“Did you ever wonder why cheap wine tastes better in fancy glasses?”
As a cognitive engineer, Donald Norman explains how aesthetically beautiful objects enable us to work better. Beautiful objects make us feel good, smarter and productive. This is true even for typefaces.
Unwittingly, typography has a great impact on how we act, interact and relate to objects. It can set the mood, influence decisions and be used to tell stories. You can even perceive personality through typography.
This is why designers will often say that a typeface can express more than it writes.
How typography tells stories
90% of the design we encounter in our lives is typography. We are continuously exposed to it in our everyday life.
“We are all type consumers!” says the graphic designer Sarah Hyndman, author of the book Why Fonts Matter.
I am sure you have been there: before even understanding why, we are attracted to and buy that specific brand of jam because the typeface makes it look genuine and fresh. We love an advertising campaign because the typeface used is readable and friendly. We even trust a brand because their logotype looks luxurious and reliable.
All these actions happen on a subconscious level. If you ask people why they bought that specific product or trust that brand, they can rarely give a consistent explanation of their actions. Saying: “The typeface made me do it!” sounds a bit silly, doesn’t it? Yet, it is possible!
Typography is an essential element in graphic design and communication; it can "carry" more information than users can be aware of, but most of all it can deeply influence their choices.
As designers involved in visual communication, whether our work is about designing applications for the web or a printed magazine, we should understand and have full control of this powerful tool.
In specific we need to master typography on three important levels:
Look: typefaces look different and their “look” can communicate a different personality and feeling.
Relationship: as soon as we perceive personality, we are ready to build a relationship.
Experience: through associations we can create unforgettable memories in the mind of our readers. Happy memories become experiences that can be shared and repeated.
By building a balance between these three elements, we will have full control of the message we want to communicate. What is more, we will be able to go behind the look of typography and tell a story.
Let’s face the truth: appearance plays a big role in our daily lives. This can also happen with typeface!
In 2001, the printer manufacturer, Lexmark, started a kind of research in collaboration with Aric Sigman (a psychologist who knew almost nothing about typography), called “The Psychology of Fonts”.
It was a kind of social coding: trying to understand what kind of person was behind the typeface that he/she was writing with. More or less, it’s the same kind of thing we usually do when we describe the temperament of a person, basing our conclusion on the way they look or the music they listen to or the food they eat.
From this research, came the conclusion that Courier is for nerds and it is the favourite font of librarians and data entry companies, while people using curvy, smooth fonts, like Shelley, tend to be more appealing and elegant. Univers is for safety and anonymity while Comic Sans allows for more expression of character.
Friendly or shy character?
This was a funny piece of research that demonstrated that even if it is not what you want, typefaces will always communicate something more than the text contains!
Each typeface has its own personality and this is something you can understand from the way it looks.
As human beings, we have a big gift that we widely use to evolve and survive in this world: we are able to perceive personality in things, typefaces included.
When you want to enhance this particular characteristic you should pay attention to:
- How the font looks, choosing the main typeface carefully, so it will lend personality to your design.
- Giving just one personality and defining the tone of voice.
- Fitting in with the context.
Only in this way can you easily interact consistently with your audience and forge a strong relationship.
The game: Are you my type?
There is no such a thing as a neutral typeface. Typefaces always state something, many times in several directions. That’s why it is a difficult task to choose one!
I think typefaces work like people so I asked my audience to match these portraits of people, with a font that could possibly represent their personalities. The results were interesting!
Type n.1: Charleston woman
Oh, the Twenties! Known also as The Jazz Age or Roaring Twenties, this era was characterized by the Art Nouveau, a movement that may have directly inspired more typefaces than any other. As a rejection of the Industrial Revolution, its aesthetic was characterized by exaggerated decoration and was evident in architecture, painting, sculpture, furniture, clothing and even jewellery. The answer is on page 2.
What is the typeface that could represent the personality of this dancer?
Type n.2: Male biker
You can hear the roar of his motorcycle outside the bar where he stopped by for fresh and authentic German beer. The bar is playing heavy metal music loud and you can hear the music from the road like it is inviting you to come in. The answer is on page 2.
What is the typeface that could represent the temperament of this biker?
Type n.3: Construction Manager
With his blueprints, he is a man of numbers, precise and straightforward. He maintains quality control procedures, making safety inspections and ensuring construction and site safety. The answer is on page 2.
What is the typeface that could represent the personality of this manager?
We have defined how a typeface can be a powerful tool to express personality.
Once this aspect is in place, something magic happens: your readers engage with your product or brand and build a relationship.
Relationship: build trust
Suzanna Licko, co-founder and typeface designer at Emigre Foundry, used to say: “You read best what you read most”. Saying that, she was pointing out that people read better and trust what they are most used to seeing and recognising.
For example, let’s imagine you are in a foreign country looking for some good and authentic Italian pizzeria, chances are high you will trust a sign written in this way.
Are you looking for an authentic Italian pizza...
And if you are looking for a genuine Greek souvlaki, you are more likely to believe that George’s Souvlaki Palace has what you are looking for.
… or a genuine Greek souvlaki?
But you would never step in a place with a sign like the one in this picture to find your pizza or even to order a souvlaki!
What kind of food do you expect to eat in this place?
Some fonts are more credible than others and they can influence our perception, hence our choice. Not only, a typeface can build trust by tricking our minds: we may turn something cheap and sloppy into something expensive and elegant.
What if perception is deception?
If we trigger the right emotion through our typefaces, people are motivated and chances are high that they will perform the desired action or complete a task.
The game: Trust and Pixie Dust
In this game I tested my audience’s perception and relationship to some typefaces.
