CalArts: Funds. of Graphic Design-W2: 2.8 Connotation in Type

If denotative typography deals with the functional, pragmatic, analytical skills of typography, the technical skills if you like. Then connotation really deals with the expressive, the emotive, side of typography.

And a lot of that comes out in how we read typographic form. How that makes us feel. 

We read in two different ways.

  • We read what the word says
  • but we also read the shapes of the letter forms. We read the form of the letter forms.

As an example let’s set the same word in two different type faces.

Here you can see the word fast in Cooper Black on the left and in Universe on the right, and the two look very different.

One of them certainly looks much faster than the other. 
The typographic form of the Cooper, for instance, is heavy and blobby and has a lot of weight to it. It’s very static
So it’s antithetical การใช้ถ้อยคำขัดแย้งกัน to what it says. 
It actually seems like it’s the opposite of fast.

Whereas the Universe on the right, feels sleek and light
It’s got a lot of movement to it as well. 
So, it feels like it’s reiterating กล่าวซ้ำ what the word actually says. 
It feels fast.

If we delete the letter S,

then suddenly we read the typographic form in a whole different context, because the word says something different.

Suddenly, the Cooper Black looks very, very appropriate. 
Its heaviness, its blobbyiness, its weightiness, those all feel appropriate for what the word says.

Whereas the Universe on the right suddenly feels the one that’s antithetical to what the word says.

So controlling this kind of connotation and thinking about the relationship between what words say and what their typographic form is, is really, really important for designers,
 cuz it’s a way that they can create messages, and control those messages for an audience. 

So let’s look at how typographic connotation can work, in a little bit more of a subtle way. 

Imagine that we’re trying to design some topography for a painter who’s having an exhibition. 
His name is John Painterman.

Here we can see his name in Baskerville
and he feels like a fairly traditional kind of painter. 
A kind of a classical painter.
All the information that we’re getting about John, apart from his name, it’s coming from the typographic form. 

We could make John feel even more like a painter, by maybe setting his name in a brush stroke typeface.

By setting his name in this kind of typeface, we get an idea that perhaps John is a traditional painter that paints with a brush.

But if we read this form, it also feels like maybe it’s a little bit too old fashioned.
Or maybe John’s a calligrapher instead of a painter. 
Maybe we could think of a typeface that’s a little bit more classy, a little more upmarket.

Maybe John paints landscapes, and maybe we want to make some reference to that in the typographic form of his name.

Although now he feels like he’s probably a gardener rather than a painter.
Or maybe John is more modern painter. 
Maybe he’d like to be represented by a typeface that’s much more cleaner, much more neutral and contemporary.

Maybe his paintings are a little bit more lighter, a little more airy.
Maybe a lighter typeface would be a better way to represent John and his paintings.

Or perhaps John is more of an abstract painter and he uses a lot of geometry in his work, and somehow these typographic forms would be better for him.

All of these pieces of typography say the same thing, John Painterman. But they all look very different, they all give us different kinds of additional information.

The connotation of the typographic form is the thing that’s different. 
They tell us something about John’s character, or maybe something about what kind of painter he is, but either way, we read both the words, and we read the form of the words as well.

And as a designer, 
the more that you can be in control of those words and the form of those words, 
the better communication you can have and the more you can control that communication.

Typographic connotation relies on the fact that

we read words, but we also read form.

So we’ve seen how connotation works with typographic form,
 but let’s look at some other typographic moves we can make that also affect connotation. 

Here on the screen is what we’ve already seen. Here’s the word architecture.

And we would read this in three different ways, or think about three different kinds of architecture purely due to the typeface choice.

  • In the first one, 
    we might look at it and think about a more classical, balanced, even architecture.
  • The second one. 
    We might look at it and think about a certain time period where the type face was used a lot, like the 1970’s, and think about it as being a heavy, blobby kind of architecture.
  • And here on the bottom one, 
    we might think about it as being modular, structural
    If we knew about typefaces, we might even know that this is from a certain time period and a certain place.
    And that might inform our reading of the form as well.

So let’s take away the heavily connotative typefaces, and let’s replace them with some much more neutral kind of typefaces.

So here we’ve got a set of quite plain sans serifs. 
I’ve made them look different just for the sake of this exercise.
But we suddenly know a lot less about the architecture. 
Maybe we can tell a little bit about the weight, about how condensed it is, and maybe whether it’s uppercase or lowercase.

In this case, the all caps (รูปขวาล่างสุด) might make us think of a certain kind of maybe stronger architecture than just lowercase would.

But all in all, we’ve actually removed information by removing the typographic form.

On the other hand, you could argue what we gained by removing the typographic form is to remove the vernacular, and to have a clean, modern, easier to read kind of typography.

So if the typeface itself isn’t going to do the work of communicating specificity, then maybe something else has to do it.

We have plenty of other tools as designers, we don’t need to just make sure all our voice is heard through the typeface.

We can use scale and composition. And these things can have an affect on how we read the typography, in a similar way to how we have used the typeface before.

For instance, 
 (รูปซ้ายบนสุด)here just changing the uppercase T’s, and leaving the rest of the word lowercase, might suggest an idea of shelter within the architecture.

(รูปกลาง) Here a simple shift in scale might actually introduce the idea of building in the architecture.

(รูปล่างสุด) And the same with stacking the letter forms here, might suggest a certain kind of architecture, or a certain kind of solidity to the architecture.

As a designer, you have to be careful how you use connotation. Sometimes you can use it so that it says the wrong thing and actually starts to mean something you don’t want it to.

Here, for instance, 
รูปแรก we can look where just changing the letter spacing to tighten up the letter forms here, 
might create a kind of architecture that feels uneven and crashing and uncomfortable and maybe doesn’t feel safe.

รูปสุดท้าย Here it might even look as if the architecture is falling over, and we might not want to have that as part of our design. 

Let’s do what we did at the start of this demonstration. 
Keep the same typefaces and change the words. 
That lets us really see how the typographic communication is working, because the context we read it in has changed. 
So instead of architecture, let’s look at tanktops เสื้อกล้าม, cupcakes, and powertools.

  • Our tanktop looks pretty classy,
  • our cupcake, that looks pretty fluffy and delicious,
  • and our powertools, well they look pretty solid and functional.

If we remove some of the typographic connotation,

  • than our tanktop, well, it still looks pretty good. 
    It looks modern and clean and functional.
  • Our cupcakes, we maybe have a little less idea about how they’re gonna taste.
  • And our powertools, well, they still feel pretty solid in that typeface in that blog.

The same typographic moves that seems to work for architecture don’t seem to work so well for these subjects.

  • Our tanktops, they look pretty much the same.
  • Our cupcakes, I’m not really sure what they’re doing or why they growing like that.
  • But our powertools, well they still feel pretty solid.

If we continue with the last round of typographic moves.

  • Well, our tanktops, now they feel like they might not fit too well, maybe we’re not so interested in those.
  • Our cupcakes, well now they feel a little bit like they look like the top of a cupcake. So that feels like it’s a move that might actually work for this kind of content, this word.
  • And our power tools, well they still feel pretty solid and pretty useful.

So what I’m trying to demonstrate here, is how much power typography has, in relationship to words. 
It can really change the meaning of the words, the context of them, the connotation of them. 
And that’s something that designers can really use as an asset.

If you can control that typographic communication, you can really control the message that you want to give to your audience.