Typography — the clothes you dress your message in

Marshall McLuhan famously said that the medium is the message. When publishing messages on the web, the medium might be the web itself, the device it is accessed with, or the global village with which it is shared.

If we narrow our focus, typography is another context that changes meaning; it is powerful enough as a medium that it can subtly or profoundly alter the intended message.

We ask a lot of typography

Typography’s basic job is legibility. Where it gets interesting is when the character, tone, and attitude of the text is strengthened or weakened by typeface selection, size, colour, and layout decisions. These have a huge impact on how the message is interpreted by the reader.

Consider these examples:

Inappropriate type treatment for the word MEDITATION [screenshot]
Meditation isn’t dark, heavy, or aggressive, but the typeface is. The result is discordant.

Inappropriate typography for the word FOOTBALL
Do words like elegant, light, or cursive come to mind when you think about football? This could work if you were aiming for humour, but this treatment is better-suited to a wedding invitation.

Inappropriate use of MS Comic Sans [screenshot]
Inappropriately using a cheerful, child-like handwriting typeface puts the fun in funeral.

Nice vocabulary; shame about the typeface

Imagine a job interview. What the applicant is saying is great, but something’s off. He’s researched the company; he gives smart, succinct answers, and asks perceptive questions. He’s careless about his appearance, though: his fingernails are dirty, his pants are wrinkled, and his hair is a mess. The interviewers’ impression? Close, but no cigar. His words are at odds with his presentation, which makes people uncomfortable. Next!

This is your website when you focus entirely on what you say and ignore how it looks. First impressions are made in an instant, unconsciously, using criteria that few could put into words. Anyone who’s ever agonized over choosing just the right font for their résumé knows this.

Typography is key to visual design & identity

Actor Alec Guinness would begin his work on a new role by figuring out the character’s walk: “…if I got into their stride, I’d begin to be in the kind of mood they were in, and, beyond mood, know something of their nature.” (New York Times, 1972-09-10) It’s the same with typography: before layout, before colour, before information architecture, the choice of typefaces establishes a site’s character, its tone, its personality. The rest flows naturally if the selection is made properly.

Some questions to ask

Is it appropriate?

Would you say it’s warm or cold? Personal or sterile? Friendly or formal? Whimsical or serious?

What statement does it make?

Familiarity breeds contempt — ubiquitous typefaces like Helvetica (and its derivative, Arial), Times New Roman, or Verdana, can be chosen for many reasons, but their over-use has eroded any impact they once enjoyed.

Their use today almost implies a desire not to choose, when not making a decision is itself a decision. They are proxies for sameness, conformity, blandness.

Remember: the goal is to stand out from the competition, so “everyone else is using it” is an argument against these typefaces.

Does it come with baggage?

  • TRAJAN is beautiful, but it’s so over-used that it’s come to be called the movie font.
  • Papyrus similarly has created a backlash through overuse; the movie AVATAR was probably the last nail in its coffin.
  • Courier, to print designers, means “you screwed up & forgot to include the right fonts when you sent the job to the printer”
  • MS Comic Sans. Appropriate for a kindergarten, perhaps.

Industry-specific typographic standards

There is no such thing as industry-specific typography. Some conventions can be deployed (carefully). Others should be stamped out actively:

  • ALL-CAPS (FOR ENTIRE PAGES) in legal documents; the argument is often made that this makes things stand out, but as The Incredibles taught us, when everything is special nothing is.
  • Illegibly-small text (fine print). Offline, it can be viewed charitably as a way of saving paper; online, its use implies other, darker motives.

The bottom line

What you have to say matters, and typography — as a core aspect of visual design — is along for the ride, whether you consider it or not. Take charge of the medium (and its message), and dress for success.

Further reading