Are you communicating or just making pretty shapes?

The Art of Typography and why it matters.

Hidden amidst the daily barrage of visual communication is an oft-ignored secret weapon savvy designers recognise as a key messaging tool.


More precisely, good typography.

To the untrained eye, typography is mere decoration. A concession to style. Not something to give much thought to.

It’s never recognised that typography per se can influence the success of communications. Perhaps because little to no research has been done to enlighten marketers and designers.

Type design itself reflects societal and cultural change, the evolution of print and the advent of new technologies.

Purists claim that typography has taken a battering in the Digital Age. Computer screen resolution used to be so poor that only very basic type styles would read effectively on a computer screen. Fonts had to be ‘browser-safe’ and installed on a user’s computer or they wouldn’t display properly.

This introduced a plethora of bland, anonymous, forgettable fonts that lacked style and character—and would set very ‘open’ with a negative effect on comprehension.

Improving screen resolution is narrowing the gap between online and print though most designers appreciate that an online font is designed for ‘backlit’ screen display and not always appropriate for print.

Typography as part of the design—and communication—process.

Typography is defined as ‘the art of designing a communication by using the printed word.’ Its object to enhance layout and improve comprehension.

Typographer Colin Wheildon took typographic design and layout to a scientific level with his extensive research into the ‘comprehensibility of reading matter.’

In simple terms, he asked people how they reacted to a variety of type settings and elements that, when used in ill-considered ways, could deter, distract or even annoy the reader.

Are you with or without a serif?

The short finishing strokes at the end of letters known as serifs improve ease of reading as the horizontal ‘tramlines’ they create, enable the eye to scan words and phrases far more quickly than text set in a sans serif font.

Sans serif text, when set in paragraphs, causes an optical effect known as ‘irradiation’ which is a vertical disturbance between the lines of text. The lack of ‘tramlines’ means the reader has to concentrate more fully to scan the text.

Designers combat this effect by increasing the leading—or line spacing—in blocks of text when using a sans serif font.

The effect on comprehension of all this technical gobbledygook was researched over a period of years by Wheildon.

With striking results.

One simple test involved a single A4 page of text.  The type was set in a serif font and readers were asked to read it through. After a slight pause, they were then asked to recount what they had just read.

Recall, or comprehension, was a reasonable 64%.

The same text was then set in a sans serif font and a separate group of readers were asked to read it through. After a slight pause, they were asked to recall what they had just read.

Recall, or comprehension, scored less than 40%.

To disprove the likelihood of a freak result, the test was repeated over and over again, with the same loss of comprehension for the sans serif version. Could this really all be down to tramlines?

Financial companies take note: it’s said that “no-one reads the small print.” If your text is set in a sans serif font, at a small size, it’s hardly surprising.

And it’s no accident that almost exclusively, books have text set in a serif font, justified to a full column width—along with all quality newspapers.

Should you go for left, right or plumb for the centre?

Whether text should be ranged left, right, justified or centred is not so much a debate as a misunderstanding. Mostly designers will opt for what looks visually aesthetic, with little regard to the effectiveness of the communication.

In marketing literature, most typesetting is ranged left, with a ‘ragged’ right hand edge. This avoids the odd spacing that can happen with full justification, when inconsistent gaps appear between words, thus interrupting the natural flow of reading, and therefore reducing comprehension.

Typesetting that is ranged right, with a ragged left hand edge is communication suicide. It makes text much more difficult to read and comprehension plummets; the extra effort needed to find the beginning of a new line is too much for most readers.

Centred text, so often the default in template-looking websites, may look balanced from a layout and stylistic point of view. But don’t expect many people to bother reading it.

Particularly when the column width is more than 76 characters, or 12 words—the accepted rule of thumb, acknowledged in Wheildon’s research.

In marketing communications, typography should be the designer’s secret weapon

Many marketers underestimate the importance of typography when it comes to design. It’s seen as part of the content that’s added after the design has been agreed.

Typographers know otherwise.

Accomplished typography is something marketers and designers should make sure is an essential part of their communications armoury.

If you’d like an appraisal of your current marketing collateral from a typographic perspective, give us a call and we’ll see if we can improve things. You might find that your customers thank you for it.

Rowan (Creative Marketing) Ltd.

Think. Design. Deliver.

01829 771772

Recommended reading

Professor Edmund Arnold Ink on Paper 1972

Colin Wheildon Are you Communicating or Just Making Pretty Shapes? 1994

Aries Arditi Researcher for Lighthouse International

Rolf Rebe Typography: how to make it more legible

Di Hand; Steve Middleditch Design for Media: A Handbook for Students and Professionals in Journalism, PR, and Advertising 2014

Mark Porter The Guardian Newspaper Redesign 2006

Robert Bringhurst The Elements of Typographic Style 1992

Ellen Lupton Thinking with Type: A Critical Guide for Designers, Writers, Editors, & Students 2010