A tale of two signs


Text is a crucial part of navigating online and real-world experiences. But if you never pay attention to how your words are styled and arranged then you risk people never reading your words in the first place.

Image of poor typography

Picture this: you’re walking down the street and you see a sign for a pharmacist. It’s set in an ornate, slightly gothic font with decorative flourishes.

“Odd,” you think to yourself. You can’t quite put your finger on why, but since you’re not looking for a pharmacist you continue down the street…

Fortune Teller sign

Then you come across another sign. In the exact same font. But this time it’s pointing you towards your local fortune teller.

It’s the same application but a different personality. It feels like a better fit.

This is typography at work.

So what’s typography?


It is the art of arranging written words to be legible, readable and attractive. And it’s more than the typeface or font. It’s the line breaks and margins, the spaces between letters and words. These small details have the power to make graphic designers really quite… agitated. But you don’t have to be a designer to be influenced by typography. It matters because it facilitates reading and because people make snap decisions based on how you arrange your words.

Typography speaks volumes. It helps people see who you are before they read who you are. Just like the pharmacy/fortune teller sign, words can be more than their meaning. They’re aesthetic, designed objects too.

Let’s test this again. Imagine that you’re a hiring manager and a hundred résumés land in your inbox. You’ve only got the time to run your eye over them. So scroll through.

Example of poor CV
Example of CV

What does your eye make of the these two CVs? Which are you most likely to read and call in for an interview?

What was your gut reaction? What did you feel?

Go back and read them, if you want.

To our eye (and gut), the second CVs is a little more considered. Apart from avoiding the stock standard font in Word, it uses typography to guide the experience of reading. There’s a little more hierarchy to help you out. There’s clarity and definition between letters, words and sections. Even though the content is exactly the same, the second is more compelling and communicative. It invites you to read on.

This isn’t just aesthetic associations. One study typeset an issue of the New Yorker badly and compared how people reacted to each typeset version. They found that the better typeset version seemed to make people feel more positive, about equivalent to watching a funny video or receiving a small gift.

Image of typography
Image of poor typography

Interestingly, other studies show that when a font is difficult to read people may remember more of its content. (RMIT even developed a font called Sans Forgetica for study notes; it’s designed for ‘desirable difficulty’ to engage you more deeply with the words.) The trouble is that outside study (or studying) conditions, it can be hard to convince people to read poorly typeset text. It’s just not appealing. Just like the previous CVs, typesetting’s magic is in inviting you to read in the first place.

Whether you’re applying for a job or creating an ad or a logo, typography smooths the way for your words. The substance will always matter but your typography gives you a much better chance of speaking to a reader in the first place — and holding on to them.

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