The Type Taster: How fonts influence you

Designer and Type Tasting founder Sarah Hyndman has published a new book exploring our emotional and subconscious responses to type.

Designer and Type Tasting founder Sarah Hyndman has published a new book exploring our emotional and subconscious responses to type.

The Type Taster: How fonts influence you uses original and existing research to highlight how type can influence decision-making, evoke memories or affect other senses. It also looks at the individual personalities of different typefaces and what people’s type choices reveal about their personality.

The book begins with an introductory section explaining type’s importance, followed by a brief history of key developments in typography from the 1450s to the present day as well as some general rules on use. Most of it, though, deals with how we respond to type through a series of diagrams, quizzes, games and experiments.

The book cites studies dating from the early 20th century to the present day, such as Clive Lewis and Peter Walker’s research into how typography affects reading speed, writer Errol Morris’ online experiment in which subjects were given an article in one of six typefaces and asked to rate how much they agreed with it to determine which was the most believable (most agreed with Baskerville), and a 1933 study into how lines and shapes can communicate certain emotions.

Hyndman also cites her own findings on emotional responses to type throughout, gathered through a series of interactive experiments conducted online and in workshops. Since launching Type Tasting in 2013, she has held regular events encouraging non-designers to engage with type, from lettering workshops at the V&A during London Design Festival to Type Safaris (walking tours of East London’s signage) and type tasting sessions, where attendees are given edible letters and asked to consider how type can alter their sense of taste.

Featured experiments include the Type Dating Game, which encourages people to think about how they identify with typefaces by imagining themselves at a speed dating event (participants are then asked to select a typeface to represent themselves, followed by which typefaces they would date, ditch or become friends with); the Font Census, an online survey where participants are randomly assigned an anonymous typeface and asked to rate different aspects of its personality and answer descriptive questions such as ‘what job would it do?’; and Type Karaoke, which highlights how typography can convey volume or tone of voice.

The book comes in a choice of four covers, each with a different typeface, and each copy comes with a pair of red and blue font goggles which aim to highlight what certain fonts might be subconsciously communicating to consumers (readers are encouraged to wear the glasses and look at a series of red and blue images, which reveal both what a typeface is saying directly and what it might convey implicitly).

Hyndman says the book is aimed at type consumers (non-designers), people who work in communications or technology and want to learn more about the power of type, or professional designers and students who want to read a light-hearted alternative approach to current thinking. It’s an informative and engaging read, and Hyndman’s non-technical, interactive approach should appeal to those with little prior knowledge of type, while also providing some interesting insights for experts.

“This book tells the journey I’ve taken over the last two years since launching Type Tasting … it presents my ideas and the results of my research so that everybody who has been involved along the way can see what they have been a part of. It also sets out the ideas I plan to build on in the future so in this way it functions a little like a manifesto,” she says.

She has been working on the book since 2013 and spent around eight months researching current thinking and historical studies before writing it. “I read a great deal across a wide range of disciplines, including studies dating back almost a century, then I started to create my own surveys and experiments,” she says. While the book cites an impressive list of references, however, Hyndman says she came across very little contemporary literature on our emotional responses to type when compiling it.

“I’m sure research is being done in this field, but it’s not published because it is undertaken by the packaging and advertising industries and is generally commissioned by clients. The advantage I have is that I’m independent and this gives me the freedom to choose my areas of interest, without having a commercial agenda.

“During the process, I’ve observed that graphic design is a field in which statements are made with a great deal of certainty, but when you start digging, there aren’t necessarily references or statistics to back them up. Much of what we know as designers is based on common sense and observation, but sometimes it’s good to do some solid research and find out whether our assumptions can hold up to scrutiny,” she adds.

While graphic designers will already be familiar with many of the points raised in the book – such as how certain typefaces can evoke certain moods or genres, from romance to sci-fi and luxurious to traditional – Hyndman’s findings present some thought-provoking results. An analysis of responses to her Font Census, for example, reveals the stark differences in how non-designers and designers view certain typefaces.

“I knew that, as graphic designers, we were likely to attribute more complex qualities to typefaces (especially the more historically significant ones) than non-designers. But I was surprised by how clearly this was demonstrated when I looked at the Font Census results,” says Hyndman. “Graphic designers can wax lyrical about typeface origins and the values they convey, for example Gill Sans is described as a ‘good, solid British Modernist typeface’ with ‘lots of authority’. By contrast, non-designers show less deference for Gill Sans and used shorter phrases like ‘hmm…’, ‘neutral but kinda quirky’, ‘boring’, ‘ordinary’.”

While conducting research, Hyndman says she has also been pleasantly surprised by the level of interest among non-designers in learning or talking about typography – “the majority of people who take part in my Type Safaris and mass participation events are non-designers,” she says – and the finding that even professional designers can still feel intimated by type “and the intellectual language it gets wrapped up in”. In one section of the book, she quotes Jonathan Hoefler who describes a “poverty of descriptive terms” for experiencing type in his short film Font Men.

While The Type Taster draws on some serious research, however, it does so in a fun, informal way. Hyndman says this approach is key to her Type Tasting programmes and a method she hopes will encourage people to talk about typography more openly, as well as helping challenge perceptions of typography as “design’s least sexy discipline” (a quote from It’s Nice That editor Rob Alderson, which is cited in the book).

“I want what I do to be engaging, and for my research results to reach a wider audience. I think that putting type into the context of our everyday experiences, and using this language to describe it, is key to engaging peoples’ interest and to democratising the conversation. At the end of the day, type is how we represent our voices visually,” she explains.

“I’m not sure typography will ever compete with fashion or photography for the title of sexiest design discipline, but it would be great if it could shed its dusty and intellectual ‘geek’ image,” she adds.

The Type Taster: How fonts influence you is published on February 14 and costs £18 (or £16 for orders placed before February 13). To pre-order a copy, click here.

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