More and more companies create their own typefaces for their products and services. Not only the logotype, but an entire typeface – a font family. Even though many free fonts have become available in past years, the trend towards brand typefaces continues. Apple San Francisco, Salesforce Sans, Nokia Pure, Samsung One, AudiType, GE Inspira, Deutsche Bahn, IBM Plex and many others are examples of custom corporate typefaces. But why? Isn’t a typeface overrated, luxurious decoration that only a few graphic designers appreciate or even recognize? Do average people actually see how the typeface contributes to a better user experience?
At a certain but important level, YES! A good typeface performs unnoticed in the background, subtly letting the readers’ eyes glide over the text effortlessly. Our brains pause only when there is friction. If you have to knit your eyebrows and puzzle over what you are reading, it is evident that the typeface is not performing well.
Try to read aloud the following sentences. How fast can you read these words?
If you have to think twice to identify the letters, the typeface is slowing down your reading. Typefaces are responsible for legibility, helping you read the text clearly and quickly. If you can stay focused on the text without distraction, you are already benefiting from the typeface.
Now, let’s assume that the legibility is taken care of. Can you imagine yourself transferring large sums of money on a banking website that uses Comic Sans? Would you take a tech company seriously that uses a 16th century handwriting typeface? It’s highly unlikely that you would pick a restaurant with a McDonalds font for your romantic dinner, right? People have certain expectations for services, products and brands. A typeface represents the brand’s personality and makes a connection to the user’s emotions. Of course, personality should be subtle. You‘ve probably been in situations where someone’s voice was too loud, makeup too colorful, cologne too strong, or clothing too formal, and this ended up being distracting and overwhelming rather than appealing. If the personality of a typeface manifests itself stronger than the actual message, readers won’t be able to focus on the content. Subtlety is the key.
However, choosing a typeface with great legibility and the right personality is not all there is. A great reading experience needs good typography. Does the text overwhelm you even before you start reading? Your reading doesn’t flow but instead constantly runs into the lines above and below? Then you definitely need better typography! Good typography guides your eye through the text, creating a rhythm and flow of reading and pausing. It motivates you to read and serves the content in visually digestible pieces, in that order of importance. A highly legible, beautiful typeface alone cannot provide a great reading experience if the vertical spacing between the text lines is not right, if text sizes are improper, or if there is not enough white space. That’s what typography takes care of. Think of typography as the recipe, whereas the typeface is the list of ingredients. Which style or weight (light, regular, bold, italic, condensed, etc.) and size should we use for the title, subtitle, main text and other additional information? How much space do we need to allow between characters, lines? How many columns does the content need and how long should a paragraph be? Good typography helps users read text quickly and understand the content easily with the right flow.
A good typeface is a prerequisite for good typography, and a good typeface can only shine in combination with good typography. Ultimately though, typeface and typography make up the vehicle that delivers the message. A meaningful text with the right choice of words and tone of voice is essential for a good reading experience. In the context of the user interface (UI), the text functions as part of the UI. Be it a call to action, warning, description, or whatever, the text lets you know what to look at and what to do. The clearer the text, the less visual treatment we need. Less visual treatment means a lower cognitive load for readers.
There is no room for a poor typeface or bad typography in good UI design. And a good typeface is the starting point.
In the next article “What Makes a Good Typeface?“, we will take a closer look at the details of good typeface.
Typeface vs font
“Typeface” and “font” are used interchangeably in our digital age. However, they actually refer to two different things. Typeface is the design of the letters and defines the way they look. Font refers to a collection of various letterforms, sizes and weights. Typeface is the design and font is the file you can store on your hard drive.