Words from a Father

Husband of One, Father of Four

Tag: typography

336. Helvetica’s Use

If you must use the Helvetica typeface, don’t use it in paragraphs; that’s not what it was created for. (And don’t even mention the pariah, Arial.)

Helvetica’s character forms are not distinct enough, the shapes are pushed toward the outside of the space they hold, which makes them oddly squat, and the leading (fixable) and counter spaces (unfixable) are too tight in automated templates where the point size is small. These problems start getting reduced only as the words get into heading and display sizes — around 16 points or so. But, then use it for headings and not for text; and feel free to use all caps here. That’s where Helvetica can shine.

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277. Essay: Typographical Distinction in Branding

I remember Marco Polo, the game played at many a swimming pool. A group tries to avoid an individual — whose eyes are closed — as they call back and forth, “Marco!” “Polo!” Slipping under the chlorine water buys time to get away from blinded chaser, but only until your lungs start to burn. Then you have to answer when you take that breath. “Polo!” Dunk, swish, kick, kick, kick.

In business, the blindness is reversed. We the customers are all blinded to advertising, either by choice or inundation. The companies must call to get our attention and draw us to their goods and services. Trust means a lot in this model, so whatever a company can do to set itself apart is invaluable. Marco.

Branding. Say Wha . . . ?

You know it when you see it: Nike, Apple Inc., McDonald’s, Disney, Coke. Branding is how an entity is recognized. It encompasses their message, personality, reputation, and style (meaning their look and feel versus another organization in the same category).

Branding is voice. It has enough character to seem original, but not so much as to be distracting. This voice must fit the brand. Just think about a foreign film with voiceovers. You can quickly tell that the individual whose mouth is moving either does or does not have a certain voice. With good branding, the message is clear to the listener because the brand is focused and unswayed.

Branding is distinct. It is not the norm, and it is not boring. It is creative and inviting, adept at pulling in the audience time and again.

Branding is consistent across all mediums and is built through the years. It is easily recognized on the Web, in print, on billboards, in videos, and the like. Great branding means an organization has impact: Their name elicits a certain response. They’ve become part of the cultural consciousness; mindshare is the buzz word for that.

Branding is therefore memorable. And this is my main point. This is “Marco.”

How to Brand

If you’re part of the marketing or design world, you know the elements of a good brand. It’s things like logo, colors, style, and type choice that are in sync with the company, representing them accurately. Holding strong to these elements over the years will yield a strong net effect with the public. A memorable logo that has enough simplicity to render in color as well as it does in black and white is a good start. The logo should be simple enough that it retains its clarity at all sizes and it should match the voice of the organization. The color palette is important, but colors can change with trends over the years. Same goes for style. Unless you are going for a certain “dated” aesthetic — and I mean that in the true sense, not sarcastically — it’s good to roll with current style trends many times.

But what about following trends that overtake the font world? I think it’s a bad idea, actually. If you want to stand out, go against the crowd.

The Role of Typography in Branding

So how does choice of typeface affect a brand? If a brand is to be so memorable that is stands apart from the crowd, then it follows that whatever forces the brand into obscurity is counterproductive. Looking like the rest is brand failure. This is why I believe the wrongly-assumed neutral typefaces such as Helvetica and Gotham, and overused typefaces like Gill Sans and Futura, are not truly brandable. Not that they aren’t decent typefaces in their own right, but I don’t think they fit the criteria listed above. When the market is saturated with the same typeface, the impact of your brand will not be felt.

Are Helvetica and Gotham beautiful? Yes. Are they inviting and even? Yes. Do they feel current after all these years of use? Yes. Are there enough weights and widths to use in most circumstances? Sure.

But these are not the criteria for distinction in branding. This doesn’t ensure “Polo.” Branding sets you apart from the cacophony of the crowd, from the norm, from the all-too-easy fallback position. The question shouldn’t be, “What has everyone else done?” It should be, “What gives us a distinct voice?” This means taking some time and doing the research to find a typeface that is a bit different than what everyone else is doing.

It’s worth it.

Typography’s Staying Power

The logo may stay, but it may get updated or changed altogether. Colors and style have the inherent ability to be more fluid; they serve the brand rather than the other way around. It seems to me that type choice is one of the few things that don’t necessarily have to change and, therefore, could be one of the most important aspects within a brand. Consider this:

  • Words are the primary medium in any communication, whether audible, printed, or on screen.
  • As I’ve written before, font choice carries a feeling. This is in addition to the meaning of the words.
  • With a simple change of the font weight, many possibilities are opened. The feeling can change from fun-loving to serious or represent two different departments under the parent brand.
  • Whether using an image or a font service, the font family you choose for print can be used online as well. This will only become easier and more expected as time goes on.
  • If type choice remains consistent, the customer will see strong and clear unity throughout the brand.
  • If the customer feels the brand coherence, uncertainty is alleviated and they feel reassured during interactions such as purchases or submitting personal information.

This is “Polo.”

I think typographic choice is one of the easiest ways to set an organization apart. It acts as the clear voice among the echoes, it can reliably impact the public, and can provide consistency across all mediums and throughout the years.

Distinction wins the branding game. You have to tell your story to distinguish yourself from the competition. Lose your voice, and your customers will lose their way to you.

179. Deleted Fonts

Today is a great day for you, my dear children. I have deleted Comic Sans and Hobo from our computer’s Font Book, along with disabling many more. You will not be able to fully appreciate this service until later in life.

Unless you acquire it like a free roaming virus, you are being spared the sickness of ubiquitous mediocrity.

You’re welcome.

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.

Actors Convince

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.

169. Quotes: Massimo Vignelli on Timeless Essence

“You can reach timelessness if you look for the essence of things and not the appearance. The appearance is transitory — the appearance is fashion, the appearance is trendiness — but the essence is timeless.”

—Massimo Vignelli, Designer and Artist, discussing obsolescence in design

167. Feel the Form

The best typographers cause us not only to read the word, but to feel the form.

163. Great Typography

As with all supreme art, great typography lets us become absorbed in the unspoken feelings of the moment.

89. Quotes: Eric Gill on Fancy Work

“Even fancy work should grow out of legitimate occasion.”

—Eric Gill: typographer, sculptor; creator of Gill Sans and Perpetua typefaces, among others

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