Two Levels of a Typeface – Identity Letters
People have identities. So do typefaces. Fonts matter because identity matters.

Two Levels of a Typeface

Let’s begin with the basics. When we open a book, our brain does not immediately start to scan the words. Instead, it firstly perceives the image of the type. We see the typeface, but we do not yet read it. Although this distinction between perceiving and reading takes place within a few seconds, it may be the most crucial foundation for any work with type. The Dutch type designer Gerard Unger (1942 – 2018) summarized this phenomena in one sentence: “It is almost impossible to look and read at the same time: they are different actions.“1 These two different actions of seeing and reading type illustrate two levels that are decisive for all fonts, but especially for corporate typefaces: the verbal, and the visual level. The font does not only reproduce written text, but also communicates a message to the reader through its image. Paul Watzlawick wrote about communication between people that they “cannot not communicate”2, the same applies to typefaces.

If we now start to read this text, we take in this written information. We understand the meaning of the words, the sentences, and may become interested, curious, bored or feel something else entirely. What is as important, however, is that we also observe the visual atmosphere of the text: the font character. We unconsciously “read” the impression of the font with its many unique forms and details.3

Hence, we can speak about two levels of type:

The verbal level4

The verbal level of type describes what has been written. Here, only the content information is important.

The visual level4

The visual level comprises the optical appearance of the font, which gives each letterform and word an unique appearance and individual character.

Two Levels for a Hallelujah

Both the visual and the verbal level function independently but a message may only be conveyed convincingly if form and content are in harmony. Only then, perfect communication is possible. To quote the American graphic designer Paula Scher (1948, Pentagram): “Words have meaning. Type has spirit. The combination is spectacular.”5

This is why fonts matter. The interplay between meaning and design allows for a convincing dialogue between the company and a client. But what if this interplay is disturbed?

If the content and written form do not match, there is a risk of misunderstanding the message. Or, at least as badly, the consumer decides against buying a product/service, because the offer seems dubious.

You probably know what I mean. If I receive an e-mail from my bank with its text set in a comic font, I immediately doubt its seriousness and suspect it to be spam. Both statements - the information and font style - do not fit together. Since my bank wants to build trust (so that I hand them all my money), their goal should be to radiate seriousness. The comic font, on the other hand, communicates in a playful and casual way – the exact opposite to my expectations.

Nonverbal & Paraverbal Communication 

Nonverbal Communication

In non-verbal communication between people, this works similarly. We have all experienced of becoming confused when a person’s body language does not match what they had just said. In these instances, we give more weight to facial expressions and gestures, which are usually interpreted unconsciously, than to what is said verbally. The Iranian-American psychologist Albert Mehrabian examined the interpretation of dubious statements. He found that when body language and statements mismatch, 55 % of participants trusted the others’ body language and only 7 % the verbal content. The vocal expression therefore accounted for 38 %  6, hence, in everyday interactions, our gestures and mimics play a vital part in communication.

Paraverbal Communication

The visual level of type can be compared to the paraverbal communication between people. Among other things, paraverbal communication describes the voice, pitch, volume, speed or even the sound of the speaker’s voice. 7 A “yes” or “no” from a person’s mouth can sound decisive, but also questioning, hesitant or uncertain. These nuances of pronunciation can be transferred to typefaces. Kurt Schwitters said as early as 1927: “Type is the written image of language, the image of sound.”9. Erik Spiekermann formulated this more succinctly: “Type is visible language.” 8 Thus, typefaces are not only a tool for communication, but more importantly represent a company’s pronunciation, tone and gesture.

Take the following example to experience the differences that typefaces can make yourself. Imagine the following situation: You are asked by three different people: “Do you want to be my friend?”. Each questionner has his or her own pronunciation/sound, represented by different typefaces. We do not (yet) know our possible new friends, but on the basis of their pronunciation/sound - their typeface - we can judge which of them we would like to hang out with.

Do you want to be my friend?

three different Persons = three different Characters = three different Typefaces

The example clearly illustrates the visual and verbal level of typefaces. My professor Dr. Jörg Petri created this illustration for a basic typography course I took almost 10 years ago. As you can see, it has left a lasting impression on me. Did you notice that the characteristics of each typeface created the character of your possible friend in your head? Who would you choose to invite over for dinner?

To me, the first typeface seems soft and delicate. The text seems to be handwritten, even though it is a normal computer font. This way, it appears personal and authentic encouraging me to be friend with this person. The second font is quite the opposite. It feels static, because of its thick and vertical stems. The overall appearance is darker and more spiky than the first typeface. The character of the font is loud and rough. As I am a quiet and positive person, I do not imagine I would like this person. In addition, I associate German history with this typeface Fraktur. The Nazis declared Fraktur to be the preferred typeface in 1933, as “true German Type”10. As you can imagine, this connotation reinforces my negative impression. The third font, at first, does not trigger any reaction from me. The typeface seems very clear, sober and reserved. Neither positive nor negative emotions are triggered in me, at least in direct comparison with the first two examples.

Particularly in direct comparison with other fonts, we can see differences between the character of the typeface. After an analysis of the typefaces we can decide which person, (or typeface) we can assume we would most like to be friends with. After closer observations, we could even identify different preferences and characters within fonts which are, at first glance, fairly similar.

Many similar grotesque typefaces on the first sight, but always with a different character.

The problems with the Description of Typeface Characteristics and Effects

The great problem in describing the characteristics and effects of a typeface is subjectivity. Every person sees, feels and perceives a typeface in a different way. It is therefore not possible to form generally valid statements about how the character of a typeface appears and how it works. So in the example presented above, you may have come to a different conclusion than I did. Some will decide in favor of one typeface, others in favor of another.

Next Chapter: The Importance of Type in Design

  3. Subtext Typedesign. Martin Tiefenthaler. niggli. 2017