The basic element of typography is a typeface, a family of fonts in different sizes, weights, forms, styles, and proportions. Design expert Gary Hustwit says “a font is what you use and a typeface is what you see”. Just as individual songs make up an album, individual fonts make up a typeface.
Why typography mattersA frequent answer centers on creating a recognizable brand, citing studies comparing reader speed or comprehension using different typefaces. The most important reason why typography matters is because it helps conserve your readers’ attention—the most valuable resource you have as a writer. Attention is the reader’s gift to you. It’s precious and finite. Should you fail to be a respectful steward of that gift by boring or exasperating your reader, it’s promptly revoked.
Once a reader revokes their attention, you don’t have a reader anymore. And that was the whole point of writing in the first place. Reader attention is a valuable resource, thus tools that help you conserve that resource are likewise valuable. Typography is one of those tools. The written word can’t exist without typography.
Good typography can help your reader devote less attention to the mechanics of reading and more attention to your message. Conversely, bad typography can distract your reader and undermine your message. It can make good writing even better. Typography always influences how we interpret a document.
Typography reinforces meaningGood typography reinforces the meaning of the text. It supports the message and makes the text more effective. Typographic choices that work for one text won’t necessarily work for another, i.e. good typographers don’t rely on rote solutions. One size never fits all.
For any given text, there are many typographic solutions that would be equally good. Typography is not a math problem with one correct answer. Your ability to produce good typography depends on how well you understand the goals of your text.
Typography as visual language
It has a powerful effect on meaning and interpretation. As a visual language, it can either subtly shape meaning and interpretation or completely dominate the verbal meaning – in other words, the look can speak louder than the words. We have all seen examples of typography badly matched to the verbal meaning – a child-like font like Comic Sans used for a serious heading, or a hard-to-read font like Old English used for body copy, or too many different fonts used on the page.
Jessica Glaser, a partner at Bright Pink Communication (UK) and Jeff Leak, from the University of Wolverhampton (UK), created this illustration to show how typography affects verbal meaning.
In the left image, the typography and design create a clear association with a warning sign. Conversely, the right image is definitely not commanding and could be interpreted as having a completely different meaning than the word alone.