Tuesday, July 20, 2010

On the BBC

Hey look at that, I'm quoted in a feature on the front page of the BBC: Do Typefaces Really Matter? (near the end)

If you're visiting from the article, you may wish to see the post that inspired the reporter to give me a call: Fonts Don't Matter.

I wrote it to be a bit provocative, and I am by no means an expert in any aspect of design. However, I stand by my opinion that in the vast majority of situations where text's primary purpose is to be read (versus, say, recognized, like a brand's logo, or the sign to the right), typeface matters very little.

Some pro-fonters in the BBC article posit subliminal emotional reactions to fonts. That is a testable claim, and its veracity is an empirical question. Show me actual evidence for substantial differences in emotional reactions to fonts and I'll gladly rescind my assholery. Until then, I highly doubt there is a tapestry of font-inspired emotions comparable to Baskin-Robbins' 31 flavours of ice cream.

If this is your first visit to Phronk.com, welcome. I usually don't talk about design, but you might wanna come back anyway, since I'm kinda awesome. I also don't usually write boring posts about my dreams. Hence why I had to put this one up to, you know, make up for that last one. So y'all come back. Or else.

In other 15 minutes (maybe 16 now) of fame news, I am currently the featured blogger at Studio 30+ (also: I'm old). Plus there was being in Macleans and other publications etc etc talk to my publicist.

30 comments:

Brian Frank said...

I had sort of assumed the "emotional response" claim (or whatever it was that I vaguely understood) seemed right but, yeah, it wouldn't be hard to test, so where's the evidence?

My guess is that any response is only a first-impression thing that wears off. And not so much from the font itself but the way it fits with the rest of the design, and how people associate it with their past experiences, which sets expectations and if there's a role for emotion in that process it would be something like anxiety caused by dissonance dissonance or pleasure in harmony or whatever...

I have no fucking clue about what I just wrote.

Phronk said...

Hahah well I think you made some good points nonetheless.

There are a lot of things to consider. Maybe there are emotional responses for a subset of the population (designers), but how much of that is based on arbitrary conventions? If Comic Sans was the default in word processors, would it be considered neutral, with Times New Roman giggle-worthy?

Regardless, those past experiences could cause real emotional reactions. I still think it's limited to a small number of people though.

katrocket said...

You ARE kinda awesome! (especially at self-promotion) I expect that you'll soon earn enough money from your Google AdSense to open a MegafUcks of your own.

Johnson said...

I certainly have a reaction to font colours. After trolling the blogosphere today in search of new blogs worth following I have run the gamut from rage (white font on pink background), cross-eyed (light blue font on dark blue background) to puking (anything with yellow).

But I would agree that there is an element to typeface selection that makes me emotional, namely the punch-in-the-faciness I feel when people talk about the beauty of a font's design, especially the recent ridiculous craze for all things "helvetica." Shut up you hipster design douche.

(And yes, punch-in-the-faciness is an actual emotion).

Phronk said...

Katrocket: Oh I already have a Megafucks of my own. IF YOU KNOW WHAT I MEAN.

Johnson: Ew yeah, light text on a dark background makes my eyes hurt. But that's a pretty obvious physical reaction rather than a nebulous emotional one, and concerns legibility more than any artistic concerns. Going beyond big decisions like colour, I get slightly punch-in-the-facey too.

Helvetica Sux said...

hey man, nice blog you got here. good job getting quoted at BBC. there are millions of much more credible bloggers out there, i'm not sure why they picked some random dude out of canada.

you said "subtitle fonts don't matter as long as you can read them", but i find it hard to read papyrus. i won't get into if it is ugly or not, papyrus is a display typeface. it is fitted to use for titles. it's just not that legible when used for longer and smaller texts. the movie (avatar) itself is already fancy, why pair it with a fancy typeface for subtitles? the more effort you had to put into reading the subtitles, the lesser experience you are gonna get out of watching avatar's stunning graphics. that really defeats the purpose of the movie. i bet, no, i know for a fact, if the subtitles are set in a body typeface such as univers, it'll save half the effort/time in reading the subtitles. i could enjoy the movie more.

graphic designers specialize in the art of communication, it's their job to make things/designs to communicate the best way possible. and typography is a huge part of graphic design, the choice of typeface makes or breaks a design. calling graphic designers "wine snobs" is uncalled for and immature.

this is not your first day on the internet, why are you trolling?

