Words and fonts are like two sides of a very old coin.
Because the style, size, and setting of a typeface sets a context - locating us in a place or a time, or provoking an emotional response - type also says, or should say, something about the text it communicates.
We’re in the midst of a great time for editorial design. Web fonts and responsive design have widened the field of possibility for design as a whole - and they’ve done it by drawing on the deep and fascinating history of script, typeface and font.
Lost in fonts
Randall: I am almost always lost. When I am, I look up to the corner of buildings, and see something like this:
I bet you can guess where this street sign is from, even if you’ve never seen it before. If you guessed anywhere in Ireland, you’re right. This one is in Dublin. What’s interesting about it, besides the ‘N’ of the Irish translation that looks like a harp, is that something whose looks identify its place so absolutely, is in its immediate sense, transient (in Dublin, street names change as you walk down them).
I grew up in New Orleans, whose street signs are often on the ground, where the roots of oak trees would push up through the sidewalk, shattering the letters.
Even if you didn’t know the words that these signs were conveying, the shape of the letters and the letters’ contexts (brick buildings, destroyed sidewalks) indicate its place. And I’d argue that this indication is much stronger than the words’ meaning. As a writer, I’m almost ashamed to admit this. But there are times when the shape of letter is as important as its sound.
For example, here’s a picture of my bookshelf at home:
Look at the Italian Folktales book by Italo Calvino: the title communicates its topic by the word itself, but also by the flourishes on the As and especially the way some of the letters fit inside each other. The letters look like fairy tales themselves - those gruesome little stories of war and love and death - and in Italian fairy tales, there are so many images of impossibly expansive things tucked away inside a walnut, just like that ‘K’ tucked inside the ‘L’.
How we read
Humans had a spoken language long before we had a written one. And when we started writing, it changed everything: our history, our culture, and then some. It also changed our relationship to language. Communication became, at least in part, visual and silent, and that changed the way we processed words.
In the west, we read from left to right. But our eyes don’t move smoothly in a straight line - they move in saccades, jumping from one part of a word to another, and pausing at the fovea for a brief fixation.
A fixation happens when the eye is still, gathering information about a group of letters. That space where the eyes rest is the fovea - the most sensitive part of the visual field. The fovea roughly hits the 7 central characters in the average chunk of text we can see at a single glance.
Outside the fovea, the rest of the visual field peels away like an onion – first the parafovea, and beyond that the periphery.
This complex visual field means that while we comprehend text from left to right, our eyes actually read from the inside (the point of fixation) to the outside (the periphery).
Vision, sound and cultural history
The visual shape of letters and words builds on elements of our shared lexical history - specifically, how we map words to sounds.
If we show you a word with a missing consonant, you’ll have more trouble identifying it than if a vowel were missing.
For example, can you tell what this word is?
What about this one?
We’d argue that t-xt is easier to interpret than te-t. That’s because most consonants look like they sound. The upright arms of the letter K are pointed and sharp; it almost cracks, like the sound it represents.
This isn’t unique to English. In languages with logographic or ideographic scripts, like Chinese, a symbol represents a whole word - the symbol and the sound have a 1:1 relationship.
And in languages with Syllabic scripts, like Japanese, symbols map to syllables. As a friend of Mapped in Japan recently explained, the two versions of Japanese script, Katakana and Hiragana, are different:
“Katakana are made by boys. It is sharp and strong. Hiragana are made by girls, it is roundy shape.”
So we humans have always associated scripts and typefaces with layers of meaning – from the sound they make in the ear to the cultural, historical and even emotional associations they carry for us. Interpreting text can be like interpreting art – there’s always more going on behind the visual.
Memory and narrative
The study of typefaces and how we interpret them is about as old as print itself. We attribute ‘personalities’ to certain styles, and studies have shown how things like style and type size affect things like memory and emotion – or how they don’t.
At the root of these investigations is the sense that text has a phenomenally powerful impact on our minds.
Styles that stop us
Certain fonts, especially ornate ones, can be hard to read. But that can sometimes be a good thing. Unusual fonts can actually aid memory and recall because they slow down our reading.
