Kern Your Enthusiasm (20)

By: Helene Silverman
August 20, 2014

silverman chinese sppon

One of 25 installments in a series of posts analyzing and celebrating a few of our favorite (and least favorite) typefaces.


For years (and years!) I’ve been charmed and puzzled by the off typefaces printed on the cardboard shipping boxes of cheap Chinese imports. The kind of boxes held together with those giant staples; the boxes you knew had no Apple computer in them. The type looked, in its infinite variation, so close, but just not recognizable as any typeface I could identify. It was uncannily, entrancingly, wrong. But it did clearly epitomize the products it was linked to, as much as an Apple computer box did.

The serif fonts, the creepiest, seemed to be a hillbilly relative of Times Roman, arguably the most generic, charmless, widely available, font to hack if one was so inclined. And they were, of course, condensed and expanded — like a multi-generation photocopy, its origin a blur. All leading, tracking, and spacing considerations were thrown to the wind.

For those of us who crave the off-version of your basic commercial reality, this is all just great. This is generic, non-branding at its finest. Nothing to remember here for the next time. Just move along.

In fact, these typefaces, the feeling of them, have become a font, a huge font family — Chinese Shipping Box — in the way that a weed can eventually get to be called a flower. Maybe I’m late to the party and this is actually the source of the slurry of purposely uncomfortable typography making the rounds. It does have a kind of “Fuck you! What are you looking at? What’s your problem?” swagger. Though sometimes, as in 84″ Reusable [see below], it can feel clean and fresh, like leaving the city.

Compared to all this, good typography glows shiny and new… and not in a good way.

silverman tablecoth


2014: KERN YOUR ENTHUSIASM (typefaces): Matthew Battles on ALDINE ITALIC | Adam McGovern on DATA 70 | Sherri Wasserman on TORONTO SUBWAY | Sarah Werner on JOHNSTON’S “HAMLET” | Douglas Wolk on TODD KLONE | Mark Kingwell on GILL SANS | Joe Alterio on AKZIDENZ-GROTESK | Suzanne Fischer on CALIFORNIA BRAILLE | Gary Panter on SHE’S NOT THERE | Deb Chachra on FAUX DEVANAGARI | Peggy Nelson on FUTURA | Tom Nealon on JENSON’S ROMAN | Rob Walker on SAVANNAH SIGN | Tony Leone on TRADE GOTHIC BOLD CONDENSED NO. 20 | Chika Azuma on KUMON WORKSHEET | Chris Spurgeon on ELECTRONIC DISPLAY | Amanda French on DIPLOMA REGULAR | Steve Price on SCREAM QUEEN | Alissa Walker on CHICAGO | Helene Silverman on CHINESE SHIPPING BOX | Tim Spencer on SHATTER | Jessamyn West on COMIC SANS | Whitney Trettien on WILKINS’S REAL CHARACTER | Cintra Wilson on HERMÈS vs. HOTDOG | Jacob Covey on GOTHAM.


2013: HERC YOUR ENTHUSIASM (old-school hip hop tracks): Luc Sante on “Spoonin’ Rap” | Dallas Penn on “Rapper’s Delight” | Werner Von Wallenrod on “Rappin’ Blow” | DJ Frane on “The Incredible Fulk” | Paul Devlin on “The Adventures of Super Rhyme” | Phil Dyess-Nugent on “That’s the Joint” | Adam McGovern on “Freedom” | David Abrams on “Rapture” | Andrew Hultkrans on “The New Rap Language” | Tim Carmody on “Jazzy Sensation (Bronx Version)” | Drew Huge on “Can I Get a Soul Clap” | Oliver Wang on “The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel” | Douglas Wolk on “Making Cash Money” | Adrienne Crew on “The Message” | Dart Adams on “Pak Jam” | Alex Belth on “Buffalo Gals” | Joshua Glenn on “Ya Mama” | Phil Freeman on “No Sell Out” | Nate Patrin on “Death Mix Live, Pt. 2” | Brian Berger on “White Lines (Don’t Do It)” | Cosmo Baker on “Here We Go (Live at the Funhouse)” | Colleen Werthmann on “Rockit” | Roy Christopher on “The Coldest Rap” | Dan Reines on “The Dream Team is in the House” | Franklin Bruno on The Lockers.

