Don’t You Take That Tone With Me!

The typeface you choose for your message conveys a tone of voice. (Yes, this means that this will be my dreaded post on the subject of Fonts. Let’s all hope I get it out of my system here, in one fell swoop.) Don’t believe me about tone-of-voice? Consider the following:

Two Example Warning Signs

Which one do you take seriously? I hope it’s obvious that I’m fishing for the answer “the one on the left.” Some of you may disagree, objecting: “I take both of them seriously; I don’t want the expense of having my car towed.” But does the sign on the right truly convey to you that Clara’s Clowning and Party Supplies is going to make good on their threat to tow you? If so, you may not be sensitive to the tone of voice these typefaces convey.

Conversely, consider this:

Example Party Invitation

Which of these two parties looks like it would be more of a fun, friendly time for a six-year-old?

Whether it’s from some quality that’s inherent to the typeface, or it comes from cultural associations that we have with letter-forms of different shapes, a particular typeface will communicate or connote some meaning above and beyond the words that the typeface is used to write out. So, it’s not so much that particular typefaces are simply “good” or “bad”—usually, it’s the case that they are appropriate or inappropriate for a particular use.

This truth is well-established in the design community, but the ease-of-use of desktop design tools has led to a large influx of armchair designers who don’t know—or, worse, don’t care. That’s why things like this drive your font-nerd friends straight up a wall:

Example Papyrus Sign

It’s not the shape of the letters themselves; in fact, they’re quite nice and interesting, if you don’t mind that “distressed” look. It’s that they have been so misused and overused that all we can see is someone who made a cheap, thoughtless effort to convey that they’re deep and thoughtful.

So what lesson do I, as a designer who works with international programs, take from this? I’ll explain, but first a tiny bit of a lesson.

There’s a particular genre of fonts that’s popular right now. (Yes, designers classify fonts into genres.) It’s called “Humanized Geometric Sans-Serif.” All that means is that the letters lack the little strokes called “serifs,” that they are based on geometric forms like the perfect circle, but that they have been adjusted slightly to convey the feel that they were made by the human hand.

The latest popular example is Gotham, which makes an appearance on many movie posters. One of the earliest popular typefaces in this genre is Gill Sans. To most Americans, this typeface probably conveys a neutral, professional-but-friendly tone of voice, suitable for generic items at the grocery store.

But this typeface was designed around 1929 by English type designer Eric Gill, based on an earlier design that British letterer Edward Johnston used for the signage in the London Underground. To many, this typeface is British. Very British. Quintessentially British.

And many of the developing countries where we work were recently subjects of the British Empire.

The lesson, for me, is to be careful of the tone that I take with the people I’m trying to communicate with. I might not always be aware of enough of the underlying cultural history involved. I might not always be cognizant of the associations a particular set of colors, or a lettering style, might evoke. I need to design my messages with the intended audience in mind, and make the extra effort to learn how things look through their eyes.

What’s your favorite font? (And don’t limit yourself to those found in this post (yuck), try for more.) And, why?

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