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The Voices of Type

on Thursday 20th of March 2014

We see type daily, but how well do we listen to it? Today, type designer Eben Sorkin tells us about the subtle yet powerful influence of typographic voice and gauges how tuned in you are with an actual test!

If you’re excited about using type, I would bet that a large part of your excitement comes from the voice of type. By ‘voice’ I mean the feeling found in within it — the personality and attitude we recognize in type and see exuding from it. It’s that feeling that makes type fun and fuels our passion for it. It can also be a powerful force for making text communications of all kinds more effective and persuasive.

However when it comes to choosing fonts, we can sometimes feel overwhelmed and begin to doubt ourselves. This can lead us to reach for comforting — but ultimately unsatisfying and less suitable — typefaces.

So I’d like to offer you some advice that will boost your confidence and help you to have more fun while being more effective and creative in your choices.

Why voice matters

The voice of a typeface can influence behavior. We all make choices to go to a store, read a web page, buy a product, or simply keep reading based on assumptions we make as a result of the style or voice of the letters we read. Get it ‘wrong’ and people will stop coming, reading or buying. The voice of type has a definite financial impact.

Danger Signage

When the type and the tone of the text don’t match it can impede a reader. Here, replacing the normal font with Kavoon’s brushed ink style and friendly personality fails to express the urgency and seriousness of the message.

And it doesn’t just affect how we feel. It can also affect how we well we digest information. Researchers including Dawn Shaikh, Kevin Larson, Richard Hazlett, and Barbara Chaparo have found that congruent style (which occurs when a font style seems to match the personality of the text) “enhances the impact and processing of the communication”. This basically means that when the personality of the font you use matches the personality of the text, people are able to read that text more quickly and easily. When it doesn’t, it’s jarring and slows them up. The easier we make it for visitors to read, the more likely they are to find what they were looking for, click, buy and/or return.

Banish self-doubt

It’s easy to second-guess ourselves when choosing type based on voice. Even those with a formal education in typography are unlikely to have anything other than personal taste, intuition and an awareness of convention to rely on. How can you really justify a choice? How subjective are your reactions? Can you really trust them?

How about taking a little test to find out? Below are three sets of images. In each set, choose the image that you think best matches the word shown. I bet I can predict which image you’ll choose in each set.

Try my test to gauge how well you recognize typographic voice. Are you tin eared or pitch perfect?

If I got it right in each case, don’t be disappointed. It’s good news! It means you’re already very good at sensing how type feels. In fact, a very large part of the effectiveness of the voice of type comes from the remarkable degree to which people tend to agree about what the voice of a font feels like.

I’ve run this informal test around the world for over the last two years as well as in the Crafting Type course I help to teach. At the start, I expected a high degree of consistency, but I was amazed at the near uniformity of opinions. From Boston to Singapore, the vast majority of students have agreed with each other.

Growth of Typefaces

A shared culture unifies how we interpret type. Here, we see Queen Victoria’s use of an elegant English roundhand style (left), which people later emulated via writing manuals (center), and we still use to suggest elegance today (right).

We agree because as adults we’ve been exposed to a common visual culture for a long period of time. Let’s look at Pinyon, for example—the typeface used to depict ‘fancy’ in my test. It feels elegant because letterforms like that have been used to signify elegance for a long time. Queen Victoria used this English roundhand style to add elegance to letters, and before then it was the style used by the well-educated throughout business. Because people wanted to access and emulate this elegance, they would practice this form of writing by copying it from writing manuals. Are the shapes in Pinyon objectively elegant? No proof of that exists. However, in the end it doesn’t need to. We can be confident that it will be read or interpreted that way, and that’s enough.

Sharpening the skill

Recognizing that you can do this is just a start. You can now go on to cultivate your ability as well as get better at communicating what you feel or what you are looking for to clients and colleagues. This can and should be fun. Here are some tips get you started:

Pace yourself

One of the biggest mistakes I see people make when choosing fonts is forgetting quickly we can get overwhelmed. To identify the feeling in type you have to pace yourself and give yourself time to recognize and note what your reaction is. If looking starts to feel tedious, you’re not fresh anymore and should take a break. If your reactions are not natural and spontaneous, they have stopped being useful to you.

Think in adjectives rather than in typographic terms

In Gary Huswit’s film Helvetica Jonathan Hoefler talks about this issue. He says “There is no way to describe the qualitative aspect of a typeface without resorting to things that are fully outside it.” When thinking about a typeface’s voice, its categorization/classification is not important. Instead, we need to know if the type is cheerful or dour. Is it relaxed or in a hurry? Is the type serious or frivolous? Luxurious or downmarket? Young or old? Fragile or robust?

FDA Label

The FDA’s new nutrition label, which uses Helvetica to impart a credible, authoritative voice to the content

If a type seems cotton-y, serpentine or fruity to you, that’s all okay. In a recent design crit of the US FDA’s nutrition label redesign, Tobias Frere-Jones described Helvetica as “[tasting] like authority, like confirmed fact.” All kinds of characteristics may suggest themselves to you. Go with it.

Embrace and combine cultural references

When you’re working alone and recognize the voice internally, that may be enough. But sometimes you need help from teammates to find the right font or need to explain to clients why you’re recommending the typeface you’ve set before them in your design. So being able to verbalize the voice in a way that makes sense to more than just you is important. When you do this, you may find that referring to movements in art, graphic design, or fashion is useful. Other cultural touchstones such as films, music, products, and places can be helpful too.

