Searching for New Perspectives in Typography

In an extract from Laurence King’s new typography tome, Rick Poynor looks at impact of typography and how a no-design audience responds to it.

New book New Perspectives in Typography, by Henrik Kubel and Scott Williams of A2/SW/HK, sets out to show “intelligent and inspirational” typography – but it also aims a bit higher by interrogating some of the thoughts that preoccupy contemporary designers and tries to show what typography means today.

The list of showcased work reads as a Who’s Who of typography – Jonathan Barnbrook, Experimental Jetset, Alan Kitching, Why Not Associates and many others.

Essay contributions come from design writers including Paul Shaw, who gives an overview of 20th-century typographic design, Monika Parrinder and Colin Davies, who look into type today and new technologies, and Emily King who looks at the link between typography and contemporary art.

Another essay, The Typographic Voice, by Rick Poynor, looks at typographic semiotics and how the way in which typography is presented and executed greatly affects the way information is understood and even liked and disliked, as he explains in this extract.

DB font. Erik Spiekermann, Christian Schwartz, 2006, in DB Sans, DB Serif.

The Typographic Voice

Rick Poynor: “For the non-specialist viewer, the success or failure of a communication must depend in large part on the effectiveness of its voice, but how should the semiotic timbre of this voice be determined and described?

Remarkably little work has been done on the question. As Theo van Leeuwen noted in 2006 in an essay entitled Towards a Semiotics of Typography: “Despite the fact that a number of linguists have begun to explore this new field… we do not yet have a systematic framework for the analysis of the communicative work done by typography today.”

Moreover, as anyone involved in graphic design knows implicitly and as Van Leeuwen spells out, typography is “multi-modal” rather than a unitary matter of type alone, because it is “integrated with other semiotic means of expression such as colour, texture, three-dimensionality, and movement”. Space and imagery are also important factors within complex visual designs.

Van Leeuwen goes on to itemise different typographic resources, such as weight, expansion, slope, curvature, connectivity and orientation, and to assign them particular meanings. For instance, roundness can signify “smooth”, “soft”, “natural”, “organic” or “maternal”, while angularity signifies “abrasive”, “harsh”, “technical” or “masculine”.

Van Leeuwen’s analysis takes us only so far, and he admits that we are still in the early stages, but it does indicate the complexity of the semiotic frameworks required to account for every interlocking component in a piece of typographic design.

In 2011 a research project undertaken by the Simplification Centre and Jeanne-Louise Moys, a researcher at the University of Reading, made some unexpected discoveries about how typographic voice is perceived. Fifteen people with no connection to graphic design were questioned about their reaction to several magazines chosen because of their typographic complexity.

Moys found that the participants were sensitive to the tone of documents and that they formed judgments on this basis. This tone came from content, images, colour and paper, as well as typographic presentation. However, the participants did not share designers’ strong concern with typefaces and type categories, and they sorted the publications into related groups using more general criteria.

“When it came to typeface,” writes Moys, “they were more likely to discuss its treatment than its choice: whether something was in bold, capitals, italics, colour, had a drop shadow or other effects, seemed to influence its distinctiveness far more than the choice of typeface.”

This leads Moys to propose that the way type is treated and the “impression of busyness” is probably “far more influential on the typographic voice than what typeface is used”. Here, again, considerably more research is needed into a wider range of typographic materials before firm conclusions can be drawn and perhaps some day applied by designers (although designers have tended to resist such prescriptions).

What comes across strongly, though, is the sense that, in the absence of formulated guidelines, designers can rely only on a tacit professional understanding of how designs will be received, which might not coincide with the way viewers perceive them.

Pages from TYPE WebOptimaized Double-2
Teaching Architecture: 3 Positions Made in Switzerland identity.
Pages from TYPE WebOptimaized Double
7 July 2005 Memorial, Phil Baines (typography) and Carmody Groarke (memorial design)
Medilabel Safety System , e-types, 2007
Centre Pompidou poster, Pierre Bernard, 2001, 2009, in DIN Engscrift type
“I want it all”, Marian Bantjes, 2006
Creamier: Contemporary Art in Culture, Atelier Dyakova 2012. Sculpture Today, Atelier Dyakova 2007.
Left: Lawrence Weiner 1987, Right Ed Ruscha 1984
Peter Mendelsund, 2013, in Poetica Chancery and handwritten.

Type: New Perspectives in Typography by Henrik Kubel and Scott Williams is published by Laurence King, priced £27.95. All images © Laurence King. 

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