A taste of type

If Futura Extra Bold was a person, what would they be like? Would you go on a date with them? And what does a typeface smell like? Sarah Hyndman’s Type Tasting games question our responses to fonts. Last weekend, she brought a pop-up version of her workshop to the V&A. Natalie Kelter describes what happened

Sarah Hyndman’s Type Tasting experiments examine our relationship to typefaces via a series of fun games that ask us to match type to fragrances, describe how type feels or even decide which typeface we would go on a date with. Sarah ran a pop-up version of one of her workshops at our London Design Festival event in the V&A last weekend. Here, Natalie Kelter, reveals what happened

I spent my first day in the Type Tasting studio terrified, writes Natalie Kelter. Here was Sarah Hyndman, a designer who had dedicated the last two years of her life to exploring the power of typefaces, and I’d been honoured with the task of spending a week with her, helping to prepare for the London Design Festival Type Tasting Pop-up event at the V&A. I had no idea what to expect, but I could never have predicted what I’d spend the week doing.

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The Sniff This game. Photo: David Owens
Scents lined up for Sarah Hyndman's Sniff This game. Photo: David Owens
Scents lined up for Sarah Hyndman’s Sniff This game. Photo: David Owens

One of my first tasks in the studio was to sniff six bottles, and to choose a typeface to match each of the scents. I was terrified of getting this wrong. Rather than answering instinctively, I tried to use my typographic knowledge to choose the ‘correct’ answers, as well as having a clever reason for each of my choices. But as I found out throughout the week, Type Tasting is all about gut reaction.

I’d been playing the ‘Sniff This’ game. When we later ran it at the pop-up event, I soon discovered that if you ask a designer and a non-designer to do the same challenge, regardless of their previous levels of design education, you’ll generally get similar answers. Rather than any level of type knowledge, those answers were much more likely to be based on personal associations. People often matched lavender to a swirly, fussy typeface, recognising an association with “old ladies”. Lightweight sans serifs, on the other hand, were often matched to “light, clean” smells.

So which typeface does this smell like? Contestants play the Sniff This game at the Type Tasting Pop-Up event at the V&A for LDF. Photo: David Owens
So which typeface does this smell like? Contestants play the Sniff This game at the Type Tasting Pop-Up event at the V&A for LDF. Photo: David Owens
Sniff This game at the Type Tasting Pop-Up event at the V&A for LDF. Photo: David Owens
Sniff This game at the Type Tasting Pop-Up event at the V&A for LDF. Photo: David Owens

I found it fascinating that although you could see people almost painfully overthinking, they still chose the same answers as others who made split second decisions.

It was the same the next day when we ran the ‘Type Dating’ game. This asks people to look at nine typefaces, imagine them as people, and choose one to date and one to ditch. Some responded with incredulous looks, hesitation and, when asked the reason for a choice, said “I don’t know, because I liked the typeface” all with a puzzled expression, as if you’ve gone mad to even consider asking the question. But more often than not, the responses were much more enthusiastic, with people imagining the typeface’s whole backstory, even down to which aftershave it would wear.

Sniff This game at the Type Tasting Pop-Up event at the V&A for LDF. Photo: David Owens
Type Dating game at the Type Tasting Pop-Up event at the V&A for LDF. Photo: David Owens

Typeface #3 in our game, Brody, proved very unpopular. It was described as an unstable wannabe with no style and a 50s moustache who, on a date, would take you for a hotdog at a bowling alley, all the while smelling of JOOP! Typeface #7, Chong Modern Pro, on the other hand, was seen as effortlessly stylish and well-balanced, the type of man who would bring you breakfast in bed but you could also go on a night out with, with expensive taste and smelling of soap. People who had never really even considered the power of typography before began to shout at each other when some suggested that Brody might be more of a relaxed, creative type, rather than the villain “he” (nearly always male) had been otherwise depicted as.

Sarah Hyndman's Type Dating game: which would you date, and which would you ditch?
Sarah Hyndman’s Type Dating game: which would you date, and which would you ditch?

As the event went on, I began to be able to guess the kind of answers that people would give. Designers (and often women) would date Lubalin Graph Book, describing it as cool, contemporary and stylish, an arty type, while non-designers (and often men) saw it as too straightlaced, harsh and abrasive. Gender stereotypes also had a huge part to play, with women describing typefaces they associated with expense as “having good taste” while men saw them as “high maintenance”.

In the Feel Me game, contestants are asked to describe what one of three typefaces feels like
In the Feel Me game, contestants are asked to describe what one of three typefaces feels like. Photo: David Owens

Type Tasting’s series of multisensory experiments, for me, turned typography on its head. Spending a week considering the taste and smell of a typeface, how much one would cost and deciding which one to date, has convinced me that typography is visceral. There are, of course, rules that must be learned, as anyone who associated the feel of a slippery, fleshy, water snake to Comic Sans in the ‘Feel Me’ game can attest to, but a lot of the knowledge is so instinctive, there’s nothing to be intimidated by. Typography is just a way of communicating, that anyone can learn to utilise.

If you didn’t manage to make it to the Type Tasting Pop-Up event at the London Design Festival, and would like a glimpse of this wacky take on typography, there are online versions of the type tasting games that you can have a go at on the Type Tasting website. Natalie Kelter is a recent Nottingham Trent University graphic design graduate, see her website here. All photos by David Owens.

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