the typeface spoke to me

I’m reading a new book. Only through the first chapter, but when I was driving past the mall on Friday and looking at their sign, I immediately connected with something I had just read.

The book is The Language of Things by Deyan Sudjic, a treatise on the meaning of man-made things. In the intriguing first 40 pages the author connects such diverse design luminaries as William Morris, Jonathan Ive, Raymond Lowey, Dieter Rams and Philippe Starck.

The author, who is also director of the Design Museum in London, relates the following:

There is something to understand about objects beyond the obvious issue of function and purpose. It suggests that there is as much to be gained from exploring what objects mean, as from considering what they do and what they look like. Design is the language that a society uses to create objects that reflect it purposes and its values. Design is the language that helps to define, or perhaps to signal, value. It is the language of design that serves to suggest an object’s gender, often though the most unsubtle of means, through color, shape, size and visual reference. It is design that reflects a sense of authenticity, or its manipulative opposite: cynical salesmanship.

Most of the examples from the book deal with consumer products—from cars to calculators—but to make the point that even the most subtle of designed forms carry a message, Sudjic refers to the medium closest to a graphic designer’s heart: typography.

When a designer picks a typeface he chooses from a bewildering array of choices, extensively multiplied since the dawn of the digital era. Categorizing and identifying typeface selections is a full-time task at type foundries. Typeface design has been an important activity since the Roman Empire and capable designers are aware of the historical and psychological context of any particular choice.

Typefaces are primarily utilitarian—the copyright office considers them exclusively so. They are, after all, just symbols representing spoken sounds. How then, do they carry so much meaning? Why does one typeface look appropriate for a wedding invitation and another for a hair metal band?

As Sudjic says, “Partly through association and memory, partly through the emotional triggers and resonances it brings, a typeface expresses an endless range of characteristics, even wider in its scope than handwriting. But, while it takes a graphologist to decode individual signatures, typographic design can communicate on a conscious or unconscious level with everybody, whether aware of the vocabulary or not.”

The language inherent in the form of those simple 26 alphabetic symbols is remarkable. All of it beyond what the letters actually mean as words.

So it is for all man-made artifacts. All designed objects carry with them a language and meaning far beyond their utilitarian aspects. Decoding that meaning is central to understanding the man-made world in which we live.

Notes on the logos and typefaces in the sign:

Macy’s uses Avant Garde Gothic, designed by Herb Lubalin in 1970. The lightweight version of the face and the use of all lower case, adds to the 70’s feel, not unlike other department stores, Bloomingdales and the recently redesigned Belk. Macy’s has always used the star in their logo, in some form or another.

JCPenney uses Helvetica, the de facto standard for corporate cool, created in the mid-50s. The logo was designed by the corporate identity firm, Unimark, co-founded by Massiomo Vignelli in 1964. The firm also designed identities for Knoll and American Airlines, both of whom also use Helvetica.

Forever 21, in this example, uses a Neo-Grotesque font substantially similar to Interstate, a wildly popular font since it debuted in 1994. The font is based on the signage system used on US freeways. Forever 21 doesn’t seem to have any standards for displaying the company name, as it appears in different forms in different uses.

Dillard’s uses ITC Garamond Condensed designed by Tony Stan in 1977. The font is loosely based on the typography of Claude Garamond from the French Renaissance in the 1500s. Designers have frequently criticized the typeface as an unpleasant bastardization of the original Garamond due to the extreme x-height of the lowercase letters compared to the capitals.