Why typography should matter to everyone

One visual storyteller discusses her fanaticism for fonts and the difference that a given typeface can make in conveying a message.

Graphic designers love typography.

More specifically, graphic designers love to love typography.

In a career field that consists of “make it yellow/bigger/jazzier/into a giraffe,” the subtleties of type are the last bastion left for a designer to nurse his or her need to tweak, beautify, and control.

And do we ever. We have magnified an apostrophe by 800 percent. We have adjusted the kerning between 1’s on a thousand occasions. We have tried all 66 available faces of Gotham on one business card.

If none of that made sense to you, well, you’re not in the club.

That doesn’t mean you’ve escaped the influence of anal-retentive, coffee-fueled type designers and the years they’ve spent sculpting descenders, because obsessive designers and typographers out there have had their way with pretty much all the text y¬ou see anywhere. You might try to tell us all that effort has gone right over your head, but we know that’s not true.

Have you ever looked at a photo that just screamed ’70s? From the reddish, low-contrast tone of the paper to the aviator sunglasses to the Fu Manchus to the avocado-colored Oldsmobiles (not to mention that one couch that everyone had), even the most oblivious of millennials can recognize that era of cross-country road trips in a split second.

Photo courtesy of Dana Skillman.

See? A split second.

That’s how it works with type, too.

Type isn’t just a font choice or a color; it’s all kinds of details that you don’t even know you noticed. The appearance of the punctuation, the space between words and letters, the shape and combinations of type, and the nuance of contrast and hierarchy—these tiny, pained decisions are made so that when a person sees the website/package/sign/book, they know what it’s saying to them without even having to read it. Typography can make words look established, fun, handmade, clean, child-friendly, rebellious, antique, artisan, eclectic, modern, blue-collar, edgy, or even—yep— straight out of the ’70s.

Unfortunately, these subtle details can convey more unfortunate things as well: If you stretch or smush type, use too many fonts, use “the wrong” fonts, or neglect to kern, you’re broadcasting inexperience. Misplaced typefaces don’t go unnoticed, either. If you choose Bodoni for a book about Galileo, we’ll know you didn’t do your homework. Helvetica in a WWII documentary? Try again. For those of us who love to love typography, it’s like you’ve attempted to sneak a Paco Rabanne dress into a performance of “The Sound of Music.” We’ll notice.

Nerdy type people, much like nerdy theater people, will not take inaccurate details lying down. No, we will splatter them all over the Internet. Because when you love to love something, you love for other people to see you loving it.

And really, loving typography is not just for typophiles.

Words are the bulwarks of truth and the expressions of character, personality, and beliefs. They make up manifestos and constitutions, memoirs and stories. They spread profound ideas and bring enlightenment. Words have claimed the moon, challenged Catholicism, incensed rebellions, and declared free nations.

If statements and questions are powerful simply as words, imagine them as type.

Jo Skillman is a visual storyteller at The Black Sheep Agency, a Houston-based creative agency specializing in non-traditional public relations, social media and experiential marketing. Check out the agency’s blog, where a version of this story originally appeared.


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