2012: KIRK YOUR ENTHUSIASM (Captain Kirk scenes): Dafna Pleban: Justice or vengeance? | Mark Kingwell : Kirk teaches his drill thrall to kiss | Nick Abadzis: “KHAAAAAN!” | Stephen Burt: “No kill I” | Greg Rowland: Kirk browbeats NOMAD | Zack Handlen: Kirk’s eulogy for Spock| Peggy Nelson: The joke is on Kirk | Kevin Church: Kirk vs. Decker | Enrique Ramirez: Good Kirk vs. Evil Kirk | Adam McGovern: Captain Camelot | Flourish Klink: Koon-ut-kal-if-fee | David Smay: Federation exceptionalism | Amanda LaPergola: Wizard fight | Steve Schneider: A million things you can’t have | Joshua Glenn: Debating in a vacuum | Kelly Jean Fitzsimmons: Klingon diplomacy | Trav S.D.: “We… the PEOPLE” | Matthew Battles: Brinksmanship on the brink | Annie Nocenti: Captain Smirk | Ian W. Hill: Sisko meets Kirk | Gabby Nicasio: Noninterference policy | Peter Bebergal: Kirk’s countdown | Matt Glaser: Kirk’s ghost | Joe Alterio: Watching Kirk vs. Gorn | Annalee Newitz: How Spock wins

2011: KIRB YOUR ENTHUSIASM (Jack Kirby panels): Douglas Rushkoff on THE ETERNALS | John Hilgart on BLACK MAGIC | Gary Panter on DEMON | Dan Nadel on OMAC | Deb Chachra on CAPTAIN AMERICA | Mark Frauenfelder on KAMANDI | Jason Grote on MACHINE MAN | Ben Greenman on SANDMAN | Annie Nocenti on THE X-MEN | Greg Rowland on THE FANTASTIC FOUR | Joshua Glenn on TALES TO ASTONISH | Lynn Peril on YOUNG LOVE | Jim Shepard on STRANGE TALES | David Smay on MISTER MIRACLE | Joe Alterio on BLACK PANTHER | Sean Howe on THOR | Mark Newgarden on JIMMY OLSEN | Dean Haspiel on DEVIL DINOSAUR | Matthew Specktor on THE AVENGERS | Terese Svoboda on TALES OF SUSPENSE | Matthew Wells on THE NEW GODS | Toni Schlesinger on REAL CLUE | Josh Kramer on THE FOREVER PEOPLE | Glen David Gold on JOURNEY INTO MYSTERY | Douglas Wolk on 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY | MORE EXEGETICAL COMMENTARIES: Joshua Glenn on Kirby’s Radium Age Sci-Fi Influences | Chris Lanier on Kirby vs. Kubrick | Scott Edelman recalls when the FF walked among us | Adam McGovern is haunted by a panel from THE NEW GODS | Matt Seneca studies the sensuality of Kirby’s women | Btoom! Rob Steibel settles the Jack Kirby vs. Stan Lee question | Galactus Lives! Rob Steibel analyzes a single Kirby panel in six posts | Danny Fingeroth figgers out The Thing | Adam McGovern on four decades (so far) of Kirby’s “Fourth World” mythos | Jack Kirby: Anti-Fascist Pipe Smoker

What do you think?

  1. Great piece! My theory is that this particular font family descends from the Foreign Languages Press Peking family much in vogue during the Cultural Revolution. If you want I can show you a copy of the pamphlet on how to cure deafness/mutism through Mao Tse-tung thought.

  2. The genius of randomness is that it can only be done right the first time — great meditation on the true spontaneity of carelessness, beyond the processed contrasts of any punk ransom-note font. You have seen the future, whatever it is next.

  3. Almost certainly the reason for this distinctive style of type is that it is printed using Latin characters from Chinese typefaces. They appear slightly off-kilter for the same reason typewriter characters look a bit odd: They are monospace, because Chinese and Japanese writing systems are rigidly monospace-only.

    Typefaces for those languages include “full-width” and “half-width” character sets—the latter, of course, half the width of the former. Every character in each set conforms absolutely to its assigned width regardless of how badly it gets abused as a result. The Latin type used on those so-familiar black-stamped naked-kraft corrugated boxes is, of course, from that typeface’s “half-width” character set.

    Even Western punctuation marks adapted for use in Chinese or Japanese text include the leading or following space that, in the West, is typed as a separate character—which can make setting mixed-language projects a royal pain. Ask me how I know.

  4. Couldn’t agree more. I’ve found myself standing dazzled looking at the packaging of Chinese herbal products, wondering at the strange and sometimes beautiful off-kilter roman fonts on the boxes and jars.

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