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Kai Damian Matthiesen on the Rhetoric of Typography

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n our everyday life we are not only confronted with an abundance of pictures without reference or context but also typefaces that try to persuade us. One can only respond subjectively, following inherent (unconscious) selection and aesthetic rules. But to what extent are these decisions made randomly? Or, are they rather embedded in our cultural memory? In the many conversations with the cultural philosopher Herbert Lachmayer (DaPonte Institute, Vienna) on these subjects the name Aby Warburg kept reoccurring.

Aby Warburg: Collective memory


Aby Warburg was an art historian who developed the idea of “collective” and “social memory” in the 1930’s. His last work “the Mnemosyne Atlas” is an anachronic attempt to map the pathways that give art history their pathos (or emotionally)-laden meanings. Warburg thought this visual encyclopedia would animate the viewer’s memory, imagination, and understanding of what he called “the afterlife of antiquity.”

Here is what the Mnemosyne Atlas looks like in today’s visual library.

These are some examples of writing styles from antiquity.

Let us first consider Aby Warburg’s idea of “cultural memory”, which is ingrained in our heritage. These writing styles were widespread for centuries. So it seems plausible that the key of writing being aesthetically pleasing and appealing to one’s emotions relies mainly on the recognition of a “human touch”. This seems to still be the case today.

Modernism and the myth of neutrality

There have recently been several projects, which aim to revive the age-old quest for a neutral design. As I have a Swiss Design and Educational background, I was always rather sceptical of so called ‘Neutrality’, also in design. I rather think that so called Modernist or Swiss Design today is highly stylized and does not reflect the idea of design as a utilitarian tool. In “the Crystal Goblet” Beatrice Warde suggests that good design and typography are invisible. But the research I found seems to suggest that typefaces are expressive themselves and function beyond being mere vessels for language. For example ‘Helvetica’ is in theory meant to be a neutral typeface, but ‘Helvetica’ light is considered stylish and bold is instructional. It has many personalities within it. In the same way that it is impossible for your voice to be completely neutral the same applies to typefaces.’ (Sarah Hyndman). So I attempted to find a new approach.

The Rhetorical stance

In Aristotle’s theory of Rhetoric: Logos, Pathos and Ethos are the key dimensions for speaking and communicating effectively. As typefaces have a rhetorical ability and can communicate certain emotions, I felt the need to investigate to what extent the reader can be influenced by typography. I looked at existing psychological research that attempts to quantify the effect of typeface designs. I designed a typeface that is equal in its expression by combining traditionally separate categories of typography. “Sans-Serifs” for traits such as Consistency and Logic (Logos), “Humanist” for emotions, imagination (Pathos) and “Serifs” for credibility and trust (Ethos).

Rhetoric of Typography

Aby Warburg is an anachronic typeface. By saying this I mean it is not constructed in a traditional fashion but rather combines traits from different time periods. My aim is to make a typeface that is equal in its expression. The aim here is not to design a “final” typeface but rather to investigate what cultural characteristics can be applied to typography. I found that it is not a question of designing a perfect letter shape, but rather that the letters have the right combination of traits for a wanted effect.

Most readers don’t consciously pay attention to typography, due to the cognitive process of continuous reading, therefore I looked at both conscious and sub-conscious studies.

Sans Serifs such as Neue Haas Grotesk, Arial etc. were perceived as most plain and logical. (Font Effect poster)

Roman Style & Humanist Slight inconsistencies in letter shapes were perceived as more “natural” looking. Hence I adopted old style serifs and humanist characteristics for the characters. (Font Effect poster)

Sub-consciously Baskerville was perceived as more believable and convincing when compared to sans serifs and other serif types, due to its stark contrast and solid columns. (Errol Morris: NYT Blog)

The Font Effect poster is a visualisation that I designed in order to test my own typeface. As a basis I took the findings of the study “Impression Management Using Typeface Design” by Pamela W. Henderson, Joan L. Giese, and Joseph A. Cote. This research was vital because rather than testing specific typefaces, it found that multiple type classifications (Geometric, Serif etc.) are perceived similarly by the audience. Generally when asked people did not respond to categories such as Serif, Sans-Serif. More broad categories became apparent, for example Verdana, Century Gothic and Times were all seen as Reassuring & Harmonious in cluster studies. But by far highest Scoring were script faces resembling human handwriting. From this research I developed the emotional font variations you see in the app.

The ‘Aby Warburg’ Typeface project was my final thesis at the Royal College of Art in London. I wanted to focus on designing a serif typeface in my second year, but the more I read up on the subject, I noticed the many accepted rules which exist in type design that seemed to be set in stone. It got me curious about where they come from and whether designers and non-designers actually perceive and react to typefaces differently. In the end I found that they do.

Words and images for Typeroom: Kai Damian Matthiesen