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  • Adam Morris

Understanding Typeface Personality

Words and images are given meaning through the associations we give to them. For instance, the word dog brings to mind its associations of loyal and "man's best friend". An image of a dog itself may trigger these same associations. When it comes to the critical role that typography plays within Graphic Design, typefaces themselves each project certain personality traits. Effective typeface selection can help or hinder a brand's messaging on both a conscious and subconscious processing level. To the observer, the semantics of typography contribute to meaning, memory, and ultimately, a well-received design.

Serif Typefaces - Classical, Traditional, Old-Fashioned, and Scholarly

Dalhousie's choice of serif typography evokes heritage and tradition. The use of uppercase lettering is dominant and authoritative.

Serifs are the little features/feet that extend at the end of a character's strokes (highlighted below). Part of the reason serif typography is characterized as being classical, traditional, old-fashioned, and scholarly is because the invention of the printing press and the typewriter first used serif fonts. Open any book, and it's most likely the typeface used for its body copy is serif, as serif typography also promotes eyeflow when reading paragraphs. Ironically, sans serif, was developed after the invention of serif typography, even though sans serif typography is less complicated due to its lack of serifs. Nevertheless, serif typography is still heavily used today, primarily in written documents or when projecting a classical or institutional image. Specifically, many Universities use serif typography for their logos to convey history and heritage.

Sans Serif Typefaces - Modern, Clean, Technical, and Corporate

Translated from French, sans serif means "without serif". Sans serif typefaces are associated with technology due to their simple, technical, and sometimes cutting edge or digital personality. For instance, the Oracle logo (seen above) features a distinct, custom sans serif typeface that conveys authority and technology; two traits essential to the corporate entity. When observing sans serif typefaces in general, cleanliness is apparent, too, as the lack of serifs ultimately creates a sense of simplicity and straightforwardness.

Sentence Case and Sans Serif  - Friendly, Casual, and Approachable

While typefaces themselves convey certain personality traits, the intentional use of a case (eg. UPPERCASE, lowercase, or Sentence Case) can further represent brand attributes. For instance, uppercase (discussed below) is serious, dominant, and authoritative. This is because uppercase letters are the largest and take up the most space, while sentence case and lowercase do the opposite. The reasoning behind sentence and lowercase lettering conveying friendliness, casualness, and informality is their lack of dominant presence and less space taken up by their letters. For instance, we'll observe two large, well-known companies. Digital brands like Google and Spotify have redesigned their logos with the use of simple, clean, sans serif typography set in sentence case. By doing so, the logotypes of these brands help to convey openness, approachability, and simplicity; among a friendly, casual and informal personality. Technology can be frustrating to some, so these traits are important for the brands to communicate.

Uppercase and Generous Letterspacing - Luxury, Sophistication, Dominance, and Authority

It's no surprise that luxury clothing brands like Chanel, Gucci, Hermes, and Louis Vuitton each use strictly uppercase letters for their wordmarks.  The use of uppercase helps to portray dominance, seriousness, and authority. Seen above, Gucci goes a step further by tracking out their letterspacing generously to "take up more space". Luxury brands are notorious for "taking up space" by purchasing large, excessive storefronts on expensive real estate, so it makes sense that Gucci's wordmark further expresses this sense of dominance and authority.

Handwritten Typefaces - Approachability, Ownership, and Personality

One of the most effective ways to express personal ownership of a brand is to use a custom wordmark based on the founder's signature. Think of John Hancock, Kellog's, or Walt Disney. While there are countless brands that use a custom signature for their logo, ultimately, no two are alike. However, two brands residing in the same industry may face a conflict if they both use a signature set in the same colour. Nevertheless, handwritten typefaces convey a human touch, which advantageously suggests personality, ownership, and approachability.

Display Typefaces - Uniqueness and Distinction

A display typeface can be described as a typeface that's been custom designed and meant for large headlines. Display typefaces typically do not work well for body copy, as they aren't optimized for small sizes, but instead are meant to attract attention at a large size. Therefore, it's effective to use a display typeface for a poster headline, for instance, paired with a more subdued, clear typeface like Arial or Georgia for legible body copy. The significant difference between a unique display typeface compared to a more subdued body copy typeface will also make for an aesthtetically-pleasing font pairing, thanks to the stark contrast between the two. Seen above is a poster for Tomorrowland, in which the logo uses a distinct, unique, display typeface. The event details themselves are set in a more neutral typeface for ease of reading and to allow the Tomorrowland logo to stand out on its own. 

Ultimately, typeface personality is subjective, but it's something to keep in mind when expressing brand values. Knowing the target audience's preferences, beliefs, and lifestyle is also critical when it comes to selecting the proper typeface(s) for design, regardless of the medium. While subtle design decisions are not always noticed at a conscious level, they can certainly be felt. ▲