Talking type: Why web writers find it so difficult to talk about typography and what we can do to learn how
Storyline Longform is a series of in-depth articles that explore narrative approaches to web writing and design. This week, we'll be looking at type and why all of us web writers should learn how to talk about it.
A part of town is shady. A bar is seedy. A movie is schmaltzy. A book is riveting and explosive—or mind-numbing and cliché-ridden.
But what is Open Sans?
Wait, you literally don’t know what Open Sans is? I’ll give you a hint. It’s not a Norwegian novelist, or the name of a funky new sandwich shop in Nicosia that’s mixed languages unsuccessfully.
It’s actually a typeface, and a fairly ubiquitous one because it’s open source and promoted by Google Fonts. If you want to get a little more specific, it’s a friendly, comfortable, straightforward sans serif designed by Steve Matteson that’s good for web body copy. What makes it good for web body copy we’ll get into in a moment. For now, just notice that I’ve suggested a description of Open Sans. Can you picture it?
Probably not. Or else you have a picture in your head of your father’s favorite Christmas sweater, or the label of a laidback multigrain energy bar. Which isn’t your fault. It’s my fault. Better, it’s our fault. Because we writers don’t talk about typefaces, we don’t know how to describe them, and that’s a shame.
There are two reasons I’ll offer for the utility of web writers being able to talk about type, and one reason we don’t. Because I’m a writer, I’ll start with the negative.
Why we don't talk about typefaces
What makes a bar seedy? Better yet, what makes anything seedy? I’d argue that the “aesthetic furniture” of seediness is so embedded in our cultural mindscape—over years of seeing it, reading about it and hearing about it—that we don’t need an actual description of the actual seedy bar to get a pretty good picture of what it is. It could be a seedy bar in Herbert Asbury’s 19th century Manhattan, a latter-day incarnation of the same bar from a Joseph Mitchell story, or a cyberpunk dive in 22nd-century Tokyo via William Gibson, and we still get it. The reason we get it is because of that aesthetic furniture—the Platonic ideal of “seedy bar-ness”—embedded in our heads. It allows each of us to picture the bar concretely, if a little differently.
The same really isn’t true of typefaces, and I believe that’s because typefaces, no matter how much they influence our reading, or life, experiences, are abstract forms. They’re glyphs made of virtual or actual ink, most of them designed on a grid. They’re positive space (black) being etched out of negative space (white), pixel by pixel. They’re stems and strokes, shoulders and feet. They’re ascenders (think of the top part of an “h”) and descenders (think of the bottom part of a “g”) and x-heights (the height of the letterform minus the ascender and descender).
Moving back to Open Sans, what makes it a good web font? Its open forms (x-heights) give you plenty of negative space. This is good for legibility. The letters are no-frills (there’s no funny business here compared to, say, the inky shapes of GT Pressura, the restrained eccentricity of FF Din (check out the lowercase “l”), the strange ascenders and descenders designed into Colophon’s really cool System 85, or the downright bad behavior of this new release from Atypical Type Foundry in Greece. Open Sans is also versatile (it was designed in five weights) and can accommodate Greek and Russian.
But it’s still just pixels and glyphs (897 to be exact).
And who can fall in love with a glyph?
Well, actually, we do. In the same way that an abstract Mark Rothko canvas can inspire contemplation, joy or conflict, a typeface can inspire strong feelings and reactions. It’s just difficult to put those feelings into words.
Unfortunately, this isn’t an excuse for not being about to talk about typefaces. Massimo Vignelli, a purist who worked in, and espoused working in, just five typefaces, said a typeface can express how we feel about a lover. If this is true—if we can talk about love with Helvetica—then we should start thinking about how to do that.
"You can say, 'I love you', in Helvetica. And you can say it with Helvetica Extra Light if you want to be really fancy. Or you can say it with the Extra Bold if it's really intensive and passionate, you know, and it might work."
Why we should talk about typefaces
I can think of two very good reasons we should start talking about typefaces. Before I do, I’ll issue a caveat. Once you start noticing type, because of its ubiquity, you’ll never stop. So, if you want to live as you have been for the entirety of your life up to the point that your eyeballs have reached the glyphs you are reading now, stop here and skip to the section with the heading Type Defines the Web Experience. I’m serious about this. If you read on, your life will forever be changed.
"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."
