The personalities of type

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Cassandra Forrington's picture
Joined: 12 Aug 2007 - 9:26pm
The personalities of type

Okay. So this is probably going to sound crazy, but it makes sense in my head, so let's see if I can put it into words well enough to garner some conversation.

I see personalities in type, as I'm sure most of you do. But I'm taking this to the extreme, and personifying a handful of typefaces, writing about them as if they were people. I've chosen one typeface from each 'category' (although I'm not using any official categorization standard for my basis. Kind of a cross between Adobe's and Bringhurst's, with a little bit of Doyald Young's, although not that extensive), and am talking about the typeface 'personality,' laying out a specimen of the typeface, and then examining the differences between that typeface and its close relatives (Bodoni gets compared to Didot, etc). I'm also creating motifs out of each typeface to help show type as image, which most people don't see it as (Nick Shinn's article on FF Oneleigh in Made by FontFont was really interesting on this subject), kind of like Emigre's http://Hypnopaedia, which I didn't discover until I was halfway into the project.

Okay, so all that being said, I'm trying to figure out exactly what to do with this collection of personalities. It seems to me that I have a group of representatives; each typeface represents a category of other typefaces. If there were an organization of these representatives, what would it be? Would it be like a Congress, or Parliament, even? Where the collection of all of them were important for the well-being of the general whole? Maybe Parliament would be better, as some members are there by birthright—I don't really ever see Garamond being kicked out of this organization. Or is it more of a professional organization, like the AIGA, where several members come together on a board of directors? And then the question becomes, what exactly are they all coming together to do? To communicate is a good place to start ... maybe to serve designers? If you could imagine such a gathering/organization, what would it look like? What would the point of it be?

I hope that's not too crazy, and that it makes some sense. I'm really interested to see what others have to say!

P.S. This is a pseudo-school project. I'm working with a faculty advisor on it, but it is not an actual assignment, rather, something I wanted to do for my own fun ... yep, I'm a full blown nerd.

The main typefaces I'm including are:
some sort of double-feature on Mrs Eaves and Baskerville (that one's going to be fun!)
and a display or two, tbd

Sorry for the ridiculously long post....

Gerald Lange's picture
Joined: 15 Mar 2002 - 1:22pm


This is nonsense. A study of printing history and the history of technology would serve you better in your understanding of typeface relationships. You seem to assume somehow that all these typefaces exist in a peaceable kingdom. They hardly knew each other. I'd say Bringhurst is partly the blame for this kind of crap.


The Bieler Press

Nick Shinn's picture
Joined: 8 Jul 2003 - 11:00am

Typefaces don't have intrinsic personalities -- unless you can come up with some respectable graphology, which is not something that's much respected.
A lot of them would end up with split personalities, especially blackletter, hanging out on Christmas cards and gangsta tattoos.
Nonetheless, types are cyphers, and we all have our special meanings and associations which we attach to them, so you can work with that.

Cassandra Forrington's picture
Joined: 12 Aug 2007 - 9:26pm

Sorry if I was unclear. I'm not trying to assign each typeface a specific, limiting personality, but rather see possible, strong personalities in the typefaces and expose them. It's more of an exercise for fun than for serious explorations of the relationships of the typefaces and different movements in type. As you suggested, Nick, it has more to do with the special meanings and associations that I attach to them than assigning a definite character to each one.

I been doing more work on the whole concept of the project today and have decided to go in a different direction. The political thing was not working, it was just too forced.

>You seem to assume somehow that all these typefaces exist in a peaceable kingdom.

I think that's why the metaphor of a political system did seem like it would work. While they all do coexist, not all can peacefully work together. But again, I'm changing direction, so it's a mute point.

Again, sorry for the misunderstanding, I should've been more clear as to my objectives. It was just kind of a "what if?", just a trivial look at the possible characters (no pun intended) that make up our visual language. Thanks for the input, though!

mjr's picture
Joined: 13 Jul 2007 - 12:32pm

I think I see what you're getting at. And I have an idea.

It seems to me that typefaces are actors, and the texts they are used in are their roles. And just as certain actors are better suited for certain roles, so are certain typefaces better suited for certain projects. You wouldn't cast Harrison Ford in a musical, for example, just as you would not use Impact on a wedding invitation.

Therein comes your analogy: Sometimes you get directors (designers) putting the wrong actors (typefaces) in the wrong roles, and it shows. Similarly, you get actors who want to defy their traditional roles for fear of becoming -- dare I say it? -- typecast, so they take on something different. Sometimes it works (Leslie Nielsen doing comedy after a career of playing tough guys), but usually it doesn't.

Think about it. Times New Roman, for seemingly forever, performing newspaper copy -- important, dignified work, yet not very exciting ... compare to a Shakespearean actor who does The Merchant of Venice and King Lear so well. Or Cooper, always has a fun role, but never very many lines. (Is Comic Sans the bad comedian who thinks he's funny but everyone just groans instead?)

Give it a whirl.

Cassandra Forrington's picture
Joined: 12 Aug 2007 - 9:26pm

Wow, Michael, thank you. I'm so happy you, too, thought of that. That's actually the new direction (alluded to in my post above) that I'm going in. I just wanted to develop it further before mentioning it here, since my lack of development in my first post caused a bit of confusion. I think I'm going to present the different typefaces as members of an acting company, or actors that will be performing in a specific theatre during the upcoming year. That will provide the opportunity for me (as "director") to explain why I'm including the typefaces that I am, too—it's not that I feel those are the best, or most notable typefaces (although some may be), but each has its own reason for inclusion in this project.

About personalities, though. Although I agree with the fact that typefaces definitely do not have "intrinsic personalities," I think it is worth noting that we all see some sort of personality in type. Why do we make the choices we do, when chosing a typeface? Why is one more appropriate than another? It all comes down to the feelings one evokes more clearly than another. Johnston is "friendlier" than, say, Helvetica. Mrs Eaves is more "feminine" than, for example, Eurostile. Obviously, that is not the only thing that makes one typeface a better choice than the next, nor is it the only way to explain it, but it is definitely one thing (of many) I think of when making type decisions.