Type of Life
Written by Robert Lloyd
1st Aug 2018, 7 minute read
Also available on
In the honest and frankly relatable words of Erik Spiekerman, type designer and inspirational speaker extraordinaire:
“I'm obviously a typeomaniac, which is an incurable if not mortal disease. I can't explain it. I just love, I just like looking at type. I just get a total kick out of it: they are my friends. Other people look at bottles of wine or whatever, or, you know, girls' bottoms. I get kicks out of looking at type. It's a little worrying, I admit, but it's a very nerdish thing to do.”
Photography: Robbie Lawrence
Rewind another ten or so years from this 2007 quote to when I was growing up, and everything in my day to day life was pointed out and opened up for comment. It didn't matter whether it was historic, geographic, natural, scientific, linguistic or creative, it was all a point of conversation. Having a calligrapher father and artistic mother, creativity had an especially big part to play for us. So when it came to noticing interesting examples of it, we were discussing the form, function and character. This is something ingrained into me now and a trait I admire in a lot of extremely talented people.
When talking about typography in particular, it quickly became apparent to me that lettering isn't just writing things out. It starts a conversation and talks to its audience beyond the words which it displays. With the capability to be nostalgic and evoke emotions just like music and film, typography is an art form which is essentially “painting with words”, as Paula Scher of Pentagram eloquently phrased.
Even the most subtle of changes in a word’s appearance can suggest different meanings by hinting to the semantics of other genres or eras of design, suggesting moods or actions, and ultimately affect the way your eye flows around the layout as a whole to get a sense of pace, tone and volume. Yes, it’s like how someone might talk, and with so many evolutions, specimens and habitats, typography is a living breathing beast which we in our industry try to domesticate to our own needs. And that inspires me massively.
The important thing about lettering though is that while the average member of the public might not always seem to care about typefaces and fonts - seen as a little boring or weird - the majority of viewers understand subtle traits either consciously or subconsciously, all as part of an unspoken language where we translate visual design into something much more.
I held a game with colleagues at Vitamin London: a mix of designers, developers, and project managers. 3 minutes to write their name in the style of their given post-it note’s theme. Not everyone was confident in their ability to express such an abstract concept in letter form but the results were pretty clear across each profession. Small can mean quiet. Sharp lettering might mean aggressive. Script-like lettering shows a handmade personality. And that is the key. Personality. When any of us use text in any customisable instance - doodling on a scrap of paper, quick home design, or even picking typographic Snapchat and Instagram stickers - there is a level of curation towards getting this personality of both lettering and message across to best represent us as an individual or the subject at hand. And as subjective as it often is, that in itself is an incredibly powerful thing for everyone in the creative industry to appreciate. People don't just understand but actually empathise with type.
Now, I want to and definitely will talk about a merge of culture and design accessibility another time, however today I want to bring us back on track with typography. Particularly your attention to the aspects of lettering which you may often miss. For this, let's take Helvetica as a standard sans serif. A painfully ubiquitous standard (#designerprobems). It's letters are now a skeleton which we will temporarily base others against. So, it has relatively uniform widths of each stroke and a clear predictable form to each letter with a quite machined feel of precision. It's utilitarian to the t, devoid of flourish. And that's perfectly fine. That's the font’s style.
At least it's polite
Other fonts, for example at a glance as you pass shop signs, facades and advertising, may look like you've seen them a million times before but perhaps feel different. And this is down to the details. Writing this, I'm on a tube carriage and without leaving my seat have counted over 40 different typefaces already. You might notice humanist variation in stroke joins which indicate a pressure while writing and therefore a personal touch.
Minuscule flared stem thorns of potential serifs which break through that seem to add movement, aggression or formality.
Slightly rounded corners for a softer, quite innocent feel.
Condensed letters which loom over and seem to demand your attention.
Skinny, fat, solid, outlined. Chiselled ends which begin to feel brutally calligraphic or letters which lay to entirely different proportions all together.
etc, etc, etc.
The all important context and colour ignored, when compared side by side back to our skeleton, these considered details hugely develop the lettering and go towards emphasising that key personality of what is trying to be said.
This can also be flipped around using the literal message you're writing. For example, if you're currently reading this on Medium it is formatted in ITC Charter. A serif font which seems formal, educated and authoritative. Therefore writing something like ‘fucking dickheads’ juxtaposes the assumed character of the lettering and almost appears not just out of place but satirically amusing, whereas 'fantastically rhetorical’ might look and feel more at home. Fonts are the clothes words wear, and just like a wolf in sheep's clothing, we can have fun with that.
However this is still on a relatively macro level. You might have heard it before but the world we live in has a habit of making us all increasingly blind to the swathes of visual design around us. Even digital aside, we're so used to being bombarded with advertising, shitty shop facades and walls of packaging that we often subconsciously shut everything out from boredom and monotony. We don't actually pay much attention to anything through our day. This makes journeys dull and eventless. Because of this I hunt (like a hopefully dignified and composed caveman) to find beautiful examples of type on a daily basis wherever I am.
These, despite their size or impact, were all hidden away to some degree. And there are so many others often obscured by nature and manmade clutter or in small avenues which you could easily pass by. In proximity of mundane objects which your eye skims over, sometimes awkwardly high or right beneath your feet. Beyond the minutiae of lettering you might use every day, there's great value to be found in trying to actively seek these inspiring examples we often ignore.
This idea doesn't stay rigid with type either. It can cover almost any creative field you are passionate about, simply requiring you to remind yourself look where you might often not. And if you're interested to try it out, take a picture of something you never noticed which inspires you on your daily routine, and tag it with #easilymissed. But ultimately, be a maniac for whatever means something to you and revel in it. Get kicks out of that niche and don't be ashamed by whether it's nerdy or obscure, because not only will it reveal a new perspective of looking at the world for you, but whether other people know it or not, that passion matters to their lives too.