the lettering style you've overlooked for years -- on Top Ramen's packaging, the logo for Payless ShoeSource, iron-on T-shirt messages from the 1970s, and countless other aberrations. I've seen the movie before, but it was still funny.

Why do people get so caught up with type? Because, as the SOTA Web site explains, it "help[s] us to communicate our thoughts, our feelings, our wants, our needs -- and to understand those of our fellow man." Locally, that need for connection has hit a tipping point; these events and communities are popping up because designing is, like writing, a solitary, behind-the-scenes career (without the byline). And there's no avoiding it: We're bombarded by lettering. Take a minute and look around you -- every single character you see was designed by a person. That billboard with the bad grammar? As Jared Benson put it, "Someone spent a year of his life creating that A." The menu whose errors drive you crazy? A designer had to buy the typeface used on it. And that book in which you circle typos? Oh, those make the letter-lovers nuts, too. "I have a hard time reading books," says Typographica's Stephen Coles, "because I can't get past the design or the way things are put on the page. Or maybe I just have ADD, I don't know."

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