Rants & Ramblings

random commentary about culture, media, politics, technology and whatnot.

dec
18
2002

the language of type

I’m working on a paper right now for my “Introduction to Communication, Culture and Technology” course. Due tomorrow. And of course I waited until the very last minute to start work on it.

Of course. :p

Here’s the current abstract for the paper:

As human societies have evolved, ideas and thoughts have been distilled and communicated via an oral language. Over time, this oral language has been further distilled into another symbolic form: the printed word.

Discussion of this evolution often leaves out an important mediator between the printed word and the reader: the typeface. As the written word is a visual abstraction of a thought or idea, so too is the typeface used to convey that word. Typeface itself is a symbolic form of communication, a vast range of symbol sets that convey the same letters of the alphabet, yet, in their individual nuances, themselves carry meanings.

Type and printing technology have come a long way since the Romans carved letters into stone and monks painstakingly lettered scripts on parchment. Despite the technological evolution, though, these earliest typefaces never disappeared, living on today as computer fonts that are still used routinely in printed communication.

This paper will attempt to evaluate the ways in which typefaces add nuance to the written word, looking at technological, historical, and cultural factors relating to typeface design and use that impact the ways in which readers interpret the writer’s message. How does the interplay of typeface and message, and the jumble of meanings attached to each, affect reader perceptions of the actual written content?

I will begin by looking at the history of printed typefaces, how type has evolved with time and technological change, and how certain typefaces have been “standardized” for particular uses or stigmatized based on past use. I also will look at the histories of some of the most commonly used fonts today — for example, Helvetica and Times — and show how these fonts were designed with certain goals in mind. I also will evaluate some of the prejudices and practices associated with the use of various typefaces, from the delineation of different “genres” of type to unwritten rules about their use (as well as the potential meaning conveyed by breaking said rules).