Is a typeface ever more influential than the words that use it?


MB’s Junior Copywriter Louie Zeegen gives an insight into the relationship between typeface and copy.


I attended the launch of Craig Oldham’s book, ‘In Loving Memory of Work’. It’s a glorious 168 pages, with 5 paper stocks and a coal-dust dust jacket ­– an absolute delight. All the proceeds go to the Orgreave Truth and Justice Campaign too.

Alongside producing the book, Craig has also designed a typeface, Liaison. It’s based on the Liaison Committee for the Defence of the Trade Union placards that were held aloft at the demonstrations during the miners’ strike 30 years ago.

This got me thinking.

Is a typeface as influential as the words that use it? Is Liaison as important as ‘RESPECT THE PICKET LINE’?

Wary that I’m sat in a design studio, surrounded by designers and that I’m writing for a design audience, starting a debate about typography may just be throwing myself to the lions.

As a copywriter, I believe that ‘copy is king’, however I appreciate, it would be narrow-minded of me to live and die by that. Typography and copy, or words in general, are not mutually exclusive. Neither can exist without the other, so before we venture out on this exploration, let’s realise that it’s essentially pointless.

Firstly, typography can create context. What’s the difference between arbitrary and arbitrary? To me, they sound completely different.

It can date writing or breathe life into words. When ‘The Jazz Age’ is written in an Art Deco inspired typeface, you can imagine the party; when ‘freak out’ is written in a typeface famed in the 1960s and 70s, like Cooper Black, you’re at another party altogether. When words and typeface come together perfectly, meaning is more concrete than if they were separate.

Language is the song; typography is the instrument.

If every piece of writing was beautiful, could we all just use Arial? The answer is a resounding no. Typography expresses sentiment; it creates a new layer of meaning through the visual presentation of a word.

Wim Crouwel once said “The meaning is in the context of the text and not in the typeface”, which I’ve rationalised as, ‘would the miners actually give a toss about typeface?’. Of course everyone has a knee jerk reaction to appearance, ‘that looks good’, ‘that looks bad’ etc. but it’s the context of a protest with the messages of protestors that creates meaning. Not in geometric forms or the quirks in letterforms.

As important as legibility and sentiment are, they aren’t ‘meaning’. David Carson says it best, “Don’t confuse legibility with communication. Just because something is legible doesn’t mean it communicates, and more importantly, doesn’t mean it communicates the right thing.” This is interesting. Without going too far into linguistic semiotics, ‘meaning’ comes from the signifiers we know affectionately as words. A list of non-sequiturs could be legible on every screen, at every size, yet still ‘mean’ nothing.

Michael Rock expands, “Every designer that works with the conventional forms of the alphabet is condemned to endless repetition to those accepted forms. The designer can manipulate them only insofar as the end result still falls within the realm of what is known to be the letter. Once that boundary has been crossed, the designer becomes a skilful maker of plastic form, but can no longer claim to work in the domain of the linguistic.”

I understand this, as ‘designers are not abstract expressionists’. The creativity of typographers is hemmed in by the bounds of what we understand as legible. If you want to reinvent the letter ‘G’, go ahead but don’t expect people to recognise it as a ‘G’.

As influential, groundbreaking or beautiful as a typeface is, don’t forget it exists to serve words.


Written by Louie Zeegen