Virtual Typography and Legibility

A clearly communicated message is often legible and easy to understand. In the past design and typography shifted towards objectivity and modernism. The idea that good design is well composed and refined- not getting in the way of the message. Beatrice Warde said “There is nothing simple or dull about achieving the transparent page.” Thus the purpose behind typography was to deliver the message quickly with aesthetic value considered later.

However in the past decade information has become more accessible and our lives more interlinked. Words alone no longer seems to stand out, there is a growing overload of information delivered to us on a daily basis which has led to a change in the use of language. More Imaged based approaches to communication are once again used as substitutes for words, and a concept called virtual typography operates on this borderline of image and text.

The image like appearance of virtual typography attracts attention among other design, this image then often develops into a message. A good example of this is ‘Unfolded’ (pictured below) designed by Tomi Vollauschek in 1999.

Unfolded — Tomi Vollauschek

The type starts as stretched diamond shapes, before visually unfolding into squares, then lines and finally into the word unfolded. It works so well because the graphical transition of the typeface unfolding adds another layer of meaning and emotion to the text. The unusual nature really makes it stand out and the time based type causes you to read the message slower; making it more memorable.

The type design for ‘unfolded’ works practically and is legible. Maybe not as well composed or refined as something like Helvetica, but you could argue that it is better at communicating the message. The chunks cut out of the letters make the word look incomplete and communicate the folding nature of the message.

Delayed communication is a practice often used in virtual typography, however its success is based on the user not knowing what is about to happen, otherwise it would fall into the information overload category. This theory is closely linked to the temporary image aspect- where type gradually forms before fading away again.

A well-known and successful example of this is the Channel 4 idents designed in-house and launched in 2005. The concept involved bringing back the original logo from 1982, breaking it up into three dimensional objects. The text elements in the logo evolve directly from the image, which in this case were real-life objects like neon signs and pylons. The point at which this work becomes typographic is when all of these elements converge to reveal the legible ‘4’ logo.

Similar to ‘unfolded’ it’s success is based on slowly revealing a message, in this example the pace of the transition remains consistent throughout, and by using real world objects viewer gets the feeling they might miss something. This keeps the viewer engaged; the style stands out and becomes more memorable than other typographic solutions.

After looking at virtual typography, I have to disagree with Beatrice Warde’s view that ‘stunt typographers’ and design getting in the way of communicating a message. I believe that in some cases partially illegible and transitional type a more effecive because they are filled with emotion.

Which type communicates better?


Hillner, M. (2009) Basics typography 01: Virtual typography. Lausanne, Switzerland: AVA Publishing SA.