But again, context matters - these findings can’t be extrapolated out to suit any purpose. When we read online, we’re not always primed to retain information. Sometimes we just want to reach a goal. So using an unusual font for a call to action, for example, wouldn’t necessarily aid memory or appreciation of the information.
It’s precisely because unusual text design slows us down and makes us focus on the words that ornate fonts need to be used with discretion. They works best when type is there to set a scene, or set a trigger in our minds – because type is a key to words, a frame that can draw attention to them in different ways.
In narrative, we could argue, font should be invisible the way a usable interface or information architecture should be invisible: it shouldn’t get in the way of the story being told. But there are a few counterarguments.
People making texts as far back as The Book of Kells have known that meaning happens somewhere between the visual and the literal. In the old books we’re more familiar with, the initial at the front of a chapter tells us that we’re starting something new, and sometimes helps set the scene.
Sure, the element of illustration here takes it further away from pure typography - but the wave curves around a blue ‘C’, or sea, and we understand the tone and content of the story to come, more or less instantly.
In comic books, the style of the text and even the speech bubble around it can communicate various things - conveying urgency or thought, or providing links between various parts of a story.
A good narrative establishes connections between its various elements – not just by telling us how the plot unfolds, but by unfolding a multitude of connections between things like character, mood and setting.
And typography can enhance those connections.
Elizabeth: As a kid, one book that upended my small brain was Michael Ende’s The Neverending Story. Not because of this scene, but because of this:
In the hardback edition, the book’s intertwining stories are set in alternating green and red font, depending on which world you were reading about - sometimes flipping back and forth paragraph by paragraph. The text itself could denote a tangible change of dimension – and that was enthralling, lifting a simple children’s adventure story to another level. As intended, it made the book itself seem magical.
So, ornate or unusual fonts might have a place in illuminated manuscripts, Victorian novels and comic books - but what place do they have today, online?
So emotional: our design journey
Many of Mapped’s favourite sites are designs made of typeface and white space – they have an open, liquid quality (even when they’re not properly responsive).
Looking at this example
you can see how the judicious use of beautiful, unusual fonts adds to the overall feel of the site, but always in the service of a content requirement. Ornate, often serifed webfonts are used to style a pullquote, the questions in an interview, or some other piece that asks the reader to slow down, to pause, to take note.
We love sites like this because they feel like print, drawing on what worked best about typesetting and layout, while opening up the design and narrative possibilities of being freed from a physical space.
When we were embarking on our own redesign, we obsessed - obsessed - over typography. We knew one of our big changes had to be our logo - but we cared just as much that our body text and other components be beautiful and readable.
One of our more ornate font contenders, Calligraphia Latina Soft Regular, appealed to us because of its obvious roots in fairy tales.
But neither we, nor our designer and illustrator Tom Cunningham, thought it worked. This font stopped the eye, but it set itself apart too much. It hemmed us into an ideological corner.
So we thought back to what we wanted the design to say about the content, and we recalled that we’re not interested merely in how words look, but in how they work. We care about the connections taking place between the reader and what’s being read, between content and format - not just in traditional stories, but in all sorts of ways.
We still wanted to convey a handmade, illustrative feel, but Tom’s eventual choice of fonts throughout the site are leaner and gentler - and complement his wonderful drawings.
Just as with any narrative, we discovered that the components of our design – illustration, linked stories, and (hopefully) better readability – worked best when they resonated with each other, as well as with our deeper theme.
Plus, we think it looks kind of awesome. We hope you agree.
There’s more; it’s the internet
We’ve read some great stuff about typography and psychology over the last couple of months. If you’d like to know more, start with these writers and projects:
- Jason Santa Maria: the godfather of typography, but in a less violent way
- Dan Mall: we scroll up and down his site all day
- The University of Bristol’s study on serif versus sans serif: turns out, people love Times New Roman
- Keele University’s text design study: a mashup of applied psychology and typography
- Carol Yue’s post on font and psychology: what text has to do with meta-cognition
- Wichita State University study on personality and font: introverts love Papyrus*
- BBC’s 2001 article on typeface analysis: kickin’ it old skool
- The history of the alphabet: from I love typography
- Tim Brown’s Meaningful Typography from A List Apart: now that’s what I call modular
*not actually a finding from the study
Randall & Elizabeth