Examples of how meaning has been embodied into past typeface designs

I’m currently researching into how meaning has been embodied into typeface designs. I’m looking for typefaces which have an extensive and purposeful meaning behind their designs. Sufficient enough to write a thousand words about.

I need six case studies in total, so far I have Times New Roman, Capitolium, Johnston and Quantange. All of which I believe have enough existing research and theories into why and how they have been designed in the way they were. Ideally I need two more.

I posted a brief similar question to this many months back during my initial research phase. I was sent in the direction of Nick Shinn and Jeremy Tankard’s work, and FUSE, and they all really helped a lot.

Just wondering if anyone knows any good examples to research? Or if there is any past posts that may help?

Many thanks

hrant's picture

You could write five thousand words on my Nour&Patria. :-)
Its forms embody the struggle between globalization versus cultural preservation, the past versus the future, and looks versus reading.


quadibloc's picture


I suspect that one could find "meaning" in the designs of, for example, Futura, Univers, and Optima, as I believe their creators wrote something about their intentions in creating those faces. There is a selection effect here, simply because in general the concept of meaning only has a limited applicability. (My knowledge is too limited to suggest more contemporary alternatives to you; these faces are so classic and well-known they may have already occurred to you.)

Thus, it would be more challenging to present the meaning of, say, Century Expanded, or Corona, or Goudy Old Style. People should be able to read it easily, it should print nicely on a rotary press, it should look nice and recall classic early typefaces people liked... that's not much in the way of "meaning".

Or how about "The letters should be the same widths as Helvetica so it can be used for preparing stuff to be printed on an HP Laserjet with that face, but it needs to be based on some other sans-serif face we can get the rights for cheaply"... the meaning of Arial ("some other sans-serif face" being Monotype Grotesque).

But not all typefaces sink to that level of ideational poverty, fortunately. Peignot, a famous playful typeface most popular in its bold weight, sought to challenge conventional upper and lower case, so it had more meaning in its intent than just looking cute and funny; that's another possibility.

(While Arial is a classic example of a "meaningless" typeface, even Comic Sans did have an intent behind it with meaning. And Papyrus, another love-to-hate typeface, had its meaning discussed back when it made its debut on the pages of the National Geographic. While I find Comic Sans to be nearly indefensible - it isn't "bad", it just gets used for too many things it isn't good for - I tend to defend Papyrus; it's overused simply because it fills a niche for which there is currently a desperate need; a typeface that is at once "exotic" and yet safe and politically correct. That may reflect problems in our society, but that's not the fault of the typeface.)

donshottype's picture

If you want to juice up your discussion you could include a typeface that is now politically incorrect, like Chinese Wong http://thescorpionsx.wordpress.com/2012/03/16/in-response-to-racist-marg...
more http://blogs.wsj.com/speakeasy/2012/06/20/is-your-business-font-racist/
You could write a book on this typeface.

dezcom's picture

Bodoni might be one to compare. There is plenty written about it but it having a particular meaning is up for grabs. It is often used for fashion material but that is after the fact.

Futura is another one that got lots of press.

quadibloc's picture

And here, when I said people were using Papyrus a lot because there is a tendency to regard simulation typefaces as possibly offensive by today's standards, they laughed at me, saying that it was silly to think of simulation faces as racist, and therefore no one was doing so, except in my imagination!

Martin Silvertant's picture

I suppose this is getting too off-topic, but I personally do think it's silly to think of simulation faces as racist. They're cheap tricks and could therefor be considered offensive in that regard, but I don't understand what the whole Chop Suey controversy is about.

they laughed at me, saying that it was silly to think of simulation faces as racist, and therefore no one was doing so, except in my imagination!

I think you were justified in describing this issue, as in practice people apparently do think it's racist, but I often feel people don't really understand what racism actually is. Besides, people often seem to take offense for recreational reasons so I tend not to take it too seriously.

I think in a world without Papyrus and Chop Suey, we would have a need for Papyrus and Chop Suey. As such we might reinvent them despite being sensitive about political correctness.

I'm not sure if you're looking for meaning in roman typefaces or in typefaces in general, but I suspect you may find some typefaces within the blackletter style which embody meaning.

JamesM's picture

When you're done with your research, might be interesting to show samples of the fonts along with separate summaries of the meanings, and see if ordinary folks can match them up.

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