Why Fonts Matter


Why Fonts Matter
The first problem I have when receiving a new book on typography is that I spend far too much time looking up the typefaces described or sampled therein, and searching for them online, instead of reading. Then I start looking at (and critiquing) the typefaces chosen for the book itself. It’s a trees-not-the-forest kind of wonderment that comes over me.

As I am wont to do, I sit back on my deck in the evening sun, glass of wine in hand, and a large pile of previously-purchased typography books beside me, so I can make the introductions. Probably not necessary, since I suspect they already know one another. But it’s comforting to have them all together.

That’s just my own obsession with type and typography. There are, those peccadilloes aside, many great delights to be had in receiving a new book about typography. To open a page filled with characters, colours, shapes… it’s almost a childish joy. I trust some of you know that emotion, already. Sometimes I think talking about type is a bit like talking about Zen. From the outside, it seems suspiciously like mumbo jumbo that only the insiders can understand. But stick with me, grasshopper.*

Sarah Hyndman’s book, and the latest in my collection, Why Fonts Matter, doesn’t frame itself by asking if they matter. Of course they do. What she wants to tell is is how they matter, how they affect us. How they make us feel. How they direct us to buying, eating, music and other daily choices. And, of course, how they communicate their verbal and non-verbal messages. Very Mcluhanistic, the message and the medium and all that. And that’s in great part what Hyndman wants to tell us.

And like the Zen master’s stick thwacking sharply over the novice’s shoulders to spur awareness (and rouse us from sleep), Hyndman startles and awakens us. In a pleasant way, of course. A gentle stick. It’s meant as an interactive journey, not a lecture. And she has a light touch, and a mildly sardonic humour, too.

Fonts matter not simply for artistic reasons or as merely a menu choice in our favourite word-processing program. And learning about them isn’t simply mechanical training in the bits and pieces that we assemble into letter forms, like Tinker Toys or Lego kits. She wants us to learn by doing, by choosing, by examining.

Fonts matter because their reach is so wide, so profound, that they infiltrate everything we do, every day. They shape and colour how we feel, how we react, how we understand. Hyndman herself wrote how they evoke emotions and responses:

There is a parallel between what we experience in the physical world and how this influences our interpretation of typeface shapes. Type can be seen as mirroring the emotions we display in the real world through our facial expressions and gestures. When we are happy our faces become round with a wide smile and our body language is open. By contrast, an angry frown expression is pinched and angel and an attacking animal is all jagged teeth and claws.

Page from Why Fonts Matter
Typography can sometimes seem a rather rarefied topic, one of those arcane, geeky, slightly subversive arts, up there with Python coding and wine tasting. Oops. Maybe I should change that to Python coding and ukulele playing. Hyndman uses the wine-tasting metaphor for her collective public explorations into type:

Type Tasting is an experiential type studio exploring the psychology of typefaces. We look at the user experience (not the mechanics) of type and take the viewpoint of the type consumer. Research topics include profiling the personalities of typefaces to create a shared resource for choosing fonts, identifying typefaces that evoke mood, energy or skill, evaluating crossmodal or multi-sensory interactions with typeface shapes.

The wine-tasting connection is furthered by the use of specific fonts on wine labels to create an expectation of what the bottle holds. Hyndman herself paired with a wine-tasting event in the UK to explore the relationship.

Perhaps that’s why I find books on typography pair so well with an evening glass of wine. On my bottle, the label says homemade plonk, but the script is elegant, so it must be good… otherwise I would have used Comic Sans… **

Typography it’s actually a very practical craft with fewer noses in the intellectual stratosphere than you might think. Typography has several of its support legs grounded in the soil of psychology, sociology, marketing, politics, philosophy, the arts, writing… typography touches everything we communicate in writing. It has cultural resonance, too. Type can define us or a product by age, economics, position, power, education, mood, politics, employer…

To ignore typography is like ignoring the state of your gas tank when driving. Type fuels the movement as much as gasoline fuels the car. Ignore fonts and you end up with some dog’s breakfast design that fails to communicate its core messages.

One cannot, of course, merely discuss type in a vacuum. Type lives in the fecund ecosystem of design. You can no more adequately comment on the relevance and impact on the viewer of, say, Frutiger versus Palatino, without discussing the design and layout in which it is set than you can discuss the differences between elephants and giraffe without throwing in some scientific bon mots about the African plains they live on, the weather and the types of plants they eat. There is environment that nurtures type that cannot be separated from it. Design and layout matter, too.

