The Meaning of Typefaces

At the start of Unit 2.3 Design and Rhetoric, I have tried to expand the ideas that I explored in Unit 1.2 Design Discourse, where I looked at the possibility of neutrality in graphic design. At that point I had a very fixed position informed by Beatrice Warde’s promotion of the ideal of ‘transparency’ in design: designers should aim for neutrality and not self-expression and that the role of the designer is to facilitate the transmission of information. At the end of Unit 1.2 I came to understand that neutrality is largely unachievable and that the meaning of messages cannot be fixed.

Thinking about this idea again, I looked at the idea of the ‘meaning’ of typefaces. Derrida suggests that texts are open to multiple interpretations. Can the choice of typeface influence this reading? Typefaces can - and do - transmit different meanings but is it possible to measure these messages or are they totally subjective, dependent on the context and the previous knowledge of the reader?

I looked at designers such as Kai Bernau who, in the development of his ‘Neutral’ typeface had researched, in fascinating detail, the idea of whether a typeface can be neutral and, if so, what this really means:

“Can a typeface be neutral?

While there are typefaces more ‹neutral› than others, sometimes it is exactly this connotation that spoils the idea of ‹neutrality›; such as with Helvetica: Because this typeface is so ubiquitously used, and because it is universally, but vaguely agreed among most graphic designers to lack any character, it was attributed, over time, the connotation of not having any connotations, the connotation of neutrality.

Aiming at neutrality is actually a very strong form of communicating a value, namely itself: Just like choosing a very strong and expressive typeface deliberately triggers certain associations in the reader, a neutral typeface and therefore a lack of associations is a way to support the text it is deployed for, but not by adding the ‹right› atmosphere to a text, but by trying to omit any kind of atmosphere and concentrating only on making the text easily accessible to the reader and focusing his mind on the content, not on a circumferential context.”[1]

[1] Bernau, Kai (2005) Neutral,




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