Portrait of Lynn Shepherd

Lynn Shepherd

What does your typeface say about you?

There’s life in that old cliché, it ain’t what you say it’s the way that you say it.  Graphologists have been reading people’s characters from their handwriting for years, but now that so few of us actually put pen to paper any more they’re starting to scrutinise the typefaces we use instead.  Apparently the font you choose for an email, a CV or a letter says almost as much about you as the words themselves.

There was a recent study in the New York Times, for example, that looked at the impact of typeface on credibility.  Participants in the study were shown statements in six different fonts, and asked to rate how convincing the words were to them. Based on more than 45,000 responses, the researchers decided that Baskerville was the most likely to be believed, partly because it doesn’t call attention to itself – more on this later.  Other studies have looked at what celebrities’ choice of font tells you about their personality, and during the 2008 US presidential campaign, much was made of the different typefaces the candidates elected to use, from Hillary Clinton’s New Baskerville, to John McCain’s Optima, to Barack Obama’s Gotham, which designers rapidly dubbed the ‘hot font’ of the year.

Some of the same thinking can also be turned into shrewd advice on how to use different typefaces for different types of communication, helping you fit the font to the function:

In fact there’s even a website devoted to the obliteration of Comic Sans (www.bancomicsans.com), which offers the hilarious example of an official Vatican commemorative album for the retirement of Benedict XVI set entirely in – you guessed it – Comic Sans. And whoever thought Comic Sans was the right font to use for warnings about the lethal dangers posed by electricity substations?  A clear case of Typography 101 if ever there was one, but what about the more subtle differences between Times and Courier? Or Times and Plantin?  After all, James Herbert once had an entire print run of a novel pulped and reprinted because it was in Times rather than Plantin, and while I am a Palatino type of gal, my agent insists I change all my manuscripts into Courier before I send them to him.  So is your own choice of font saying the right things about you, and if not, what can you do about it?

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The principal division in the typographical world is between the haves and the have-nots – in other words, the serifs and the sans serifs.  Serifs are the little flourishes at the end of the strokes of each individual letter, and hence a font that doesn’t have them (sans serif) is typically more solid and monumental in appearance, while serif fonts feel softer and more feminine.  That’s also borne out by several studies which have shown that squarer fonts are more appealing to men, while women prefer curves and curls.

The different properties of the two types mean that sans serifs are generally used for signage, titles, or any other circumstances where clarity is the priority, while serifs are usually chosen for larger blocks of continuous text, the conventional wisdom being that they’re easier on the eye for a long read (the exception being web-text, where the pixels on screens make serif fonts blurry and difficult to decipher).

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The different properties of the two types mean that sans serifs are generally used for signage, titles, or any other circumstances where clarity is the priority, while serifs are usually chosen for larger blocks of continuous text, the conventional wisdom being that they’re easier on the eye for a long read (the exception being web-text, where the pixels on screens make serif fonts blurry and difficult to decipher).

With that in mind it’s interesting that the 2005 Guardian redesign included not just a new size but a new font, a specially commissioned typeface called Guardian Egyptian.  Mark Porter, the Guardian‘s creative director, made the brave decision to axe the paper’s previous masthead, that famous combination of Garamond Italics and Helvetica Bold which had been such an innovation when it was first introduced in the 1980s.  The designer of the new font, Paul Barnes, apparently drew much of his inspiration from the first ‘Egyptian’ typefaces, which were introduced in Britain in the 19th century.  The result is somewhere between a serif and a sans serif, which aims to combine authority with a more modern look.  It’s also flexible enough to be used throughout the paper – a clean break with the standard newspaper convention of using a serif for body copy, and a sans serif for the headlines.

Guardian Egyptian is an attempt to combine the stand-out of sans with the readability of serif.  So what makes a typeface really readable?  Most designers will tell you that the most legible typefaces are ‘transparent’ – in other words, as we saw with Baskerville earlier, they ‘disappear’ on the page allowing the reader to focus on the message, rather than the medium. The idea of typeface transparency was originally developed by Beatrice Warde, Monotype Imaging’s marketing manager in the mid-20th century. She described the perfect type as a crystal goblet that allows the content to make its own impression.  As I said, the most readable typefaces are the classic serifs, which are based on traditional forms developed for book publishing at a time when books (and long books at that) were all we had.  But legibility isn’t the only criterion for a good font.  Some typefaces actually need to be difficult to read – distinctive shapes, long down-strokes, tall narrow or short fat forms, bold swashes, and fiddly bits of any kind are all ways of snagging the reader’s eye, and slowing down the reading process.

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If you use a distinctive typeface for headings or graphics you can add drama and impact to otherwise bland-looking copy.  You can also match the style of the lettering to the mood of the piece without detracting from the readability of the main text.  Fonts like these are designed to attract attention, create the right atmosphere, or just simply be decorative.  Look at the power of typefaces to evoke the spirit of their age, whether it’s late 19th century Art Nouveau, the 1930s, or 60s psychedelia.

Big corporations have certainly wised up to the way their communications look in recent years.  Some have commissioned their own fonts (as Barclays did with Expert Sans, and Volkswagen and Audi Group did with VAG Rounded), and others have had the courage to update even the most illustrious of lettering, as you can see in the evolution of the Guinness logotype. When it works, a corporate typeface can become as powerful and as instantly-recognisable as a logo.  You only have to look at the London Underground ‘Johnston’ font, first created in 1916 and relaunched in 1980 as New Johnston. It’s recognised all over the world – and all over London – on station signs, posters, booklets, and the iconic underground map.

So have a look at these common but mostly under-used fonts which are almost certainly lurking somewhere in your laptop – who knows, maybe one of these is just your type….

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This post is a revised and updated version of one originally written for the design agency Bostock & Pollitt.