What is the purpose of typography?

What is the purpose of typography?

Billy Whited
Billy Whited

July 29, 2011

You might be wondering why you’d bother to gain an understanding type: what purpose does it serve? What’s the point? Set it and forget it! Right?

Well, I wouldn’t blame you for feeling this way. A true typographic understanding is difficult to achieve. And, despite the ubiquity of the printed word, it can be an esoteric and intimidating discipline.

But here’s why you should care. I’ll let you in on a little secret. And please forgive my bluntness, but if there is one thing I’ve learned working as a UX Designer it’s this:

Most people don’t want to read your material.

This is holds true on the web perhaps more than in any other medium. And I think you probably know this to be true.

We are constantly inundated with information, from all angles, at all times
We are constantly inundated with information, from all angles, at all times.

We are constantly inundated with information, from all angles, at all times and to varying degrees of intensity. I for one, can’t keep up. And it’s pretty damn likely that your readership is struggling too.

This is a point that Matthew Butterick, who designed the fonts Herald Gothic, Wessex and FB Hermes, makes in his book Typography for Lawyers that I very much agree with:

…Most readers are looking for a reason to stop reading…They’re just being rational. If readers have other demands on their time, why should they pay any more attention then they absolutely must?

The main purpose of typography is to make life easier for your readership by making it easier to read what you’ve written:

  • It makes it possible to to quickly scan your text.
  • It entices your readers to engage with your text.
  • When done well, it enhances the message it presents.
  • It conserves that most precious and scarce commodity: reader attention.

And, while good typography can make all of this possible, bad typography can make all of this impossible.

If you’re a web designer it’s very likely that you do some copy setting. If this is true, then you are also a User Interface Designer. As the legendary usability guru Jakob Nielsen, of the internationally renowned Nielsen Norman Group states:

Text is a user interface…It’s a common mistake to think that only full-fledged graphical user interfaces count as interaction design and deserve usability attention…

The ultimate purpose of typography is utilitarian in nature. It’s not, as it is often confused to be, a purely artistic or aesthetic enterprise.

Typography can be ugly or pretty, loud or soft, neither here nor there, so long as it appropriately aligns with the message it’s communicating.

It’s simply a tool, perhaps the tool, for communication. As, the poetic Robert Bringhurst states:

Typography is an ancient craft and an old profession…it is also in some sense a trust. The lexicon of the tribe and the letters of the alphabet—which are the chromosomes and genes of literate culture—are in the typographer’s care.

So where do we begin?

My next post will review two important concepts that are central to an understanding of typography: Legibility and Readability.