When Typography Talks
“THE SECRET OF TYPE IS THAT IT SPEAKS.” – French Poet Paul Claudel
Ever noticed how there’s something about emboldened Helvetica that makes you immediately shut your mouth and pay attention like a berated schoolchild? Or how Comic Sans makes your cheeks burn in mild embarrassment like your goofy and slightly tipsy uncle does when giving a toast at a dinner party?
Seasoned graphic designers and typographers are rolling their eyes as they read this, but from the perspective of an observer with no formal education on the matter, misused type is akin to someone talking on the phone in the next bathroom stall—impossible to ignore and mildly offensive.
The bare bones of it: identifying the ‘mood,’ the ‘flavor,’ or ‘feeling’ of a typeface starts with three things: classification, letter structure, and context. By no means is this a comprehensive list, and a well-educated graphic designer is keeper of sophisticated, nuanced insight into type choice, that’s what makes her a pro!
Type classification is really the launch pad for identifying, choosing, and combining type. Evoking the right tone for a broody, mystical poster about Tarot-reading versus that of an informative airline safety pamphlet is rooted in type classification.
Think Times New Roman on your high school English papers. Serifs feel historic, formal, and traditional. They are easier on the eyes and the brain when reading large amounts of content, especially in print. Think authority, think “I know what I’m talking about.”
Think the header for almost every website you’ve ever been to. Less formal than Serif, Sans Serif feels more modern, informal, and playful. It’s widely, and arguably universally applicable, though it tends to be more widely applicable digitally than in print.
Think that kid with the best handwriting in the class. Script fonts are based on the fluid strokes of natural handwritings and tend to feel elegant, and sometimes whimsical. Formal scripts are designed to look like they were created with a quill of metal nib of a pen, and possess a quality of elegance and formality. Casual Scripts look like they were painted with a wet brush and carry and air of relatability and activity.
Think a nice tux that looks really snazzy but has limited applications. Display fonts feel artistic and eye-catching and can be total knock-outs when used in the right setting. They are best for limited use.
David Kadavy, author of designforhackers.com provided a great POV on Quora about letter structure types. He notes the three more common letter structures that many typefaces are based on: Humanist, Geometric, Realist.
Think: “Hello, neighbor!” Whether or not, there’s a “y’all” on the end of that is a different story—one that depends on the particular font. Humanist typefaces feel relatable and friendly, which is accomplished by varying degrees of a hand-drawn feel.
Think the coworker whose style you’re always secretly trying to emulate. Geometric fonts feel modern, fashionable, engineered, dynamic, and futuristic. Some characteristics include the perfection of geometric forms—circles, squares, ovals and triangles. They can have strong contrast of line weight or consistent line weight.
Think a friendly therapist. Realist fonts fall between Humanist and Geometric typefaces. With more abrupt curves, they feel rational, stable, straightforward. They are visually inert—almost invisibly so. Some characteristics are relatively straight appearance and consistent line weight.
Culture and Presentation
Just like the humans that you bump into every day, typefaces come bearing a history and a context. The previous uses of a font can bear hard on how it’s perceived, and can even prompt an emotional reaction from an audience.
Helvetica: the font of choice for FDA nutrition labels and the U.S. Government’s tax forms. No wonder it makes us want to say, “yes, ma’am.” It would be a total flop to use Helvetica in an arena within which you’re trying to evoke a playful, humorous vibe because it’s so strongly associated with a contrasting tone.
Presentation really is the culmination of all of the aforementioned factors. Know your target audience. Imagine the ideal reaction to your design.Visualize where the communication will live. Contemplate this type’s natural habitat. These considerations help to nail down what fits, and what feels like a horse in a dog park.
When Typography Talks
Although there is so much to learn about the formal contributing factors of what makes the right typeface the right typeface, so much of it is fine-tuning intuition. “Does it feel right in this application?” is a surprisingly effective question to ask. Although, even a mild awareness of the sweeping misusage of Comic Sans is revealing of the number of people that don’t yet understand the importance of asking it. How about you? Are you as opinionated as we are? Tweet at us @extensis. And just for you (and all of your designer friends) we always offer a free 30-day trial of Suitcase Fusion.
And there’s more!
If you only own one book on typography, it should be The Elements of Typographic Style by Robert Bringhurst.
More on how typefaces communicate with your subconscious—check out Sarah Hyndman’s book “Why Fonts Matter” & her TED talk, “Wake up & smell the fonts”.