Why Type & Fonts Matter More Than You Think

What if I told you that letter type (think font) carries a subliminal message that influences how you feel and interpret text? For example:

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In the 1900s, type pioneer Beatrice Warde said that the most critical thing for letters was to convey thoughts, ideas and images from one mind to the other. That printed letters should not call attention to themselves.

At the time, the primary challenge was the need for increased clarity in printing and typography. Since then, many things have changed, and we can now reproduce exact and crisp letters in any format we could imagine. So, too, have the ways we think about type and what it says.

Today, type has evolved to be an integral part of the message and brand identity. Brands and publications alike have proprietary types that represent who they are. The stunning “Buffy” logotype crafted by Margo Chase certainly had a bite that became as integral a part of the show as the characters themselves. “Buffy” written another way would have another meaning; one that would probably be less successful at conveying the idea behind the show. But words don’t always need to conjure visions of vampires and howls in the night.

 Left: Buffy logotype designed by Margo Chase. Right: Buffy written in Hobeaux by OH no Type Co.

Left: Buffy logotype designed by Margo Chase. Right: Buffy written in Hobeaux by OH no Type Co.

Why Different Types of Fonts Exist

For the same reason that you might not choose to wear high heels to go hiking. For the most part, type designers start with a question to answer. Even in the days of heraldry, beautiful calligraphic ornamentation had a practical function: to make documents difficult to forge.

Few people had the skill and access to inks and tools. Fast-forward several hundred years, and type is still solving that problem, as evidenced by the importance of the Calibri font in a Pakistani corruption case.

Beyond its crime-stopping origins, there are also creative challenges. I designed my typeface Euphorbia for cookbooks. When creating those letters, I wanted them to be as expressive as individual ingredients and as savory as a meal when written in a block of text.

I’m sure you’re thinking: Can letters be savory? Why not?! A cookbook set in mechanical Helvetica makes those recipes feel out of touch and beyond the grasp of the human imperfection that comes from cooking.

But when reading a handwritten recipe, it feels like a conversation with an old friend or loved one who could be chopping vegetables right next to you. Font can enhance the way the message is perceived or even complement it.

How the Way We Use Letters Improves Communication Worldwide

Technology has come a long way, and letters can adjust as you type. The possibilities for scripts and languages that were not meant to be drawn character by character means that those glyphs can be expressed accurately and efficiently in a digital format.

For example, in languages like Arabic, a letter looks different depending on where in the word it belongs. Increased access to type-design software, along with tools that enable font variables to be custom-coded, also allows for more font options created for those languages. With all of these advancements, type has more to say than ever — and more people to say it to.

BONUS ROUND!!!

The purely creative possibilities are endless! Here are three type tools I’m fangirling about:

  1. House Industries’ Interlock, a unique display font inspired by Ed Benguiat that “auto-magically” transforms as you type.

  2. The script Calafia by Neil Secretario, which is delightful to use, especially in all caps.

  3. Fount, which can tell you the font type on any site — really!

  4. Wordmark.it browses all of the fonts on your computer at once.

  5. WhatTheFont Forum comes through for you when other type identifiers fail. This tireless forum is an excellent resource, often giving you an answer within minutes!

A quick glossary:

  • Lettering: a drawing of type in a specific configuration.

  • Type Design: a system of letters that are designed using the same principles.

  • Calligraphy: the process by which a word is written with a tool.

  • Typography: design using letters.

  • Typeface: the design of a system of fonts that all share characteristics.

  • Font: (in modern times) refers to the method of delivery of a character set in an specific weight.

Typeface vs. Font:

When you buy “fonts” online, you’re buying a digital license to use those letters on your computer.

Buying a “typeface” — or commissioning a type designer — gives you the rights to the design of the letters themselves.

The price of a font license varies depending on quality, as does the cost of a custom typeface. To give you a sense of the difference in value between a font and a typeface: A font can be about $50; a typeface is approximately $150,000.

Some reading essentials about lettering I’d recommend if you want to go further down the rabbit hole:

The Crystal Goblet, by Beatrice Warde
Remembering Design Visionary Margo Chase, by Debbie Millman
The Golden Secrets of Lettering, by Martina Flor
Shady Characters, by Keith Houston
The Stroke: Theory of Writing, by Gerrit Noordzij
The Golden Thread: A History of Writing, by Ewan Clayton
Alphabettes.org is also a excellent resource.
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Lauren Beltramo

Designer and illustrator currently living in Montana. I love bringing ideas to life. Like Frankenstein’s monster, without all the depressing side effects.
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