Expressive Typography / Expressive Typefaces

I have been thinking about the differences between expressive typefaces and expressive typography. For me, expressive typefaces are typefaces that have a strong character: a good, but obvious example, would be Comic Sans. Expressive typefaces shout ‘personality’ in a manner that is emphatic and prescriptive; it is difficult to subvert or alter the meaning of the typeface as it is so enmeshed in its DNA.

Above: Detail of Rotis Sans Serif designed by Otl Aicher, 1988

Expressive typefaces are often used as display faces because they draw attention to themselves and are unsuitable for extended reading in body text because of their idiosyncrasies: the individual letterforms jump out. This can also be true of typefaces that are not generally considered to be either display faces or expressive: Rotis by Otl Aicher, for example, has many peculiar features that disrupt the reading experience.

Above: Rotis Sans Serif designed by Otl Aicher, 1988

Expressive typography meanwhile, attempts to animate a text by using different font styles, weights, sizes, line length, upper and lower case and punctuation. These are the tools that the typographer can use to affect the reading of a text. In an interview from 1995 Erik van Bolland, creator of ‘Beowulf’, the ‘first typeface with a mind of its own’ talked about experimental typography:

“It takes a poor typographer to be convinced that letters are only meant to convey meaning. If you follow this line of reasoning you could also argue that a plane is the same thing as a bicycle, “because it transports people from one place to another.” Just like there are different modes of transportation to get things from one place to another, there also are different kinds of letters to communicate different types of messages.

Letters are peculiar things, and readers can take quite a bit. It is possible to create shapes that are individually unrecognisable as letters, but that are readable when put in context. This means that fascinating things happen in your head when you read. The parameters of reading, the letter shapes, context, character size, paper stock, spacing, … all influence the reading process. This is what typographers and type designers are dealing with. By changing the separate components you learn more about the whole.”[1]

Above: Beowulf font designed by Just van Rossum and Erik van Blokland, 1990

Do these ‘tools’ have a correlation to mark-making in drawing? I wondered if this might be a possible line of enquiry for my Design and Rhetoric research. Would it be possible to analyse the meanings of these marks? Is it possible to analyse typography in the same way that one can analyse the marks in a drawing by Matisse? I found it interesting that in ‘The Graphic Language of Neville Brody’, Jon Wozencroft used a language to describe Brody’s practice that an art historian might use to describe fine art practice.

Above: Poster designed by Neville Brody with FF Blur typeface, 1992

[1] Yves Peters, 20 Years of FontShop: Vintage FUSE interview




Click here to subscribe to James Brook / Design

Please visit for more information

The content (content being images and text) of this website is copyright © James Brook
All rights expressly reserved
Powered by Blogger.