Five Questions About Typography: How Typography Makes a Strategic Difference to Communications

Creating typography seems simple enough. You choose an attractive font for your text, and you’re done, right? Of course not. For experienced designers, typography is a powerful tool, influencing brand identity and personality, creating a sense of cohesion and continuity, drawing focus to specific areas of a page – the list goes on and on. So, we sat down with Creative Director Michael Palermo and Art Director Paul Marquardt to ask five questions about this essential design element.

  1. Give us a quick primer on what we mean when we talk about typography. Many people think that typography means typefaces and fonts. Talk a bit about why that’s only part of the picture.PAUL MARQUARDT: Typography encompasses much more than simply choosing a typeface. Within any given font set, you have specific ascenders and descenders, curves, angles, serifs – and they all come together to give the typeface a recognizable look. But typography also includes things like size and scale – how the typeface looks on, say, a business card versus how it looks on a brochure versus how it looks on a billboard. There’s the question of weights – how light or bold a typeface might be in standard and italic applications.MICHAEL PALERMO: There are also ligatures – certain letter combinations that look best close together and are combined to form a single character. Typography is how you use those typefaces to communicate. That includes kerning, leading, justification, proportion, placement, and even color – all of which contribute to look, feel, and legibility, which is so important. It also includes the relationship of the type to other elements on the page. For instance, how you format the type and combine it with a graphic – as a caption, as an overlay, in a bold color or shade of grey – can make a big difference in how the typography supports the overall message.

    One common ligature
  1. What makes typography a powerful design element? What does it do for communications?MICHAEL: The primary goal of any communications component is to get a message across. Typography carries those messages because it’s a vehicle for copy. So, we make very deliberate choices about the best way for a given typeface to express the words we’re communicating. But typography can be a powerful tool outside of specific text. Every typeface has specific combinations of straight lines, curves, angles, and points, which can be design elements on their own – or they can suggest and align with other graphics.PAUL:  Different typefaces can evoke different kinds of energy, establishing personality and emotion. Likewise, type placement can draw focus to specific areas on a page or support ease of navigation on a screen.
  1. Let’s talk about typography as part of brand identity. How does typography help define a brand?PAUL: The best-known brands have made certain typefaces iconic – think the script of Coca-Cola or the block letters in FedEx. Those typefaces are defining points for those brands.MICHAEL: The ability of typography to define a brand has evolved a lot. It started with sign painting and hand lettering. Now we have endless options, which can be great. But it also makes the process complicated.

    Font selection gives a unique emotional response.
  1. What are the top things you consider when choosing typography for a client or project?MICHAEL: It depends on the message we’re trying to communicate. Legibility is critical. But so is personality. It also depends on its application. Will this piece appear in print? On mobile devices? On the exterior of a building? How does the typeface underscore key messages? And which fonts will work better as headlines, subheads, body copy, and captions?PAUL: We also think about how a typeface will make people feel when they look at it. Even many simple typefaces can evoke an emotional response. You just have to make sure it’s the response you want.
  1. With today’s tools – especially AI – anyone can be a “designer.” But of course, not everyone can be a good designer. What kinds of typography mistakes do you see untrained people make?PAUL: Where do we begin? I’ve seen a lot of people trying to fill up all the space with type – not allowing space to be its own graphic element.MICHAEL: I’ve seen attempts at creating “unique” letters by breaking apart a letter shape or inserting a shape into the type. Type design requires a very precise and technical balance between character shape, how the angles start and finish, and how they scale in weight. Breaking any one of those elements can destroy its integrity.PAUL: Unless you know what you’re doing.

    MICHAEL: Exactly. You have to be intentional about your choices. I recently saw an outdoor sign on a restaurant with an “Old English” font, and it was hard to see, let alone read. You have to think about legibility and visibility – as well as what the typeface does and doesn’t evoke.

    PAUL: How about spacing between paragraphs? Inexperienced designers will use an extra return even though there are line and paragraph spacing tools that make the copy feel much more cohesive and consistent. It’s like the way we still see overuse of full justification. Straight margins on both sides of a paragraph can look great – but if you rely on automatic settings, you get big spaces between words, excessive hyphenations, and letters unnaturally crunched together. With some manual care and attention, you can eliminate those awkward issues.

    MICHAEL: Overenthusiastic use of fonts is another big one. Just because you have thousands of fonts to choose from doesn’t mean you should try to use them all. You don’t want to evoke ten moods in one piece.

Bonus Question: What else should people understand about typography that they often miss?

MICHAEL: We all have our personal preferences, but we have to think like the target audience. When you look at any design, you have to step back and consider how other people will see it – and see it for the first time. What jumps out? What’s harder to notice?

PAUL: If you have infinite time for trial and error, you can learn how to make strong typography choices over time. But in business communications, you rarely have infinite time. That’s where professional design makes a difference. What you save in time and frustration is worth what you’ll spend in dollars.