What is Typography and Why It Matters: An In-Depth Look

What is typography? Why does it matter?

They say that communication is about 90% nonverbal and only 10% actual words.

But what about written text?

Of course, there’s no body language involved. But there is certainly a visual aspect to consider.

“Typography is the art and technique of arranging type to make written language legible, readable, and appealing when displayed” — Wikipedia

The physical appearance of written text, or typography – the size, colour, and most certainly the font – plays an incredibly important role in the way in which written works come across.

The right font can elicit a certain emotion. It can show you mean business. Or it can imply playfulness. It can even be frightening. Or imply that something was written a very long time ago.

The Right Typography for Your Logo

Font choice makes a huge difference when deciding on a logo’s appearance. Many logos make use of unique fonts that have been trademarked. Again, typography will communicate subtle nuances.

Imagine you were tasked with having to come up with the font for a major corporation that entertains children and owns “the happiest place on earth.” What do you envisage? I would suggest it should have rounded edges so as not to convey aggression. It should look happy and playful. Perhaps a little whimsical.

That’s exactly how I would describe the font used for the Disney logo.

Can you imagine the Disney logo in a different font?

The word itself is the logo, but only in that well-recognized font called Waltograph (based directly on Walt Disney’s signature). Without the font, the word “Disney” is just a word. Write it in Waltograph and it becomes a well-known logo.

The same holds true for many logos.

Coca-Cola is another great example; this beverage’s font is recognized the world over. I sometimes see t-shirts with words in a Coca-Cola font and have to do a double-take before realizing the shirt says something other than “Coca-Cola.”

Here is a prime example:

Notice that even though the tshirt doesn’t actually read “Coca-Cola” – your mind automatically goes there. Their brand and typography is so strong, you’re powerless to resist it.

We have come to associate this font – and the red and white colour scheme – with this well-known beverage. It is automatic and happens even before you’ve read the word.

The words in this font don’t even have to read “Coca-Cola” for you to know that this is the company the font is associated with.

A classic font for a classic beverage.

This is the hallmark of an effective logo design and wise use of a unique font.

When Legibility Matters

If a logo is popular and recognizable, legibility doesn’t necessarily matter. Is it easy to read the words in “Coca-Cola” font? Not particularly.

However, you could argue that legibility is important in other circumstances. Sometimes, it is critically important.

Oh yes, important indeed.

If you watched the Oscars this year, you know exactly what I’m talking about.

If you missed the Oscars, here’s a quick synopsis of what happened:

Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway were on stage presenting the award for Best Picture. Warren Beatty reads the card with the award winner on it to himself. Twice. It’s evident he knows something is not quite right.

He shows Faye Dunaway the card and gives her a quizzical look. She promptly reads the card aloud. “La La Land.” Great! Everyone cheers and the cast of “La La Land” excitedly takes to the stage.

Unfortunately, “La La Land” didn’t win the Oscar for Best Picture. “Moonlight” did.

So, what happened?

Unfortunately, Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway were mistakenly given the envelope for Best Actress, not Best Picture.

You can see in this picture of the card that Beatty was mistakenly given, that the award category – in this case, “Best Actress” – is in incredibly tiny letters at the bottom.

It’s easy to miss.

Especially if you’re reading the card from top to bottom as most people would. The words “Best Actress” almost seem like an afterthought.

Miss Dunaway can hardly be faulted for reading the card aloud, thinking it’s the correct one.

You would also think that the actual winner (in the case of this card, it would be “Emma Stone”) would be the largest, most obvious, impossible-to-miss words on the card, followed by the category.

You can see this is clearly not the case. The name of the movie is in a typeface that is identical to Emma Stone’s name with the category seemingly insignificant at the very bottom.

If you’re familiar with this story, you’ll know that there were other factors that led to the incorrect winner being announced.

Beatty was handed the wrong envelope, allegedly because the lettering on the envelope was also unclear and difficult to read.

This is where it gets good:

Apparently, the stage crew had complained a few days prior to the show that the lettering on the envelope was too small and, therefore, difficult to read.

Unfortunately, at that point, it was too late to do anything about it. (The crew had also complained about the cards themselves, stating that the type face was far too small. They were reprinted in a larger font to make them easier to read and to prevent any mishaps. Oh, the irony!)

Clearly, in the case of the Oscars, legibility – and therefore, typography – matters. A lot.

Making mistakes because of poor typography can also have more dire consequences. While announcing the incorrect winner’s name at the Oscars can be an embarrassing event, no one’s life was ever in jeopardy.

When Poor Typography Kills

Imagine, however, what might happen if someone’s life depended on good legibility.

In a 2005 study, the Journal of the American Medical Association examined why physicians who used a computerized physician order entry system were giving their patients the wrong medication.

They found that part of the reason this happened was that the font size the patients’ names had been written in was far too small. (Sound familiar?)

Pair that with the names being listed alphabetically, meaning all similar names are grouped together, and you have set yourself up for potential disaster.

This is why typography matters.

When Poor Typography Just Insults

On a lighter note, poor font choices can also result in unintended insults.

Consider this rather unfortunate font choice. The card reads “For a Special Aunt” but your special aunt may misread this as a less flattering term.

A different font – any other font – would have prevented the shameful slander of special aunts everywhere.

So how does all this relate to you?

Typography and Web Design

If you have a website, typography or font choice is definitely important. While you want your potential customers to be able to read the words on your website, you also want to ensure that the words are visually appealing.

No one will read what you have to say if your website looks terrible, regardless of how clear the font is.

All too often, I see clients who simply haven’t given enough thought to their typographic choices.

The content is great, the brand looks fantastic, but the website still doesn’t invite you in because of the typography – the font, colour, and layout – are rubbish and unappealing.

In addition to being visually appealing, the typography on your website should reflect what your company is and does.

Waltograph is whimsical with rounded letters in order to appeal to children. Coca-Cola’s font is an older script style which mirrors the timeless appeal of the brand and beverage.

These are logos as opposed to web content, but you get the idea. Your typeface or font should reflect both the company’s area of expertise and the tone of the text.

For example:

If your business is a funeral home, you wouldn’t want to feature whimsical and fun lettering on your website. While levity at times of loss is sometimes a blessing, the text on a funeral home website is not the place for it.

In this case, you’d want your typography to reflect the serious nature with which your business addresses its customers’ needs. “Serious” typography implies professionalism and competency.

What would your customers conclude about your funeral home business if your website featured bold coloured polka dots and playful fonts?

They will likely shudder, and move on to your competitor’s website because by the looks of your website, they’ll assume your business is run like a circus.

This is, of course, an extreme example.

But even more, subtle errors in typography can have the same effect. Having too much white space on your website, or not enough, using colours that need a little tweaking, or a font that isn’t quite right, can have a huge effect.

And not just on legibility, but will also determine whether potential customers remain on your page long enough to read it.

Customers decide in the first split second of landing on your page whether or not they’re going to stay or bounce.

What they say about not having a second chance to make a first impression is very true.

I like to suggest that you should be able to tell, at the very least, what tone a business has (lighthearted, appealing to children, professional, entertaining, classic, etc.) by looking at its website without reading any of the content.

The typography, at first glance, should give you a tremendous amount of information regarding the business if it is done correctly.

Conclusion: Why You Need to Love Typography Too!

The main point here is that typography matters. You might not love typography as much as us yet, but you should! Your website matters.

Let us help you make sure you get the most out of yours by focusing on clarity, relevance, and appeal.

We would hate for anyone’s special aunt to be offended.

What do you think? Have you ran into any difficulty with typography? Let us know in the comments below.


reading time: 9 minutes