Anthropologist awarded two-year NSF grant to study typographers, cultural use of fonts

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Keith Murphy, UCI associate professor of anthropology, has received a two-year, $210,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to study typographers – the people who design the fonts we see daily all around us, on everything from product packaging to websites, cellphone messages and signage. His interviews will provide insights into the creators’ practices and values to better understand the cultural, social and political aspects of type styles. “There have been a number of examples in recent years of explicitly positioning typeface as a mundane vehicle for subtly introducing cultural and political ideas into everyday life and producing a kind of ‘social push,’” Murphy said. “For instance, in Israel, at least two fonts have been designed for simultaneously stylizing both Arabic and Hebrew text, which was imagined as a shared writing that might help ease ethnic and religious tensions.” Five years ago, the world’s first “national typeface,” called Sweden Sans, was developed by that country as a reflection of Swedish values and ideals. Murphy said that he’s “interested in learning how different social actors use typography to accomplish a wide range of social and political tasks, while giving shape and meaning to the everyday world.” Funding for his work began in March and will run through February 2021.