Beyond words: how fonts make us feel

Typefaces impose mood, emotion, attitude, formality and informality. arnoKath

Typography is all around us. Fonts are on every document and website we read but also within the ephemera of our lives: on the toothpaste we use, newspapers we read, bus tickets we swipe and the streets we travel.

Our visual habitat is populated with myriad letter forms, all communicating layers of competing information, instruction and message, clamouring desperately for our attention. Our selection and reaction to this communication is largely influenced by the fonts themselves.

Fonts are ubiquitous, but what are they telling us? Ruth Ellison

The typewriter provided a single typeface without choice and the computer offers a similar abdication of responsibility through its default font.

But access to typefaces is now almost limitless. Just as handwriting expressed individual personality, now vast ranges of fonts can be selected to communicate and enhance meaning.

Why and how do people select fonts? For the non-designer, a process of elimination rather than appropriateness to message is often the guiding principle. Times New Roman would not be regarded as an appropriate choice for a five-year-old’s birthday party invitation: it suggests a lack of party games.

Brush Script might not be regarded as appropriate for an obituary: that suggests a certain joy at the passing of the recently departed (perhaps you might like to consider what you judge to be appropriate or inappropriate from the selection below?).

Would Brush Script carry the right gravitas for an obituary notice? Louise McWhinnie

The choice of typeface is not simply about how it “writes” words, but what the choice of its design and letterforms all combine to actually “say”.

For a typographer, an understanding of the construction of the letterforms, their readability and the cultural and historical context all combine to determine the selection.

The web is full of blog posts and articles by designers imploring us to stop misusing and abusing fonts.

US designer Mark Simonson has written that some fonts act as “novice magnets”:

To the average person, most fonts look more or less the same. But, if a typeface has a strong flavour, it calls attention to itself. It’s easy to recognise and makes people feel like they know something about fonts when they recognise it … using it makes their documents look “special”.

To the experienced designer, such typefaces have too much flavour, call too much attention to themselves, not to mention the fact that [they] often carry the baggage of being associated with amateur design.

A perfect illustration occurred on the world stage when CERN, the Swiss home of the Large Hadron Collider particle accelerator, announced in 2012 that scientists had discovered a Higgs Boson-like particle.

The announcement of this hugely important development in particle physics was an occasion of gravitas and significance. Unfortunately, Comic Sans was chosen to convey the message.

What should have been the announcement of a major scientific discovery was devalued by an onlooker’s image of a lone scientist with a home PC: a stark illustration of how the choice of typeface can devalue content.

Comic sans: not the font to choose for a serious message. hapticflapjack

While many can identify when a typeface jars, the key is in understanding why and then applying that understanding to one’s own use of type.

It’s important to understand a font is more than simply a tool; it is, in fact, a character. Its visual character can impose on the text as much as a person’s voice, cadence and tone influences the reading of a speech.

Melbourne typographer Stephen Banham, in defining the character of Gill Sans, once said:

Whenever I read text set in Gill Sans, I can’t help but hear the voice of an English narrator reading along with me.

While certain typefaces inhabit historical and cultural contexts that influence the way they are read, they also impose mood, emotion, attitude, formality and informality.

Fonts have become so much a part of our everyday visual communication and culture they’re even the topics of films and documentaries, the most well-known among them being Gary Hustwit’s 2007 release, Helvetica.

Helvetica, a film by Gary Hustwit.

The character of a font, however, does not simply exist within its positive forms, but also the negative spaces it inhabits through its proportions, inner forms, spaces between letters, words and lines (kerning, word-spacing, leading).

Spacing is to type as breathing and tone is to speech. The way in which space is used aids readability, paces the text and forms hierarchy and emphasis. When used badly, it’s what one person referred to as “good type forced to do bad things”. But that’s a subject for another article.

Just as Johannes Gutenberg’s development of movable type led to mass-produced access to knowledge through the printed word, the availability of the personal computer has democratised accessibility to typefaces.

From the comfort of their desks, people access typefaces that were traditionally the domain of designers and printers. This democratisation is a double-edged sword. Accessibility does not endow knowledge, and increased use does not enhance ability, unless knowledge is sought and then applied.

Reading and writing are not as simple as one thinks. What the author writes, the typeface expresses. Typing and typography are not the same.

An understanding of how letterforms construct words visually, and how those words convey meaning, is essential for communication to be truly effective.

… And, in case you’re now wondering, this article is set in Helvetica Neue.