Communicating with typefaces – adding value to text
Most writers and small business owners make decisions about typefaces based on an existing consensus and instinct and therefore limit their ability to exploit all modes of communication. The ability to understand typefaces can help you make an informed decision while authoring and designing different communication artifacts such as reports, marketing collateral, and other professional communications. In our last post on typefaces we briefly discussed about typefaces having their own personality, and the basic terms used to describing a typeface. The post later on discussed the factors that affect the legibility of the text most. This post, in continuation, looks at why it is important for technical communicators to understand typeface personalities and what characteristics of a typeface shape the personality.
Added communication avenue
Why should technical writers or for that matter anyone who plan and design their own communication worry about typeface personality? Typeface is part of the visual communication of any document and contributes to the tone of the document. A formal communication using a typeface that readers consider silly reduces the importance of the message even before the readers begin comprehending the content. The knowledge of typefaces then provides you an additional tool to persuade the readers to do what you want them to do. You may want the readers to be completely unaware of the typeface design in case of an important message or in case of marketing communication engage the reader. This knowledge of typefaces also provides you the latitude to experiment with different typefaces for your unique communication situation.
Emotions and feelings
Before we try to determine what parts or physical characteristics of a typeface determine the personality readers assign to the typeface, it is important to classify what emotions readers see in typefaces and what meanings they attach to the typefaces. According to Gestalt principles, simple and harmonious typefaces are liked more that complex typefaces. On the other hand, motivation based theories suggest that elaborate typefaces increase engagement and are liked more. At the same time, empirical research has proved that harmonious typefaces are definitely more pleasing. We clearly have different views on typeface design, which at least tell us that people compartmentalize typefaces as pleasing or awkward. However, this broad classification is not enough to use a specific typeface for a set of purposes.
Other than the simple harmonious and pleasing classification, Mackiewicz and Moeller analyzed readers responses to differentiate typefaces on the following range of emotions: Strength, Elegance, Agitation, Silliness, Friendliness, and Scariness. Another Study conducted by Shaikh evaluated typefaces for their appropriateness in web communication to convey professionalism and trust.
There’s enough proof that readers attach some emotions and feelings to typefaces and the question that we need to ask is can we isolate the physical characteristics or define a concrete method to attach these emotions to different typefaces. Ability to establish a concrete method will shift the choices from pure guesswork and experiences to more reliable typeface choices. Henderson et. al. studied typefaces based on their design. They classified typeface design into two main categories: First, the universal design characteristics, which included Symmetry, Activity, and Complexity; Second, the typeface specific characteristics, which included, Short or Tall, Serif or sans-Serif, and Condensed or Extended. The universal design characteristics further evaluated if the typefaces were distinctive, ornate, balanced, symmetrical, and so on. The typeface specific characteristics evaluated ascenders, descenders, weight, x-height, and so on.
Based on the study conducted by Henderson et. al. we can conclude that:
- Low Weight
- Average Flourish
- Harmonious and Pleasing
- Low prominence
- Above average Weight
- Highly Elaborate
- More Prominent
- Less Pleasing
- Average Harmonious
- Low Flourish
- Low weight
- Less Engaging
- More Reassuring
Similarly, Shaikh found that category 1 typefaces (Calibri, Cambria, Calisto, and Georgia) were more appropriate – that is, professional and trustworthy – compared to category 2 typefaces (Lucinda Handwriting, Informal Roman, and Curlz) for website communication.
If we try to align these choices with the conclusions of the Henderson study, we can see that the typefaces that convey professional meaning and invoke trust fall into Type Z.
Mackiewicz and Moeller claim that typefaces that resemble handwriting are more friendly but do not show a professional tone. Although the study does not provide any concrete links between perception of typefaces and their physical characteristics, keywords used to describe typefaces as silly and childish convey specific emotions. In a separate study, Mackiewicz found that:
- Script and hand writing resembling typefaces are friendly, but not professional.
- Typefaces that are easy to read are more professional.
- Professional typefaces lack anatomical features that stand out. Both Serif and sans-serif communicate professionalism.
- Moderate x-height to cap-height ratio. More distance between x-height and cap-height is more friendly and therefore less professional.
Again, if we align these observations with the classification of design characteristics given in the table, we can conclude that Type Z typefaces convey a more professional tone than other types of typefaces.
Different communication purposes warrant different needs and you must balance the typeface characteristics and use different typefaces to achieve that specific objective of communication. For example, you will want to use a typeface that is easy to read for long texts. On the other hand, advertising a product or establishing a brand will require an elaborate and ornate typeface so that it is engaging and can make an impact on the readers’ mind. It is easy to ignore the most common and we rarely ever notice common typefaces such as Times New Roman, but you are more likely to notice an elaborate typeface you see next time.
Therefore based on all this research, we can classify typefaces according to their design characteristics discussed earlier and assume that typefaces that have low weight, low flourish, and those that are less ornate and engaging are better suited for communication that requires to convey a professional tone and invoke trust. Similarly, typefaces with more flourish and elaborate design are more engaging and should be used for communications that are short and where you want to engage the readers.
 P. W. Henderson, J. L. Giese, and J. A. Cote, “Impression management using typeface design,” Journal of Marketing, pp. 60-72, 2004.
 J. Mackiewicz and R. Moeller, “Why people perceive typefaces to have different personalities,” 2004, pp. 304-313.
 A. D. Shaikh and D. Fox, “The Effect of Website Typeface Appropriateness on the Perception of a Company’s Ethos,” in Usability News. vol. 9 Wichita: Software Usability Research
 J. Mackiewicz, “How to use five letterforms to gauge a typeface’s personality: A research-driven method,” Journal of technical writing and communication, vol. 35, pp. 291-315, 2005.