The Power of Typography


Working with type is hard. Choosing the right font for your wedding invitations has caused many a bride a fair amount of anxiety. What is this thing called a serif, and how does it impact my gatefold brochure? Comic Sans is not as funny as you may think. Will Sapphire or Cornflower be a better color choice for the headline? Which font did they parody on SNL?

The purpose of typography

Typography is the art and technique of arranging type to make written language legible, readable, and appealing when displayed. Our current alphabet was created many centuries ago to simplify the written language from the current pictographic symbols to a more standard and easy to understand system of communication. For generations we have collected letters from this library of symbols to form words to share our thoughts, ideas and messages. Over time we have taken these simple letters and transformed them into a vast array of typefaces ‘ the design of a family of letter shapes. We now have thousands of typefaces to choose from when writing our next literary masterpiece.

The functionality of typography

When it comes to setting your type, the amount of choices can be overwhelming, but the ultimate goal is for people to be able to read it. They need to be able to look at it, allow their brain to decipher what it says and then understand what it means. If the reader has any difficulty in the legibility of the text, the possibility of confusion or disengagement increases. When we look at the style of letterforms dating back 100s of years ago or longer, our modern mind can sometimes have a difficult time reading the text.

The library of typefaces that we have access to is vast. For some of these, type designers will spend countless hours tweaking every aspect of each letter to assure that they work properly together and look good when put together into the thousands of letter combinations. Many of these well-designed typefaces are in our word processors or available for our next email message. Times New Roman and Helvetica are just a couple of examples. You can find them used in a multitude of places like company logos or magazine advertisements. They help create the identity and visuals for a company’s marketing plan.

The beauty of typography

Just because we have access to a particular font does not mean that the same amount of attention and detail went into making it. There are a great number of specimens of type that can elicit the types of emotions that are not desirable. Scroll through the list of fonts on your computer and you may see some that may turn you off’ or maybe they really resonate with you. That’s the beauty of subjectivity.

If you look close and study the intricacies of each glyph (symbol) in the alphabet, there is an immense amount of beauty in these letters. The slight nuances of the balance between the space and the form of type can focus more attention to your message. Take for example the ascender of the letter ‘h’ or the tail of a lowercase ‘y.’ They travel past the traditional boundaries of the x-height and baseline of the other letters to create an off balance tension that breaks outside of the mold.

When the letters ‘f’ and ‘i’ are placed next to each other, they can form a ligature ‘ the combination of two letters into one glyph. The marriage of these two characters creates a new balance that the two could not maintain on their own and helps in overall readability. Then there is the beauty of a well spaced line of text using the right amount of tracking ‘ spacing between letters in a line of type. When there is too much or too little space between letters, the text can become more difficult to read. The world of typography is full of terms that describe the design and use of letterforms ‘ kerning, leading, serif, x-height, weight, italic and terminal. The various methods of editing type are as creative and engaging as the type itself.

The voice of typography

Once you know the various ways to manipulate text, you can channel them to help convey your message with greater impact. By using a serifed font you can have a more classical look whereas a sans-serif font can convey a modern and clean aesthetic. By capitalising all of the letters you can bring more attention to the text. Adding color to the words presents a litany of opportunities to evoke a variety of emotions.

Knowing the methods used to tweak your typography and the rules for making it look good, can help strengthen the design. It could be a simple tweak of the size and weight of the letters to draw the viewer’s attention in a certain direction:

Adding a simple icon to the text can add even more flair:

Then when color is added here, the text (although very simple) is taken to the next level when coordinated with the icon.

It’s not always what you have to say, but there is true value to how you say(design) it.

The power of typography

All of these characteristics of type lead us to state that typography has an immense amount of power. The evolution of our written language has taken us from a picture-based form of writing to a letter-based system shown in our current alphabet. In an effort to establish an easier and more concise way of communication, we now have a powerful way of interacting with each other. But there’s a catch.

We have this amazing tool with limitless possibilities for effective connection, but a powerful tool in the wrong hands can be dangerous. Part of the purpose of typography is to be legible to the reader and sometimes we can get in our own way. Since we are a visual society, we are drawn to things that we find appealing. Once again though, what is appealing to one person may not be appealing to another. There are many design rules, concepts and standards that help establish a proper path for design, like using the bowling lanes setup with the bumpers. Ignoring these guidelines can result in a message that is hard to read or is never read. This can greatly impact your message in a negative way. Having a trained and knowledgeable designer helping you craft your message to your customers is imperative in today’s world of oversaturated communication. Don’t take a chance in taking a misstep with your marketing when attention spans continue to dwindle, and people are looking for any excuse to stop reading.

One of my favorite illustrations for the power of type was parodied by SNL for the use of a certain system font too readily available and often overused. The main character played by Ryan Gosling shares this sentiment:

“He just highlighted ‘Avatar.’ He clicked the dropdown menu, and then he just randomly selected Papyrus. Like a thoughtless child just wandering by a garden, just yanking leaves along the way.” ‘ Steven, SNL skit ‘Papyrus”

Let the power of typography help your message rather than hinder it.