Erik Spiekermann, renegade typographer
Type is everywhere, all the time
You don’t need to be a typehead to notice type. In fact, I’d say if you don’t notice type, something’s wrong with you. Type is more ubiquitous than just about any other vehicle of visual information created by man. It’s there flagging our eyeballs on license plates, coffee coasters, napkins, business cards, shop signs and movie posters. It’s on our underwear and the receipt for our underwear. It’s on our desktops, laptops and mobile phones. It’s on fire extinguishers, sick bags and tote bags. It’s on your arm, or the arm of at least one other person you’re riding the bus with. It’s the real decider when we’re in the supermarket trying to settle on an energy bar—not the picture of the bar or even what that bar tastes like. It’s protean. Styleless men use the same typeface to advertise discount car batteries from the backs of their pickup trucks that global corporations use to represent everything they stand for. (That typeface is Helvetica, by the way, revolutionary when it was completed in 1957 by the Swiss designer Max Miedinger, but now as common as the air we breathe.)
Type can be elegant or brutal, soaring or lowbrow. It can be aspirational and it can be visual pollution. A lot of type is, in fact, visual pollution—not necessarily the type itself, but how it’s used—and this is also a shame. Because we can’t avoid it, because it’s inflicted on our retinas from our first morning coffee to the moment our eyes slip shut on the closing credits of our nightly Neflix fix, we’re all unwitting hostages of type. If we are hostages, we should acknowledge the fact, and take some responsibility. The first step in that process would be learning how to talk about type.
Type defines the web experience
Enter any website you want and look around. What do you see?
Sure. And a lot of other interesting stuff like interactive infographics and explainer animations and scroll and hover effects, and whatever else a clever designer can bring to the table.
But the visual experience of a website is not primarily graphic. That experience is directed by type and informed by type. Even if you’re looking at a web designer’s portfolio, your eyes are processing type. It’s type that organizes information and tells you what you’re looking at—at a caption or a headline, a sub-header or a date—and, therefore, determines hierarchy and emphasis.
Type is usability. Is your type too light to read? Sized too small to read? Are your lines set too close to each other? Do they have too many characters? Is there too little contrast between your background color and the color of your type? If any of these are true, then your text is an ornament, not a tool.
Type is voice, and users react to it. Type makes us feel the “corporate-ness” of a corporate website or the “bulk party supply e-shop-ness” of a bulk party supply e-shop. It may be making us feel the “bulk party supply e-shop-ness” of a corporate website, if no one there was attentive to type. It’s telling us if we’re dealing with an online identity built on tradition or one that’s pushing the envelope, one that respects the user experience or one that drops information on our eyeballs like a watering can. It’s telling us if the brand cares about us or wants us to care about it, or if it has a sense of humor or wears a suit, (or doesn’t wear a suit but really wants us to think it wears suits.)
The nuances of type are boundless, and finely graded, but the language of type is learnable through experience, and God knows we have enough experience with type. We couldn’t get away from it if we tried.
If you’re a web writer, this isn’t a value-added skill you bring to projects. It should be part of your content analysis and your writing process. The same way you wouldn’t show up for a pool party in a suit of armor, you wouldn’t dress your real estate copy in the typeface of a dog spa, would you? Or dress a long-form article in a monospaced typeface like Generika? Or pitch your wedding website in Abel?
I’ll end this impassioned plea by arguing that we aren’t Massimo Vignelli. Our visual experience is richer with the incredible amount of typefaces being created by the many contemporary foundries working today. The palette is huge, discovery is arduous because of that, and maybe the language we writers have to talk about type is limited.
But think of it this way. How many films do you watch every month? Now, imagine if you couldn’t describe what you saw, not even with a single adjective. Imagine if the entire world of cinema was a life experience that turned your tongue into a thick blob of pizza dough that stuck to the roof of your mouth and produced no words.
Well, how many typefaces do you see every day? Try it. Count them. This is our informational landscape when we hit the streets, a jungle of glyphs that are the containers for our words, and maybe even their hearts and souls.
If you’re a web writer, type is also your job, and, as such, inseparable from the voices you craft and the user experience you’re at least partially responsible for creating. Rather than leaving everything to designers, better to start thinking about type yourself, so that when it’s your turn to join the conversation, you actually have something to say.
Max Sheridan's writing has appeared in a number of online and print publications in the US, UK and elsewhere. He's worked as a teacher, journalist, editor and copywriter. He's the founder and director of Write CY, a Nicosia-based platform for creative writing and community storytelling, where he teaches Story Craft, a 10-week short story writing course. His novel Dillo was released by Shotgun Honey in December 2017. Talk to him at: email@example.com.