How to create visual language through typography

Jerry Cao explains how the content and context of what you're saying affects the look of your typography.

Form equals function, and that doesn't change just because we're dealing with text.

Typography is the aesthetics behind the written word, the art of making your text serve a purpose based only on its looks. This incorporates many different physical options — font, size, colour, position, etc — and also external factors like what's being said, how it's being said, and the context surrounding it.

Photo courtesy of Taryn:

First we'll talk about how the content and context of what you're saying should affect the look of the words, then we'll discuss how to utilize the various visual elements, and we'll close by offering some helpful tips.

Many languages within a single word

Just like many other areas in design, content is still king in typography. Ultimately, the meaning behind the words you're communicating will affect the look of the text. Knowing the intention behind the message is the first step in the process.

A message's emotion or tone is more important than the words themselves. Gunther Kress and Theo van Leeuwen summarize it best in their book Reading Images: The Grammar of Visual Design when they say:

"The visual component of text is an independently organized and structured message, connected with the verbal text, but in no way dependent on it and similarly the other way round."

This signifies that every printed word can communicate two separate meanings: the literal definition and the emotion suggested by the typography. According to Caroline Knight and Jessica Glaser, your typographic choices create many layers of meaning.

We'll explain what we mean in the two examples below:

Photo by UXPin inspired by Caroline Knight & Jessica Glaser:

In the above example, the word HELLO seems imposing and loud. The impression is one of interruption, and carries a sense of urgency to it. This effect is not an accident.

Let's look at the elements at play here.

For starters, the text is large and all-caps, which is a quick and easy way to add gravity to any word. The subtler choices just support the tone: the font choice is simplistic and no-nonsense; the letters are thick tightly spaced, creating an oppressive block of text.

The colour scheme of white against black corroborates the directness, while the dominant black "negative space" lends more immediacy to the message. Lastly, the position of the word in the centre makes it seem more worthy of attention.

Compare that to the counterpart below:

Photo by UXPin inspired by Caroline Knight & Jessica Glaser:

This version is far less intense.

It seems less like a command, and more of a gentle suggestion to be taken at your leisure. The text is small and lower-cased for starters, and on top of that has a more detailed font, with slight italics — the text here is more whimsical. The script typeface feels like a refreshing break from the monotonous black background, creating an oasis of elegance. The position at the bottom-right corner, the last seen position on the screen, makes the message seem almost like an afterthought.

Same exact word. Two completely different meanings.

Next page: the importance of context...