Why Typography Matters

It’s everywhere: on buses, in subways, stores, apartments, and––more often than not––stalls at your local pub. If you’re as paranoid as I am, you’re probably thinking I’m referring to a new flu virus or an easily catchable disease. I’m happy to say, I’m speaking about typography.

Typography, in one sense or another, has existed since the dawn of writing. Even the Flintstones have their own font. But why does typography matter? Yeah, it’s everywhere. We take it for granted and hardly think of the consequences. I mean, can someone really tell the difference between Arial and Gill Sans?

In typographer Thomas Phinney’s article “How to Explain Why Typography Matters,” he describes typography’s many uses, forms, and effects—both subtle and obvious—to justify its importance.

As representatives from a creative agency, we’re often asked to justify our reasons for the use of a particular shape, color, or font. More often than not, the most compelling reason for using a particular font is the client’s brand. Numerous Utterly Orange posts have discussed the importance of branding, but it might be worth reiterating the value a font has for a brand.

If you get a chance, check out the movie Helvetica. This documentary walks you through not only the history of this seemingly universal font, but its impact on modern-day brands. Love it or hate it, Helvetica took us from the hodgepodge mash-up of fonts of the ’40s and ’50s and gave us a style that’s both legible (pragmatic) and malleable (artistic).

Fonts define a brand, and brands define a font. Typography and a brand become one and the same when we incorporate them effectively. Typography is so ingrained in us that we’d have no trouble identifying a well-known Fortune 500 company simply based on the typeface used.

With so many fonts available, it seems practically trivial to continue to develop new fonts. And yet, a sliver of an industry exists where people are coming up with better and new ways to write the words we read. Phinney’s article justifies this the same way fashion designers or furniture makers justify their work. With no shortage of clothes or furniture styles, we continue to create new fashions and new furniture. Why? Simply put, because of trends. The only consistent thing is change. Fonts evolve just as trends do.

After clients are convinced that fonts matter, they often want to take these newfound tools and exploit them. Caps, bold, and “fun” styles like Comic Sans become their paint brushes, screwdrivers, and hammers. Unfortunately, painting a picture red, using a screw that doesn’t fit, and hitting customers over the head isn’t always the best way to produce the right message.

Today, experimental studies are being done by psychologists and typographers on the effects of good typography. These studies help determine what constitutes good typography and typeface design as it relates to legibility. Some research involves hooking sensors to the orbicularis oculi (the muscle around the eye) and measuring things like squinting and frequency of blinking. These sorts of tests help us determine how effective a font may be, whether we see it or not. Forgive the pun.

Author: Eric Swenson

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