Phronk said...

Helvetica Sux: Passive aggression ain't the most mature thing either, but there it is. :)

Like I said, show me evidence that the average person exerts twice the effort to read papyrus vs. a body typeface, and I'll be convinced.

I think the wine snob comparison is apt. Wine snobs would probably be equally as insulted if you compared them to font snobs. Any community has its subtleties and culture, and there's nothing wrong with that.

But when factual claims are made — like that fonts have emotional impact on the average person, or that subtle flavours can be detected in a blind taste test — then they should be backed up with evidence if they are to be taken seriously outside of the self-perpetuating community.

A Vapid Blonde said...

When I see comic sans I want to stab little kittens.

Ha, just kidding.

Also I love the megafucks picture!

Congrats on the BBC hook up.

Forest City Fashionista said...

I have pretty much nothing to say on the font issue, other than if it's hard to read, don't use it. And for God sake don't use all caps, who wants to be yelled at in type? Congratulations on yet MORE (see what I mean) publicity for your awesomeness. How did you get to be featured blogger on the 30+ site--did someone nominate you, or is this just another one of your shameless self-promotion things?

Anonymous said...

I would like to start by saying, you're a dick!

Typefaces do in fact carry an emotional feeling to them, which is relevant in logo and branding use. Now in text use it is not so much about the feeling as it is legibility, which you in fact stated your self.....now choosing the correct typeface for legibility is in fact just as much a process as it is to choose one for the use of branding a fashion company, or a furniture company versus branding a surfing company. It is also not just about the right typeface used for mass text, like in books or even your shitty blog, but there is quite an extensive amount of work done in order to adjust the kerning and leading. Of course I don't expect you to know what these design terms mean, however if you do some research on them, maybe you will stumble upon the discipline and education one must have in order to be a successful typographer.
To "show you actual evidence for substantial differences in emotional reactions to fonts" I ask you to take a look at the typeface "Impact" and "Baskerville" and tell me that you do not see any difference in the two and how they may be used in different places.

Dick head...

Phronk said...

Thanks Vapid Blonde!

FCF: I agree. I'm not sure if I was nominated or picked out of a hat or what. I just joined the site and one day that popped up. I guess it's a pretty small community so they didn't have many options. :)

Anonymous: Thank you for your comment. However, I found it difficult to even identify where we disagree through that incoherent rant. I know there is much work that went into creating legible typefaces. That does not justify arbitrary fetishes for specific fonts. A lot of discipline and education goes into making vodka, but that doesn't mean there are actual taste differences between competent brands.

Also, even if I broke into a cold sweat while viewing Baskerville, anecdotes are not evidence.

I don't deny there is a place for each font, but it is largely based on accidental conventions. Plus, clear and polite writing trumps all minor aesthetic considerations.

P.S. Douche.

Mark said...

I give you Perception of Fonts: Perceived Personality Traits and Uses. Also you should check out "I'm Comic Sans, Asshole" on McSweeney's.

All the best,
Mark (a gleeful font nerd)

Anthony Garritano said...

I'm kinda' scratching my head on this one. On a general level, I totally agree, the average Joe is not going to notice the differences between Helvetica and Univers. But I fully believe type can make or break something. It's not just about what it looks like, it's how functional the typeface is, and even more importantly, how pleasing the text is to read. These are the problems that a designer provides solutions to, and in reality, one typeface may not be "better" than another regarding readability or such, but one may fit in with the overall designer better than another. You may be able to read Comic Sans just as well as Museo, but Museo is a whoooooole lot prettier, not to mention it's much more versatile and easier to work with.

