Not just a pretty (type) face

How typography can make or break your marketing (and your overall business message).

It is a design masterpiece. It is mindless corporate chic. It is New York City subway. It is Nazi soldiers marching in line.

When you use Helvetica, you use more than an unassuming Swiss typeface.

The world’s most popular font is revered and reviled in equal measure. People make ‘quietly captivating’ documentaries about it (see 2007’s The Life and Times of a Typeface) and ‘typophiles’ even shave it into their heads (which is slightly worrying). While others spend hours creating homemade Helvetica characters to spell out words like ‘evil’, ‘hate’ and ‘hell’.

But it is not the only sans-serif to spark heated debate and protest. Just a few days ago the Ban Comic Sans movement boasted on its blog: “We’ve reached 100 signatures on our petition to ban this plague of our time from Gmail.” The movement’s founder, Holly Combs, argues that “using Comic Sans is like turning up to a black-tie event in a clown costume”.

The point is that people care about fonts. They respond to them subconsciously and, increasingly, emotionally. Your choice of typeface sends out a powerful message to your audience, and the way you dress your words will be judged.

When typography is done well it can have enormous impact. Volkswagen’s pioneering use of the Futura font in American press ads of the 1950s and 60s started a minimalist trend in advertising that continues to this day. But when done badly, it can result in your words being dismissed before they are even read. Believe it or not but it is very likely that a business card in Arial won’t bring you much business.

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Nowhere is good typography more important than in the localisation industry. Here offences against legibility and readability will not only undermine your global message; they will render it incomprehensible.

Every professional translator should know the typographic conventions of the cultures and languages he or she is working with. Even way back in 2002, German academic, and former typesetter, Jürgen F. Schopp was calling for all translation studies courses to include a module on “typographic competence”.

Scripts and fonts form one of the biggest challenges in multilingual desktop publishing. “It’s not just a matter of swapping everything,” explains DTP manager at Conversis, Nico Rubio, “You need to establish which fonts are going to work for which languages.

“Sometimes you feel like a line break is great in Spanish or Italian but it’s totally inappropriate in Korean or Thai. And if you’re translating into Arabic or Hebrew, you need to match a font style that can be read from right to left.”

So next time you plan a multilingual marketing campaign, or a new business card, think very carefully about your choice of typeface. It could transform your words from clowns into kings.

Read more:

TimeOut London, Helvetica, 2007

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  • Tom Brophy says:

    While I probably shouldn’t admit to this, I have the DVD at home. If anyone wants to borrow it, give me a shout :-)

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