A few months ago I posted a TED Talk by John Maeda, President of RISD (Rhode Island School of Design) and generally recognized genius, on “How Art, Technology and Design Inform Creative Leaders.” Aside from being a really great talk, it includes a fascinating experiment on the power of typography on the human psyche. Maeda demonstrates through a simple slide of the same word presented in different typographical styles the power of typography on manipulating an audience’s understanding of the meaning of a word. To me, that experiment expressed in a neat little nutshell the importance of graphic designers to the world. We have the power to change the way people actually experience and understand things, just through something as seemingly simple as typography. Anyone who’s ever purchased something they didn’t really know they wanted until they saw an ad for it understands the power graphic designers can have on their audience.
For my demonstration of the incredible abilities of typography, I’ve chosen to use the word “loud” — it’s a simple word, four letters, with a pretty universally understood meaning of producing or being capable of producing a whole lot of noise. Generally, it is used negatively. The construction is too loud, the traffic is too loud, my neighbor’s experimental electronic rap music is too loud. No matter whether you type it in a different font or use lots or very little kerning, it still means the same thing. Typography doesn’t change the actual meaning of a word, but watch how your perception of the word changes. It’s uncanny, really. You can know what it means, and still feel like it means something different, even without the addition of any other words or images.
For example, in a large, bold type, the word loud looks loud. This probably is along the lines of how you visualize the word when someone says it. (We’re assuming here that you’re a person who regularly visualizes words. If not, try it! It’s fun!)
Conversely, in a small, tracked-out font, the word loud looks spacious and free. It’s the loud sound of something small, like a pin falling in a silent room.
In a classic script, loud is the big, beautiful, encompassing sound of a classical symphony.
In a retro display font, loud is the cool new club (I totally stole this club idea from Maeda, just FYI). Let’s go to loud, it’s where all the hip kids hang out.
In a bubbly, childish hand-lettered style font, loud is a daycare full of laughing children. Loud is playful. Loud is happy.
And finally, in a lightly tracked sans-serif, loud is the newest product from Apple. Everyone’s lining up for loud. Coming Spring 2014.
This exercise to me clearly demonstrates why typography is of such importance in graphic design. The wrong choice of font can completely skew the message a designer is trying to send. Everyone’s seen an advertisement or a logo at least once in his or her life that just doesn’t seem to make sense with the company or what’s being sold. The type is too feminine for such a masculine product, or too traditional for something claiming to be modern, or too contemporary and cool for something rooted in history. The power of typography should be used wisely, and certainly never taken for granted.