There are many other things to consider when choosing a typeface. Just comparing the same word in different faces isn't enough. Not all typefaces are created equal, as they can handle spacing and alignment in completely different ways. The best typefaces don't only look great, but also have taken into account all the variables of the design process.

Type is very important, and I would say the most important part of a design, as reading is the most fundamental part of our information process.

Helvetica Sux said...

well, congrats phronk. anom's rant is the kind of response you are hoping for. while i don't approve of anom's manner, he/she definitely has more knowledge on typography than you ever will. who are you to tell graphic designers to back up with evidence? who are you to say your opinion represents the "average person"? like i said, graphic designers are experts in typography and specialize in the art of communication, you are trying to prove us wrong. you should be the one to back up what you say with evidence. if we aren't "taken seriously outside of the self-perpetuating community", would we be called professionals? would we be paid thousands of dollars to do what we do?

Dan said...

I wonder if Helvetica Sux realizes that in the rants he/she posted.... Capital letters were never used. Now, nitpicking about spelling and grammar often seems like a silly internet joke, but come on, you claim to be a graphic artist and should be taken seriously. How can it be that proper sentence structure, grammar, and a basic understanding of english don't factor in to that?

Helvetica Sux said...

oh, there we have it, a comments section wouldn't be complete without a grammar nazi. i don't suppose ".... " is a proper ellipsis, is it?

Phronk said...

Mark: Yeah, see, that's the kind of evidence I'm talking about. Thank you.

Not quite testing the emotional reaction claim I'm focusing on here, but it could certainly be extended that way. I'm convinced that the average person can identify the "personality" and typical use of a font. I'm still skeptical about how much it matters, especially compared to more important issues (e.g., clear writing, not being paralyzed) that can be ignored in favour of concentrating on fonts.


Anthony: I agree completely that legibility is important. Fitting into a design and being easy to work with, sure, those are important too. But beyond a font that fulfills minimum requirements in these categories, I think the subtleties are largely arbitrary and a concern mostly to designers who work with the fonts every day. Which is fine. I just don't think the average person much cares or notices if a body of text in on readable, functional font changes to another readable, functional font.


Helvetica Sux: Sorry, that's not how knowledge works. Designers are the ones making claims—like that fonts cause emotional reactions—and thus they are the ones that have to back them up. I can't prove a negative.

I've never said that designers aren't taken seriously or aren't valuable. Just that the specific jargon and conventions that emerge in their community, or any community (I'm sure there are many I focus on when being a writer or psychologist) are only meaningful in that community.

I think this one of the few cases where grammar nazihood is kinda relevant, since one of my main points is that clear writing is much more important than font.

Johnson said...

Wow. When did this discussion get so heated? Font! Who knew? In addition to Dan's diligent grammar Nazi-ing, I'd like to point out that if Helvetica Sux really were someone who "specialize[s] in the art of communication" he (or she) would probably be better at making an argument without resorting to insults and otherwise just making everyone with whom he's trying to argue think that he (or she) is just a massive douche nozzle.

Anonymous said...

So you can honestly feel that, lets say a blackletter typeface, does not evoke any kind of specific feeling to you when you first visual see it, prior to reading it?
If it were the case that typefaces do not possess emotion to them, why would be have so many different styles and variations of type?

Would you visit a doctor who's branding had been based on blackletter type? I feel that you would question it to some degree.

Would you purchase an action film which had been packaged in an elegantly graphically handsome hand drawn calligraphic type mass head with out questioning its relevance?

Or what if you had been presented with two brands of tooth paste, one being branded with the clean helvetica typeface. which is easy to read and presents a simple clean esthetic, as opposed to a second brand being presented with the Papyrus typeface used in the Avatar film? Wouldn't that gritty beat up looking typeface deter you from purchasing a personal hygiene product?

