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How to Explain Why Typography Matters
by Thomas Phinney

"What do you do?"

"I’m a typographer."

"Oh, you’re a topographer. So does that mean you have a geology background, or you mostly work with maps?"

"Erm, not exactly. I’m a typographer, I work with fonts."

"Funds? Like an investment banker?"

If you are a designer who cares about typography, odds are that you regularly try to explain to somebody–whether a client or someone at a party–why anybody should care about typography. Web designers are beginning to face these same questions that have long plagued graphic designers, thanks to new Web technologies such as @font-face and CSS3 typography features.

In the past decade, awareness of fonts and typography has become a bigger part of mainstream culture than it once was, thanks to such things as Gary Hustwit’s documentary film Helvetica, frequent news coverage of people who hate Comic Sans and type designer Matthew Carter winning a MacArthur “genius” grant. But all too often one is met with a blank look and/or confusion as to why anyone would bother about such things. Having encountered this regularly in my professional career as a typographer, I thought I’d share some of the ideas, arguments and information I’ve marshaled over the years: explaining branding, analogies about film, fashion and furniture, and summarizing recent research.

Even subtle differences in typography, such as appropriate small caps, old style figures, kerning and ligatures can measurably affect how people react to a document, as shown in this experiment by Larson et al.

Why care about typography and fonts at all? The branding argument is an easy one to make. The brand is the unique personality that identifies a product, service, person or place. Design gives us the visual instantiation of a brand. The selection of typefaces and the arrangement of them can be as important as the use of color, images or abstract graphics in creating a brand, and this is usually easy to explain.

But wait, your client says, “I already have a logo. Why worry about fonts and typography everywhere else?”

New York-based designer James Puckett had a great explanation when we discussed the issue on “I always tell people that the difference between good typography and [bad typography] is the difference between work that looks professional and work that looks like someone threw it together in MS Word. One reason Apple’s stores look so good is the careful and consistent application of [the typeface] Myriad. But Kmart’s careless mashup of Helvetica, Gill Sans, News Gothic and Gotham looks like, well, Kmart.”

OK, so being consistent is good, but why not just be consistent with Times or Courier? Why do people keep designing new fonts anyway, don’t we have enough already? Hasn’t everything already been invented by now?

Typography is like fashion, or furniture. With rare functional exceptions, the world doesn't “need” new clothing or furniture designs, but people want to look different or evoke a particular feeling or fit with a particular “look,” and there are trends and styles. While true innovation is rare, people consistently come up with variations on existing themes, or combine existing elements in new ways, whether in type design, clothing or furniture.

The kinds of clothing designs we see on Paris runways are usually the fashion equivalent of display typography—usable only in narrow situations, creating a memorable style that communicates quite strongly. Everyday clothing styles are a different matter, communicating more subtly, like body text choices in typography.

I like to use fashion and furniture analogies for another reason: Typefaces, too, are artifacts that can be aesthetically pleasing and functional at the same time. A great chair is not only visually attractive, but comfortable to sit in; a great typeface can be pleasing to the eye, and perform other functions as well, such as being legible for printing a newspaper, or on screen at body text sizes. Like furniture and clothing design, type design is a craft, blending art and science. Phinney
Thomas Phinney is senior product manager for fonts and typography at Extensis, including the WebINK web font solution, and treasurer of ATypI. From 1997-2008 he did type at Adobe, lastly as product manager for fonts and global typography. His typeface Hypatia Sans is an Adobe Original. Phinney has long been involved in the design, technical, forensic, business, standards and history of type. His interest in forensic typography has led to testifying as an expert witness in court, being quoted in newspapers from the Washington Post to the Dallas Morning News, and being consulted by organizations ranging from PBS (for History Detectives) to the US Treasury. Phinney has an MS in printing from the Rochester Institute of Technology, and an MBA from UC Berkeley.