Hyndman takes us on a type safari into the everyday world, showing us type in ways we seldom consider. On your toothpaste tube. Your deodorant stick. Cereal box. Book cover. Candy bar. We get exposed to multiple type experiences in our daily routines and she points out how they interact with us. And she asks how we respond to various examples, too.

In the book, we see type apparently cavorting in the wild, but in reality the cages of layout and design keep it hemmed in. Sometimes context is missing to help us understand. For example, bottom of page 18 she shows three examples of a pub name written in very different typefaces. She asks, “When you are in a new town the signs over the doors help you choose where to eat and drink. Which of the three… do you think would suit you and why?”

Well, it depends on a lot of things, doesn’t it? Where is the pub located? What part of town is it in? Does it have a nice front? Appear welcoming? Clean? Are good scents and sounds wafting from within? I might peer hard at the sign’s type, but I think most people would first decide by the presence or absence of drunks and cigarette butts on the sidewalk in front of the door, long before they looked up and worried about the script font.

Back to my wine label. The script looks elegant, sure, but it’s also white on a matte black, with a square of fluorescent green in which black letters tell me it’s also a riesling. All of that contributes to the sensation that there’s some class inside. A suaveness that matches the font. More than just the type is at play here. Design matters.

A lovely cab-shiraz which I would put up against any $25-$35 store-bought equivalent has a hokey label and what looks like Times Roman bold lettering, not perfectly centred, on the label. It looks homemade, a little rough, unpolished and that’s the expectation – until you sip it. Again, there’s more to it than just the font.

But, yes, I concede that the font plays a subconscious role, too. It creates expectations. We little Pavlovian experiments have been conditioned to respond to certain shapes, styles, colours and so on. That pub’s script font may silently scream ‘elegant,’ ‘posh’ and ‘expensive’ when we’re looking for something that appears comfy, casual and affordable. Yet as Hyndman describes it, it was exactly the latter. Form and function don’t collaborate in the look.

We never drive with Hyndman into the undergrowth of grid design and justification, and we only briefly skirt the edges of leading, kerning, stroke and contrast. The technical stuff is kept pretty much behind the curtain. Like a slick ad for a fast, sleek car, she doesn’t concentrate on the details of piston size or cam metals. It’s all about the ride.

And it’s a good ride. Lots of fun. She teases us to think about type. And so we should.  All of us; if nothing more than to understand how we are manipulated by the canny marketing wizards who wield typography and design against us like Harry Potter’s wand. As it notes on Practical Typography:

The old adage that “you can’t judge a book by its cover” may have been ac­cu­rate a hun­dred years ago, when books had plainer cov­ers. But it’s not ac­cu­rate to­day. As the Sec­ond Law of Ty­pog­ra­phy pre­dicts, book shop­pers have al­ways been in­clined to make judg­ments based on cov­ers. So book pub­lish­ers have learned to spend time & money cre­at­ing cov­ers that com­mu­ni­cate some­thing mean­ing­ful about the book. There­fore, judge all you want.

All of which is to conclude that, since most of you don’t share my wide-awake-at-3-a.m.-wondering-if-I-should-have-used-a-serif-font-instead obsession, you won’t likely read many of my other books about type or design. They’re aimed at a different audience. But Hyndman’s book is for you. Yes, you, the uninitiated. The reader looking to be entertained, educated (lightly), amused, awoken and engaged – but not lectured to sleep.

Try it. It’s worth exploring. Fonts do matter, and you’ll find out why in an entertaining manner.

* A Zen student asked his master, “Is it OK to use email?” “Yes,” replied the master, “But no attachments.” Zen joke. I digress.

** The nose has a scent of lemon grass and asparagus, but the mouth shows green pepper and kiwi fruit with an aftertaste of spearmint and cabbage…. really? Call me a philistine, but it sounds a trifle like pretentious codswallop to me. Which is probably how some folks feel when I ramble on about the difference between a serif and a sans serif font… but after all, in his now-classic work, The Elements of Typographic Style, Robert Bringhurst did write of a typeface as “…a heavy un-modulated line and tiny aperture (which) evoke an image of uncultivated strength, force and persistence.” Meanwhile, have some cheese with that font?

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  1. I should have written (ach, that 20-20 hindsight…) that fonts have personalities and we react to them in the same way we react to everything else we anthropomorphize. We see them equally in human, not merely technical, terms: strong, bold, cute, sloppy…. And, as Hyndman points out, when a company or brand uses a particular typeface or font, we also tend to associate it with the attributes of that company or product.

  2. Pingback: Frutiger vs Palatino | Scripturient

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