Would you feel comfortable navigating through out New York City's transportation system reading signage in blackletter rather than helvetica's easy to read usage?

In fact, if you research arabic calligraphy, it may first seem that their letter forms are just loosely hand drawn, however if you educate your self on it you will find that there are specific typefaces which have been derived from several different time periods and movements in the islamic culture through out its time. The islamic culture refused to represent God with images, so they have in time developed several different styles of their alphabet into different typefaces....you can not sit there and tell me that that does not show any kind of emotion expressed by type forms.

There is a reason why corporations spend hundreds of thousands of dollars for personal typefaces. What would McDonalds be with out they're "M?" Coca-Cola with out their classic logo? K-Mart with out their "K?" Lego's logo don't have an emotional effect on children who can't even read it? Cereal packaging? Google's typeface? FedEx's use of helvetica in its own context subliminally presenting a typographic solution to their services. Toys r us, Disney, AIG, IBM, GE, Ford.....the list goes on.

Thank you Helvetica Sux for agreeing with me, I apologize for any form of rudeness I may have portrayed, and though you have agreed with me, I would have to disagree with you on your belief that helvetica is a crappy typeface, and in fact I believe it is timeless and can be used for almost anything due to its neutrality in emotion, contrary to our argument versus this board. Yes it is overly used, however it is the only typeface that could have been used so much and still function to date.

P.S. I still think your a dick!

Anonymous said...

So you can honestly feel that, lets say a blackletter typeface, does not evoke any kind of specific feeling to you when you first visual see it, prior to reading it?
If it were the case that typefaces do not possess emotion to them, why would be have so many different styles and variations of type?

Would you visit a doctor who's branding had been based on blackletter type? I feel that you would question it to some degree.

Would you purchase an action film which had been packaged in an elegantly graphically handsome hand drawn calligraphic type mass head with out questioning its relevance?

Anonymous said...

Or what if you had been presented with two brands of tooth paste, one being branded with the clean helvetica typeface. which is easy to read and presents a simple clean esthetic, as opposed to a second brand being presented with the Papyrus typeface used in the Avatar film? Wouldn't that gritty beat up looking typeface deter you from purchasing a personal hygiene product?

Would you feel comfortable navigating through out New York City's transportation system reading signage in blackletter rather than helvetica's easy to read usage?

In fact, if you research arabic calligraphy, it may first seem that their letter forms are just loosely hand drawn, however if you educate your self on it you will find that there are specific typefaces which have been derived from several different time periods and movements in the islamic culture through out its time. The islamic culture refused to represent God with images, so they have in time developed several different styles of their alphabet into different typefaces....you can not sit there and tell me that that does not show any kind of emotion expressed by type forms.

There is a reason why corporations spend hundreds of thousands of dollars for personal typefaces. What would McDonalds be with out they're "M?" Coca-Cola with out their classic logo? K-Mart with out their "K?" Lego's logo don't have an emotional effect on children who can't even read it? Cereal packaging? Google's typeface? FedEx's use of helvetica in its own context subliminally presenting a typographic solution to their services. Toys r us, Disney, AIG, IBM, GE, Ford.....the list goes on.

Thank you Helvetica Sux for agreeing with me, I apologize for any form of rudeness I may have portrayed, and though you have agreed with me, I would have to disagree with you on your belief that helvetica is a crappy typeface, and in fact I believe it is timeless and can be used for almost anything due to its neutrality in emotion, contrary to our argument versus this board. Yes it is overly used, however it is the only typeface that could have been used so much and still function to date.

P.S. I still think your a dick!

Helvetica Sux said...

@anom, i run the site to collect memorable quotes. regardless of how i feel about helv, i just loved what spiekermann said.

@phronk, the only person making claims is you. you have done zero research on the subject matter and are trying to tell graphic designers what they learned is utter rubbish. if you want "actual evidence for substantial differences in emotional reactions to fonts", i suggest you go read some books. typography has a long history and is well documented. otherwise, rescind your assholery.

