The Truth and Lies of Typeface


Anatomy-of-Typography-1What's in a letter?  Do we believe the ideas set in one typeface more than another?  Michael Beirut questions what lies underneath the art and anatomy of typography. "I know in my heart that graphic design is important. Sometimes the fate of nations depend on it, sometimes it's the missing link between a soft drink brand and Einstein's Special Theory of Relativity, sometimes it just makes you happy. But I also know that the ingredients used by graphic designers — colors, shapes, typefaces — are fundamentally mysterious. What do they mean? How do they work? Why does one work better than another? What criteria should we use to choose?

This ambiguity can be maddening, especially to clients, who in desparation will invoke anecdotes and folk wisdom to help control an otherwise rudderless process. I've been told in meetings that triangles — to take one example — are the "most energetic" (or the "most aggressive"?) shape. I've been asked if it's true that white means death in Japan. Or is it black? Or red? Or China?

To tell you the truth, I've always appreciated this ambiguity. Like other experienced designers, I appear to navigate this miasma of hearsay with confidence. For the truth is that in our field, to quote screenwriter William Goldman, "Nobody knows anything." Black can be ominous or elegant. Triangles can be trendy or timeless. And typefaces? Hmm! Typefaces can be...anything you want them to be, right? There are many reasons to pick any one typefaces, all of them more or less arbitrary.

So imagine a client demands that text be set in "the most credible typeface." I would probably hide a smile and say there's no such thing."

read more at Design Observer.