This piece is written in Lora. My text messages are delivered in Helvetica, and the sushi restaurant down the street from my house utilizes Futura for its logo. Fonts are everywhere — a pervasive element of society that emerged as a byproduct of our need to share language, words and general information. But with each dot of an “i” or curl of a lowercase “a,” there lie connotations of whimsy, professionalism or tradition.
These observations had always been part of my life, but only magnified when I arrived in Ann Arbor and set foot into the cacophony of students walking around downtown. Each storefront proudly displays its logo like an emblem, as the strong serif of Ding Tea or the handwritten display of Chatime each act as a proud representation of the feeling each business is trying to evoke. It was strange, though, walking along Williams Street and observing as my brain switched between feelings and connotations. How did I know that the interior of Bivouac was going to be polished and clean? Or that the aisles of the M-Den represented staunch tradition and pride? I’d never frequented these stores before, but suddenly it clicked that the typefaces of each store’s logo had subliminally implanted these associations within my mind.
I’ve always been curious about the necessity of fonts in modern society. If words were just words, did it matter whether they were conveyed in Times New Roman versus Courier New? As I sought to explore this inquiry, however, what started as a simple question about typographic history evolved into a fundamental understanding of human nature.
The first iteration of typography originated out of a need for efficiency and convenience, and the creation of Gutenberg’s printing press in the 1400s led to the development of the first well-recognized font: Blackletter — a chunky, intense style. Following iterations like italics were originally created in order to maximize the number of words that could fit on a single page. But if fonts were created only as a platform for convenience among users, why has modern society seen the development of countless serifs and display types?
One explanation for this is because the nature of communication extends far beyond verbal speech. As the platitude “a picture is worth a thousand words” asserts, the visual and stylistic details that contribute to any type of written communication act as an essential factor in the perception of the overall work. This theory is emphasized by the Mehrabian Rule, which asserts that 93% of an individual’s contact with their environment and others is non-verbal. An explanation for why these visual associations must occur lies within the increasing clutter of today’s society — in an age where the supply of information is dense and overwhelmingly tucked into every corner of the internet, individuals turn towards fonts for comfort and understanding. Through typefaces, words and logos are interpreted as more digestible, and thus fonts ultimately prove their utmost importance by targeting visual and stylistic cues to help provide standout details of a specific message without overwhelming or boring the reader.
A familiar example of this can be seen through the University of Michigan’s block M logo. The thick, heavyset letter is instantly recognizable and plastered all throughout buildings, storefronts and flags around downtown Ann Arbor. Thousands of students show up for sporting events proudly wearing their University of Michigan merchandise, almost as if the block ‘M’ plastered on their chest acts as an emblem of surefire success.
Why does this association occur? Because for viewers, the bold lines of the block ‘M’ convey an indisputable air of pride, the sharp angles reference clear-cut success and the tails at each base emulate respectability within the U-M institution. If instead the block ‘M’ were written in Comic Sans, these effects would fail to be achieved, because individuals are able to interpret the nuances in a design as an element that has meaning, and that completes the overall representation of the logo. The block ‘M’ is successful because people utilize whatever meanings they are able to interpret from the design in efforts to transpose that sense of pride, success or tradition onto their own entities.
Even if designed for the singular purpose of presenting words, people will find meaning in a font. As a general rule of thumb, individuals tend to find underlying meanings within most concepts because of three main reasons: they want to, it feels good and they can. Fonts are reassuring for viewers because they make communication less intimidating and more digestible, ultimately fulfilling a sense of understanding about the subject. American philosopher Thomas Nagel further expands on this unrelenting desire to uncover meaning within various aspects of society, speaking on the pervasive absurdity of life and ultimately stating that when situations become too overwhelming, people will cope by subscribing to common patterns of thought in order to interpret these complex scenarios. In the context of typography, this pattern of thought refers to common font associations, which subliminally aid individuals in making sense of information that is essential for use in their daily lives.
Fonts are so important within society because society makes them important. Whether it’s a grand marketing ploy to advance the cycle of capitalism for consumers or an underlying desire in human psychology to find meaning in even the most minuscule of details, there’s no denying that the increased acceptance and variety of various fonts pose a major reflection on human desires.
Now when I frequent the roads of downtown Ann Arbor, I make sure to stop by every storefront. I’ve even turned it into a game with my friends, where we each point out a fun, eclectic or serious logo for somebody to analyze. Then we’ll hop in the store for a couple of seconds and see how our predictions panned out.
Because of this, I’ll always remember that Ding Tea’s strong serif is reflective of its commitment to traditional ingredients, whereas Chatime’s hand-drawn logo hints at its creative, experimental and colorful drinks. And as I walk along the streets of downtown Ann Arbor, I am comforted by having found meaning in another font, and meaning in another day.
MiC Columnist Marina Sun can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.