171. Essay: Typographers Are Actors
My high school drama teacher once said, “The best actors are those who can step the furthest away from themselves convincingly.”
This also applies to those in the art of typography or type design: They momentarily step out of themselves and try to become something else. Yes, the “crystal goblet” theory applies here because both the actor and the typographer must not be seen. In a theatre we should be shocked by the presence of the credits because we were so engaged in the sincerity of the acting itself. We should be equally as shocked by the clarity of a sign or a paragraph that, only after we have read it, do we reflect on how effortless it was. Save for ornamentation, effortless legibility is a noble goal.
Recognizing Meaning in Movies
In a dramatic movie, the silent message conveyed in the blank stare or quick lip curl is stronger than any spoken line could. I think of a split-second in the movie Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade that speaks volumes without even seeing Harrison Ford’s face. Indiana Jones has just had a startling conversation with someone seeking the cup of Christ. His team has found key clues to its location, but has been attacked and the leader taken prisoner. As we see Jones accepting the probability that the chalice can be found, he turns to the persuasive financier, Walter Donovan, and says, “You’ve got the wrong Jones, Mr. Donovan. Why don’t you try my father?”
With that brush-off, Jones picks up his hat as the scene comes to its climax. His unfocused hand clutching his hat stays in the foreground at waist height while the camera focuses on Donovan in the background. Donovan’s disheartening reply comes: “We already have. Your father is the man who’s disappeared.” The camera doesn’t swing up to reveal Jones’s reaction, it just watches his hand sink ever so slightly on hearing this news. We knew exactly what Jones was thinking in that moment.
Recognizing Meaning in Typefaces
Humans are not letters. We don’t look or act like letters. Typographers must become the characters — something completely foreign to their way of being — in order to express them as art and as containers of meaning. How is it that we can see the word serious written in one typeface and believe that it is somber, but in another typeface we understand that it is meant sarcastically? To me it seems an almost metaphysical thing for humans to get so far away from themselves as to create character shapes that engender feelings. Sure, with motion it becomes easier to convey feeling and tone, but how is it possible with a static character? The typographer has tapped into our intuition in this case and drawn out of us their true meaning. Repeat: The typographer has drawn out of us their true meaning. The forms they create tell us exactly what they were thinking without having any contact with them. Whether we are a type aficionado or not, we are feeling the letter. That’s possibly why comedies use one style of type (big, red, capitalized 3-D, apparently), serious dramas use another (Helvetica thin, Gotham, Futura, or Mrs. Eaves), and horror movies use another (um, sharpened Trajan . . . with a blood trail).
The best actors can become so absorbed by the aura of another era that they become iconic. The futility and depravity in Hotel Rwanda; the interpersonal tension, spite, and misunderstandings in Crash; the family connections and personal expectations in The Godfather; the struggle between identity, destiny, and desire in Superman.
Making Identity and Typeface Match: Tone
Words have definitions — they must, there is no doubt — and type carries feeling, but well-chosen type causes words and feeling to match. “Font design,” Rian Hughes once said in a MyFonts interview, “is a curious mix of the technical and the aesthetic, the left and right brain.” He continued, “A bad typeface is an unresolved typeface, one that doesn’t know what it’s trying to convey.” When typographers do their job with excellence, they have become absorbed by the thoughts, feelings, and aura of another time only to transfer those to the reader. The best typographers are geniuses at this. They cause us to read the word but feel the form. When rebranding, companies will often say of their rejected type choices, “It’s too friendly . . . too serious . . . we’re a vibrant, growing company and this is too boring . . . we want something historical, not futuristic.” They are intuiting the feeling of the typeface and matching it with who they believe they are. They can feel when it doesn’t match, even if they can’t explain why. They are referring to tone.
The best actors convince the public of their role. Denzel Washinton in Training Day; Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society, Aladdin, Awakenings, and One Hour Photo; Charlize Theron in Monster; Donnie Wahlberg’s character Vincent in The Sixth Sense; Jaime Foxx in Ray and Collateral; Val Kilmer in Tombstone; Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man; Anthony Hopkins in Silence of the Lambs. Whether they garner awards or not, they become the standard for that kind of role. And they don’t do it just once; the better they are, the more convincingly they are able to do it time and again. Those who tell the story best own it. That’s why many believe that fairy tales are no longer public domain or originated by the Brothers Grimm, but by Disney.
Type Designers Convince
The best typographers have inhabited an era and convinced the public of that role. They have told the story best. Arno, Myriad, and Minion by Robert Slimbach; Swift by Gerard Unger; Feijoa by Kris Sowersby; Mostra Nuova, Proxima Nova, and Kinescope by Mark Simonson; Parkinson and Mojo by Jim Parkinson; Amplitude and Farnham by Christian Schwartz; FF Unit and the FF Meta family by Erik Spiekermann; Cezanne by P22; the Soho and Neo families by Sebastian Lester; Bree, Karmina, Maiola, and Adelle by Veronika Burian and José Scaglione; FaceBuster by Silas Dilworth; Arnhem and FF Quadraat by Fred Smeijers; Helvetica by Max Miedinger and Eduard Hoffman; numerous scripts by Hermann Zapf; Klavika by Eric Olson; Liza and Fakir by Underware; Verdana and Georgia by Matthew Carter. These and countless others have told the story best.
The Best Story
As with any supreme art, great typography lets us become absorbed in the unspoken feeling of the moment because the artists themselves were able to inhabit and express that aura. In this, typographers are actors. They step out of themselves and become something else: robotic, ’70s psychedelic, velvety, disinterested, amorous, fearful, regal, luscious, strong, elegant, agitated. They transfer the feeling to us — not just the letter or the word. And they do it with aplomb, convincing the public of the time and place the typeface represents.
Dictionaries may own the definition, but typographers own the meaning and the feel — yes, the sum connotation. Look throughout history and you’ll see that this is why typographers have always told the best stories.