Experiment n.1: the news
In this passage, we can read the curious request of some Motorhead fans to commemorate the songwriter and bassist of the band, Ian Kilmister, adding his name on the Periodic Table. The petition was launched on Change. org by a fan, John Wright from York gathering thousand of signatures.
The element 115 may soon have a name and it will be Lemmium, after Ian Kilmister nickname, “Lemmy”.
Do you think this news is true or false? The answer is on page 2.
Is this news true or false?
A similar experiment was conducted by the documentary filmmaker Errol Morris who, after polling approximately 45,000 unsuspecting readers on nytimes.com, discovered that subjects were more likely to believe a statement when it was written in Baskerville than when it was written in Computer Modern, Georgia, Helvetica, Trebuchet, or Comic Sans.
Experiment n.2: the electoral campaign
In the vertiginous political climate like the one we are living in, we may be quite familiar with different communication materials used in politics to seek consensus among people. Here I took a quote from writer Jay Asher and turned it into an electoral promise from a hypothetical politician. If our choice was based on the typeface, which one you are going to trust? The answer is on page 2.
If our choice was based on the typeface, which one you are going to trust?
Experiment n.3: at the pharmacy
Think about your last migraine you had, or for women, your last unbearably painful period. You have tried everything but nothing has given you relief. You run to the pharmacy and ask for something strong that can truly work.
The pharmacist presents you with two choices: same package but different typeface. Which one do you think it is going to work? The answer is on page 2.
Which one do you think it is going to work?
Through association and emotion, a typeface can bring back to mind some experiences.
Experience: create memories
By using typefaces, you can evoke feelings like engagement, desirability and create an interaction with your readers.
Let’s shop by font!
Fancy an authentic, traditional beer?
By only looking at this font, I can bring to mind the robust and refined taste of a beer produced following the age-old tradition of the monks. True beer connoisseurs will recognize this font combination belonging to the Belgian beer, Leffe.
Is your mouth watering yet?
Think about the most indulgent gourmet chocolate you have ever eaten. Your mouth may be watering just by seeing the typeface pictured here and thinking about the last time you tasted a Godiva truffle.
Are you looking for a juicy and tasty burger?
And finally, for all those burgers-lovers looking for a juicy and superbly tasty burger, is this typeface bringing you back to the last time you and your friends ordered an Angus Burger at Burger King while watching a football match?
If you want to enhance memories and create a unique experience, you need a sophisticated font that reminds the reader of something else through association.
The game: If it was…
Talking about associations, it is time to play our last game.
The game: if it was…
Disclaimer: This is a game that I usually play with my clients when we need to create a distinctive personality for their brand.
By evoking memories and emotions, my clients are usually able to depict their brand, to even imagine it as a person, an animal or even something immaterial like a colour or a time of the day.
Experiment n.01: if this mix of typefaces was a period of time
Experiment n.02: if this typeface was a genre
Experiment n.03: if this typeface was a taste
Typography is the real, almost invisible protagonist in our design.
It can definitely influence the reader’s mood and choice. It is a powerful tool in our hands and as designers, we are called upon to use it correctly.
As the famous writer of Harry Potter’s books says: “There’s always room for a story that can transport people to another place” but before you put your hands and mind to your next project, stop and think: which story do I want to tell? Is it the story of cheap wine in fancy glasses that will trick my audience? Or is it an authentic real story?
Game: Are you my type?
Charleston woman: B
Coventry Garden is an extremely decorative display font that includes elegant and sinuous stroke endings which may recall the body and delicate movements of a dancer.
Male biker: A
Only a black letter font like Incised Black can bring out all these elements (beer, heavy metal music) in your mind at once.
Construction manager: B
A clean sans serif font with a modern look like FF DIN can bring out his personality.
Game: Trust & Pixie Dust
The news: True.
Probably the typeface I used to write this passage and the subject of this article itself don’t suggest so, but actually, the news is true and it was featured in Live Science in January 2016.
The electoral campaign: both.
Both choices can be considered right.
The poster A uses Bello Typeface that in 2012 brought Francois Holland to win his presidential election in France. The font is quite unusual for an electoral campaign if we compare it to the poster B where the choice of Futura combined with Franklin Gothic may give a more realistic and trustworthy feeling.
In fact, the typefaces of the poster B were used in 1960 for the Presidential Campaign of J.F.Kennedy ensuring him a place in the White House as the youngest president of the United States.
At the pharmacy: A
My experiment was conducted on Facebook and the font used in packaging A resulted to be the favourite one in such a situation. Subjects explained that the font A looks more credible and effective. While people who wanted to try something truly different, put their trust in packaging B because the typeface used looks unusual, but they couldn’t say if the medicine would effectively provide any relief from the pain.
Game: if it was…
Period of time: the Fifties
Typography can bring us back in time and definitely the Fifties are so in trend today. Coca-Cola was born and the Hollywood Freeway was built. Advertising knew its golden age.
In graphic design, typefaces were usually mixed (serif, sans-serif and scripts) to established a strong visual hierarchy and create a catchy and engaging message that could fit different targets.
A genre: The Old West, Cowboys and Spaghetti Western movies.
The font brings you back to the Old West. The use of different chiselled and hand tooled typefaces was extremely common in the small villages of the Old America. Although Europeans may not be familiar with the history of the America’s Westward expansion, this typeface will surely evoke the famous opening titles of Sergio Leone’s Spaghetti Western movies.
Fat, playful and rounded, the typeface evokes the sweet taste of the marshmallows and the colourful Haribo jelly bears. Or it might even be bringing you back to your childhood, reminding you of visiting a fair and asking for pink cotton candy.