Phronk said...

Johnson: I know eh? The main thing I find unwarranted is the emotional response to fonts, and this heated exchange is proving that nicely. "Douche nozzle"; that's clear communication right there.


Anon: Not sure which version I should respond to. Most of your examples are logos or involve legibility, which I've stated are areas where font is a legitimate concern. So we agree there.

But even then, there are dozens of other, more important factors when choosing a doctor that come before which typeface their brochures are in. And corporate logos aren't just fonts, but artwork that may (or may not) incorporate a font as just a part of it.


Helvetica Sux: No seriously, still not how the acquisition of knowledge works. You are making the claim that fonts cause emotional reactions, and the onus is on the claimant to prove it.

If I claim there's a blue-skinned monster living in my closet sometimes, the proper response is to ask me to prove it. Pics or it didn't happen. If I defend my claim with "prove there is NOT a monster in my closet," you are right to call me a crackpot. Same principal applies here.

And once again, I've never insulted graphic designers or said what they do is rubbish. I just think some of their explosive reactions are disproportionate to the subtle effects they work with. The irrationally defensive reaction to the BBC article and this blog has shown that this is true in at least some cases.

Anonymous said...

Chase had spent a quarter of a million dollars, which was worth a lot more during the time it was done then it is now, to hire Chermayeff & Geismar to develop the branding for them. 1/3 if that was developing the logo mark, 1/3 was developing an entirely new typeface for Chase to use exclusively, and the other 1/3 was to implement the type into all of the areas needed. The branding has survived for half a century already, and if not mistaken when viewed. This type is not just used in their logo, but also through out the branding on all of their applications: business cards, brochures, posters, advertising, bill boards, checks, website, envelopes, etc etc.

The same branding studio had been granted a quarter of a million dollars to develop the "Mobil" logo, which in your ignorant mind might "just be a font", which it happens to be Helvetica. However this type treatment is unmistaken...

How about the classic "I (heart) NY" T-shirts.....if you had seen one with papyrus instead of american type writer, I assure you that it would draw some question.

Some other type logos:
Barneys New York
Hearst corporation
MoMa
New Museum
Metropolitan Museum of Art
Showtime
HBO
MTV
Brooklyn Brewery
and nearly all of the ones I had mentioned earlier in my last post. Everyone of these possess an emotional attachment to its individual brand.

95% of successful fashion designers have logos which are just type....everyone of them conveys a feeling in relation to the fashion esthetic.

Lets go back to the origin of this debate....Avatar's type. Papyrus is in fact quite illegible, and a disgrace to typography. Papyrus is impossible to successfully kern due to the fact that it has unnecessary textured edges, which that on its own would make it a horrible decision to use by any respectable designer. The way a persons eyes flow easily through letter and line structure is not caused by the brain adapting to the letterforms which it is viewing, but the strategic placement of the letter forms them selves in relation to one another. The only reason why an non-disciplined designer, if you can even call them a designer, would use it would be because of their EMOTION REACTION to the way it looks with its textured edges.

How come no reaction to my statement on Islamic Calligraphy? It is a valid statement on how type possesses emotion.

If there is no reason to fuss over what typeface to use, and no emotion attached per typeface, why don't you give it a practice and use Papyrus or Zapfino as the typeface used in your blog. Then report back to use on how much your readings have gone down in a month.....

Anonymous said...

Chase had spent a quarter of a million dollars, which was worth a lot more during the time it was done then it is now, to hire Chermayeff & Geismar to develop the branding for them. 1/3 if that was developing the logo mark, 1/3 was developing an entirely new typeface for Chase to use exclusively, and the other 1/3 was to implement the type into all of the areas needed. The branding has survived for half a century already, and if not mistaken when viewed. This type is not just used in their logo, but also through out the branding on all of their applications: business cards, brochures, posters, advertising, bill boards, checks, website, envelopes, etc etc.

