The Meaning of Typefaces 2

The form of the word and the meaning of the word i.e. the signifier and the signified is arbitrary: the sound of the word and its written form has no relation to the thing itself.

“Duality freed concept and symbol from each other to the extent that change could now modify one without affecting the other”[1]

So, to some extent, the subtle changes of form that occur when a word is set in different typefaces has a marginal effect on the meaning of the word. However, as Jost Hochuli points out: “…typefaces – regardless of their optical legibility – trigger particular feelings on the part of readers simply through their appearance, and can have a positive or negative impact. This seems to be pragmatic evidence to show that, over and above their primary task of acting as a visual means of transport for language, typefaces are also able to communicate atmosphere.”[2]

Herbert Spencer notes “that findings of congeniality (in analyses of typefaces) may have little temporal stability, and such an examination supports Warde’s view, that the choice of an appropriate typeface is a subconscious act, the effect of which is ephemeral. We must also reflect that sans-serif letterforms which have been much used in this century to express the notion of ‘modernity’ were first revived in the eighteenth century because of their associations with rugged antiquity.”[3]

Typefaces themselves do not carry meaning; the words themselves signify meaning and the typeface can carry atmosphere. The same text set in different typefaces will have a different appearance and will represent that text differently. The typographic details (type size, arrangement, position on page etc) contribute to this effect. However, it seemed to me, that analyzing the effect of a typeface would always be subjective. As Jost Hochuli points out “For typographers, ananlyses of the impression created by typefaces are thus often purely theoretical: they neglect the sheer complexity of typographic practice.”[4]

‘A type primer’ by John Kane contains a really useful introduction to the history of the alphabet. Kane charts the development of the alphabet from its roots in Phoenician votive steles, dating from 4th century B.C.E. and found in Carthage, Tunisia where the text was scratched into wet clay with a pointed stick, through to Adrian Frutiger’s grid of the various weights and widths of Univers, released in 1957 for the new technology of photo typesetting.

Kane’s history is useful for positioning the evolutions in typeface design within the social, economic and technological developments of the time – and also the aesthetic trends of that moment. Kane presents technical terms for describing letterforms and guidelines for describing typefaces. He also presents a simple classification of type, based on a system devised by Alexander Lawson. These are all useful tools for describing the shape of letterforms and the differences between typefaces but Kane is as vague as Jost Hochuli when expanding on the atmosphere or, as he calls it, ‘texture’ of a typeface:

“Beyond learning about the unique characteristics of each typeface – and understanding its place in history – it’s very important to understand how different typefaces feel as text. Different typefaces suit different messages. A good typographer has to know which typeface best suits the message at hand.”[5]







[1] Chaffe, W (1970) Meaning and the Structure of Language,




[2] Hochuli, Jost (2008) Detail in Typography, London, Hyphen Press




[3] Spencer, Herbert (1969) The Visible Word, London, Lund Humphries




[4] Hochuli, Jost (2008) Detail in Typography, London, Hyphen Press




[5] Kane, John (2002) A Type Primer, London, Laurence King


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