I must admit, this coupled with the Comic Sans article surprises me. The BBC website is aimed at, well, just about everyone really, and here they are discussing something which initially I supposed to only consciously matter to designers. It gives an informed summation of the issues with typography. It argues both sides, but the author doesn’t say which they believe. I enjoyed the comments though, the graphic designers touting the importance of the typeface – some saying it’s the most important thing, the non-designer crowd indicating that the do care, to an extent, but don’t think it’s anywhere near as important as other graphic design elements.

de Castella, T. (2010). Do Typefaces Really Matter? Retrieved October 23, 2010, from http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-10689931

Looking at the question itself – the use of the word “really” makes me think the author doesn’t entirely believe that they do. It’s a bit of a loaded question. “Do typefaces matter?” would have been a stronger question. The short answer is yes they do. Reading through the article and comments, I’ve picked out some bits related to my major project.

The power of the font goes back to the Greeks, says Julie Strawson, director of Monotype Imaging, an international type-design company. “The Greeks created handwriting and that’s one of the most personal ways of communicating.”

I hadn’t really thought about the personal connotations of writing. Looking at it from this perspective – a picture is often created to communicate something to many people, but the roots of writing were very personal (has the blog explosion ruined this? I don’t know). Even if you’re reading with someone else, it’s still a very personal experience. Reading and writing is perhaps a more obvious form of communicating than say a photograph.

Selecting a font is like getting dressed, Ms Strawson says. Just as one chooses an outfit according to the occasion, one decides on a font according to the kind of message you are seeking to convey.

This is – or should be – obvious to the graphic designer. We’re taught early on that everything within a piece of graphic design must be there for a legitimate reason and that everything should be helping to communicate the message. This is ultimately what I want to investigate with my major project – the importance of the typeface.

The typeface matters because of its power to create a sense of recognition and trust, she argues: “Everyone recognises the BBC just from three characters in Gill Sans. It’s an icon. If you wrote BBC in a flowery font people wouldn’t recognise it.”

This has given me an idea for an experiment! Swapping typefaces, seeing what people think.

Banks are particularly aware of this, with companies like Barclays creating their own branded font to reinforce a sense of security at a time when fear of fraud and scamming is high.

Barclaycard Leaflet

Here is a Barclaycard leaflet (click to view large) – the entire body of content is set in the same ‘Barclaycard’ font and I’m not keen on how it looks. To me the typeface is too rounded, the defeinition between the headings isn’t strong enough and the fact that it’s all one font does not make me think them more trustworthy. It’s a nice font, I just don’t think it’s suited to being body copy.

But Jonathan Barnbrook, founder of the website Virus Fonts, believes the power of typography goes beyond such utilitarian aims.

“A good typeface creates an emotional response in relation to the message it is conveying. You’re trying to get that tone of voice right – you can shout or whisper. And you want to sum up the spirit of the age, because they do date quite quickly.”

I like this. It’s along the lines of what I’ve been thinking. Design isn’t art, but it does borrow from art in that emotional response and connection is often crucial to the success of a piece of design.

Mr Battista concludes that the font has been elevated to an absurdly high cultural status by a small, self-indulgent elite.

“These people remind me of wine snobs – they can detect all these subtle notes and flavours but the average person probably won’t notice all these tiny flourishes on a font. When you’re reading an article you’re not thinking about the font. You have to be looking at fonts all day before you start getting emotional about them.”

I don’t think Battista is taking into consideration the subconscious and psychology. If you were looking at a painting you wouldn’t consciously be thinking about how it makes you feel or what it’s communicating, but it would still be communicating. Wine is different. Wine is also not there to create a response, it is not there to communicate, it’s there to be enjoyed. The purpose of type is completely different.

I can see what he’s trying to say, and sure, people won’t necessarily notice if an e is too close to a c or if an f has obliterated the dot on an i, but they will know if something is readable and they may stick around a bit longer if the choice of font has aided the communication of the message. This could all lead to some interesting experimentation, though.

Onto the comments:

I am one of those poor people who struggle to decide what font to use – I end up settling with Arial as it’s a clear font to read, but I wonder what impression that is giving the person reading what I’ve typed.
Jennifer Martin, Bradford

So people do worry about it…

Yep, some pedantic, obsessive typographers border on the obsessive. True. But only the ignorant would dismiss the subliminal power of typography in advertising or deny the practical benefits of careful type setting in reading material.
Simon, London

A lot… but then…

According to Simon I’m ignorant. I honestly hadn’t noticed the typeface had changed on the BBC website. All I’d noticed is the layout is much clearer. Layout is the key in my opinion and has a vastly greater impact than font, which ultimately just had to be legible. The same for adverts, it’s the layout and what’s written which captures me, rather than how it’s written.
James, Southampton

I must admit to agreeing on some counts – the jump from Verdana to Arial/Helvetica Neu isn’t that noticeable. I would also agree that initially the layout of the page is more important – but then typography is a big part of layout, strong headings and such, clear layout to content – this is done with type. I don’t know if a person’s response to poor choice of typeface can really be measured. It’s very psychological, hard to quantify. Something to think on.

Finally I understand what it is I haven’t liked about the BBC’s new look this last week! I often change documents from Arial to something “friendlier/ warmer”, such as Calibri. And I’d never send an email in Arial or Times New Roman. I find them cold. I also think the latter looks messy, or like it’s come from someone who doesn’t know how to change the font!
Antonia, Nottingham

I picked out this one because I’m guessing she’s not a designer, but obviously values the importance of the way the message is communicated. It also shows that the BBCs font change has had an effect, albeit below the radar.

Typography and the selection of fonts is the single most important aspect of Graphic Design aesthetics. A slight weight or stroke discrepancy or, as so often seen a very slightly stretched font can wreck an entire design. When you get it right you will know…although you may not know why!
Jamie Smith, London

I must admit I don’t always know why a font works in a design, it just does. However, I don’t agree that it is the “single most important aspect of Graphic Design aesthetics”. There is no single most important thing, every choice is important.