The Rhetoric of Typography

Experimental typography has fascinated me for a long time, already before coming to the RCA. In various projects I had tentatively looked for new ways to explore typography as a form of self-expression. Then in my dissertation “Authenticity in a Visual World” I was interested in a seemingly very different topic, namely the omnipresence of the term "authenticity" in contemporary culture. I wanted to find out, how designers in different fields handle the phenomenon that I called "authenticity pressure" and how it affects their approach to visual communication. By interviewing professionals who face these dilemmas regularly, such as successful designers, but also a tribal tattoo and a commercial street artist, I tried to figure out their strategies to authenticate their work. I then identified four different ways of coping with this pressure: Reinvention of Tradition; Underground, Subculture, Tribal Structures; Tools of the Time; The Cult of Selfhood. Our everyday environments are visual worlds, all the time we are confronted with an abundance of pictures without reference or context. One can only respond subjectively, following inherent (unconscious) selection and aesthetic rules. But to what extent are these decisions made randomly or are rather embedded in our cultural memory? This question led me to the work of Aby Warburg – and then back to experimental typography. There is substantial evidence that type design has a great impact on the reader and that designers and non-designers perceive typography differently. Therefore 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). In Aristotle’s theory of Rhetoric: Logos, Pathos and Ethos are the key dimensions for speaking and communicating effectively. I think that also typefaces communicate and have a kind of rhetorical ability. Therefore I felt the need to investigate to what extent the reader can be influenced by typography. I looked through psychological studies to find three typefaces that can be representative of Logos, Pathos and Ethos and then took their unique qualities in order to design a typeface called Aby Warburg that would be equally unique in it’s persuasive character.

This project is the first of its kind (to my knowledge), where a typographer utilises psychological research on fonts in order to create a series of typefaces for a wanted effect. The aim here is not to design a “final” or a „neutral“ typeface but rather investigate what cultural characteristics can be applied to typography. This experiment would look different in other parts of the world. I found that it is not a question of designing a perfect "final" lettershape, but rather that the letters have the right combination of traits to achieve the wanted effect.    
Lenticular Print for the RCA Final Show 2015.
The Font Effect poster is a visualisation of the findings from the study Impression Management Using Typeface Design by Pamela W. Henderson Joan L. Giese 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. But broader characteristics became apparent.

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