Why typography matters
Whether you realize it or not, typography is everywhere. We’re all type consumers. Typography plays a vital role in our everyday lives and we spend significant hours of our day subconsciously evaluating it.
From the moment we’re born, we start to identify the shapes of letters, and learn how to communicate using type. We read signs to help us navigate and warn us against danger. We use type to make decisions when we read a menu to order food or read labels when buying groceries. The words we read on a page inspire our imagination and give us knowledge.
I first fell in love with typography when I was in primary school. My mum would order books every month from our school book club – and one month she ordered The Lettering Book by Noelene Morris.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but this book sparked my love for design and creativity. It introduced me to a world of lettering and all the various ways you could draw letters in different shapes. I would spend hours tracing and redrawing the samples in the book.
It wasn’t until I was in design college that I discovered that typography was actually a thing – that there were other type nerds like me out there who were also just as obsessed about fonts and letters.
And that was when my passion grew even further – I did a deep dive into typography and attended calligraphy and sign painting classes to understand the styles in strokes and angles when using different tools and inks. I practiced so much that eventually I started doing freelance work painting type murals.
And every couple of years I do the #36daysoftype challenge, where you post your artwork of a letter each day.
This year my goal was to try a different design style every day, and the letter had to represent something that the letter stood for.
A few years earlier I had created a handwritten series with detailed ornaments – and by sheer luck, my work was recognized by a publisher and they approached me to publish a book on my lettering work and my process.
So you’re probably thinking “OK that’s great, you love typography”. But why is typography so important?” How does it affect me?
Let’s take a step back.
What is typography?
Typography is the art of arranging letters and text in a way that makes the copy legible, clear, and visually appealing to the reader.
For anyone using type, we have the power to set and lay text out that can make a huge impact on how reader’s digest content and interpret it.
Typeface VS font
Now often you’ll hear people use the term typeface and font, and often they’re used interchangeably, but they actually mean different things.
A typeface is the collective name of a family of related fonts, while fonts refer to the weights, widths and styles that constitute a typeface. To put it simply, fonts in a typeface are like chapters in a book.
Serif VS Sans Serif
Now there are different styles of typefaces.
Serif fonts have a decorative stroke that finishes off the end of a letters stem (sometimes also called the “feet” of the letters). Today, we see a lot of serif fonts in traditional mediums such as newspapers, magazines, and books. That’s why serif fonts are typically seen as classic and traditional.
Sans serif fonts do not have strokes at the ends of the letters (hence sans meaning “without”). Sans serif fonts are thought to embody simplicity because of this lack of added detail and is used more commonly in web and digital applications as they are considered more modern.
What makes typography so powerful?
1. Typography makes a first impression
Fonts can turn words into influence. I liken them to clothes – when we see them, we make a first impression. We often judge a person by what they wear, and we use clothes to tell the world this is who I am.
In the same way, each typeface brings a certain style and personality the same way that clothes do. And that’s why it’s so important that we choose the right type of font based on the context, the content, and the audience that is reading the typeface – as when misused, we can totally send the wrong message.
2. Typography establishes an information hierarchy
During the 2017 Oscars, there was this moment right before LaLaLand was mistakenly awarded best picture where Warren Beatty looks over at Faye Dunaway with a concerned face.
He knew something was wrong but wasn’t sure. Now I believe that typography and more specifically the hierarchy of typography played a huge role in the announcement of the wrong winner.
Here is a picture of the actual winning cue card.
Now if we were to examine this closely, you can see that on the top the Oscars logo is given the most prominence. That’s not useful information for the announcers who are already on stage. In fact, it’s a few wasted seconds of work for the announcer to scan the information.
Then we have the best picture title as the second most important thing – but this is given the same emphasis as the supporting text of the cast and crew, which whilst is nice to have, it’s really just more text for them to read.
Then finally we have the category at the bottom, which is in fact the most important piece of information.
I re-designed the cue cards showing before and after.
Had the announcers seen the large text showing “Best Actress” or “Emma Stone” they would have immediately known they had the wrong cue card.
So type hierarchy is very important!
3. Typography influences our decision making
In 2012, writer for the New York Times Errol Morris ran a bold experiment.
He posted an excerpt in the NY Times and asked readers to take a test. After reading the excerpt, readers were asked two questions:
Is the information in the excerpt true?
How confident are you in your conclusion?
What the readers didn’t know was that the excerpt they were reading was one of six randomly assigned typefaces.
Approximately 45,000 people responded.
Not surprisingly, the excerpts written in Comic Sans were not very well received. However, two seemingly similar serif typefaces had drastically different results. Baskerville had the lowest rate of disagreement, whereas Georgia had the highest. The results had concluded that Baskerville was the most believable typeface.
4. Typography enhances readability
Our minds interpret a lot of things every day, constantly. They make sense of the world around us. They do this by recognizing patterns, putting information into templates that are familiar to us.
When it comes to setting your type, the number 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.
And so the following are best practices of familiar patterns that will help with the legibility of type.
5. Typography evokes emotion and reaction
All typefaces are designed to say something specific, and so when something is typed in a typeface, then what is said, is influenced by how it is set. We associate the look of certain fonts with negative or positive emotions, and it can influence the impact of our messaging.
If you stop to think about it, you’ll realize how often you deal with type on an everyday basis. You have the power to make a change in the way you choose and set your font that can really make a difference in helping your users to understand the content better and feel the power of typography.