Jonathan Hoefler and Tobias Frere-Jones on articulating the qualitative characteristics of type

For example, in the interview mentioned earlier Jonathan Hoefler recounts a discussion with Tobias Frere-Jones about a sans serif type they had been working on. He recalls saying to Tobias “No, this has that Saturn V rocket early NASA quality. It needs to have that orange plastic, Olivetti typewriter, Roman Holiday, espresso feeling”. Those references may make perfect sense to many of you reading this. Even without seeing the typeface they’re talking about, you may be be able visualize what he means and the feeling he wanted the new type to have.

Using a collection of cultural references is a particularly good approach. It provides a richer set of references to draw upon, and if one of the references doesn’t communicate the feeling to the other person, another one may. Also, a reference that doesn’t make sense on its own can suddenly be explained by the pattern of the others.

Test your top contenders for congruence

Sample text like ‘The Quick Brown Fox’, ‘hamburgevons’, and longer specimen paragraphs can be quite useful to get a quick sense of how well the the voice of a font fits. However they will inevitably lack the exact editorial tone you’re trying to express in text. Once you have a few faces you think could do the job, test them on real project copy. If you don’t have real copy to hand yet, then set text that is similar in content and tone. This way the words are likely to be credible and congruent with the text that will replace your faux text.

Halogen in Typecast template

Test your typefaces on real (or at least comparable) copy to make sure the font voice matches your editorial voice. Typecast, lets you do this in the browser with over 100,000 web fonts.

The other problems with conventional samples of all kinds is that they will not show the length or structure of the text you have in mind. This is one of the ways in which Typecast is especially useful. It lets you preview real text of any length and you can also see it in highly specific context. Line-height, line measure, and proximity to other fonts all play a role in shaping how the voice of type will ultimately feel.

The pattern of text matters a great deal as well. Look at the structure you are intending to apply the font to and model that. For instance, if the text is mostly short or long paragraphs, model that in your test text. If your project text uses italics or small caps to highlight a change in hierarchy, make sure you include those. Pull quotes, bylines and all the structures you plan to have should be replicated. The more accurate the context, the more confident you can be that your test will accurately reflect the feeling you can expect from that font choice.

Use familiarity strategically

Familiar forms are usually easier to read. However familiarity isn’t merely functional. It’s a spectrum that can also impart a feeling.

A type design that is slightly unfamiliar looking can feel more fresh, interesting, or playful. A face that’s less familiar may surprise or challenge or create tension in a reader. Even less familiar and it may eventually become unpleasant.

On the other end of the spectrum, a familiar looking typeface can feel comfortable or reliable. But further up the scale, a typeface that is extremely familiar can seem boring in some contexts. It’s worth asking yourself what degree of familiarity will give the feeling you want. Do you want to surprise or reassure? Stand out or blend in? What is most appropriate and beneficial to your use of the type?

Avoid typographic dogma

There are hundreds of thousands of web fonts out there to choose from, so it’s natural to seek ways to narrow your options to a more manageable selection quickly. However, sometimes we can fall into the trap of relying on formulas, typographic dogma, or stereotypes about what has to be done in a given situation.

Body copy set in Turnip RE

TurnipRE by Webtype is one of many beautiful and legible serifed body fonts, despite the popular stereotype that only sans should be used to set paragraphs on the web.

For example, some people believe that body text in print must always be a serif design like Garamond, Georgia or Skolar. Some people think text on the web must always be set in a sans like Helvetica, Verdana, or Open Sans. Neither is the case. Both can work quite well for the web or print, and there are plenty of both that make horrible body copy.

People will also assume similar things about design for specific industries — for instance that high tech companies must use a sans serif. This is also short sighted. After all, Google’s logo is not a sans.

So don’t automatically discard a font with the right voice just because of silly stereotypes. Recognize when you’re seeking the easy way out, because a font chosen by rote may well be passable but the feeling is likely to be stale.

Words to the wise

I’ve said that most people tend to agree what a typeface’s voice is, but there are two instances where a little testing might be worthwhile: age and culture differences.

Different age groups may react to fonts differently. If you are noticeably different in age than the people you want to communicate with, you may want to check if the fonts feel the same way for them as they do to you. If it differs, investigate and/or work with someone from that age group.

The second is geographical. The color white may indicate purity in one culture while it may signal death and tragedy another. In the same way, a font that feels genuinely romantic, elegant, and hip in your culture may seem trite, cheesy, and out of date in another. As before, if you’re designing for a culture or society you don’t belong to, checking if the fonts feel the same way for them as they do to you makes sense.

Clearly not all situations will allow you to spend time carefully choosing type. But if you cultivate your awareness of the typographic voices around you and your ability to articulate voice to others, even in a rush situation you’ll be able to choose well and with confidence. I hope you enjoy getting to know the many feelings and personalities to be found in type!

A big thanks to our guest author Eben Sorkin for today’s post. You can find more from Eben on Crafting Type and Sorkin Type. And don’t forget that you can try typefaces from Sorkin Type for free on Google Fonts, including this selection. Guest authors are paid for their contribution, and all opinions are their own.

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