The same branding studio had been granted a quarter of a million dollars to develop the "Mobil" logo, which in your ignorant mind might "just be a font", which it happens to be Helvetica. However this type treatment is unmistaken...

How about the classic "I (heart) NY" T-shirts.....if you had seen one with papyrus instead of american type writer, I assure you that it would draw some question.

Some other type logos:
Barneys New York
Hearst corporation
MoMa
New Museum
Metropolitan Museum of Art
Showtime
HBO
MTV
Brooklyn Brewery
and nearly all of the ones I had mentioned earlier in my last post. Everyone of these possess an emotional attachment to its individual brand.

Anonymous said...

95% of successful fashion designers have logos which are just type....everyone of them conveys a feeling in relation to the fashion esthetic.

Lets go back to the origin of this debate....Avatar's type. Papyrus is in fact quite illegible, and a disgrace to typography. Papyrus is impossible to successfully kern due to the fact that it has unnecessary textured edges, which that on its own would make it a horrible decision to use by any respectable designer. The way a persons eyes flow easily through letter and line structure is not caused by the brain adapting to the letterforms which it is viewing, but the strategic placement of the letter forms them selves in relation to one another. The only reason why an non-disciplined designer, if you can even call them a designer, would use it would be because of their EMOTION REACTION to the way it looks with its textured edges.

How come no reaction to my statement on Islamic Calligraphy? It is a valid statement on how type possesses emotion.

If there is no reason to fuss over what typeface to use, and no emotion attached per typeface, why don't you give it a practice and use Papyrus or Zapfino as the typeface used in your blog. Then report back to use on how much your readings have gone down in a month.....

http://www.helveticafilm.com/
Watch the film and you will understand how significant a typeface is.

Helvetica Sux said...

@phrok, you claiming typefaces do not provoke emotions while there are books written and films made to prove that they do is like a person without any knowledge of science claiming the earth is not round while it is scientifically proven that the earth is indeed round. this is called ignorance.

and also, never in any of my posts i have touched on the subject of emotions. i was mainly focused on the bad choice of typeface that broke a design, and defending that typefaces do actually matter, from logos to reading texts.

Phronk said...

Helvetica Sux: I think your comparing the emotion-arousing potential of fonts to the earth being round is an example of becoming entrenched in your craft so much as to be out of touch with common perception.

It's not common knowledge that fonts cause emotion. It relies on complex propositions about unconscious attitudes and emotions (whatever that even means) that are, if proven at all, on the cutting edge of actual knowledge about human behaviour. And yeah, you keep mentioning my ignorance, but um, I sort of have a degree in this.

I'm talking about emotion because that's the claim mentioned in the article and the one I'm addressing here. I've explicitly said that I'm not talking about logos. We can go off on a tangent if you want, but that's a different discussion.

Phronk said...

Anon: Sorry if you're having trouble with the comment system (I know some people have recently).

Once again, not talking about logos or branding. That's interesting stuff, but doesn't address what I'm talking about.

Although, if the money spent on typeface concerns is relevant, don't you think Avatar's massive budget proves you're wrong about papyrus?

I don't know enough about the history of Arabic typefaces to really comment. I really didn't mean my comments to be multicultural truths. There are communities who attach emotion to fonts—like graphic designers and, apparently, Arabic calligraphers—but the average person still doesn't give a crap which legible font subtitles are in.

I'm not going to make my blog papyrus because that would look stupid. When it comes to designing my blog, I'm a designer and right there along with all of you. But I don't pretending anyone else actually cares (much; legibility is a concern in this case), and I doubt I would lose readers outside of the font snob community.

Phronk said...

P.S. I googled "font and emotion". The first hit is this ironically hideous site by a guy who says he's written books on the subject. But once again, he's just stating things without supporting them. He says the font on IRS forms make people have a reaction to that font, but only in the US. Nice theory, nice testable claim. Now give me some reason to believe it's actually true.