Panos Vassiliou is a type designer and head of creative and founder of Parachute® Typefoundry. He has collaborated with advertising and branding agencies in Europe, North America, Latin America and Asia to design typefaces for companies and organisations including Bank of America, European Commission, UEFA, Samsung, Ikea, Financial Times, National Geographic. He is also the founder of Typeroom, an online platform for the typophile generation, whose physical space has turned into a creative hub in the historic centre of Athens for designers, advertisers, students and professionals alike wishing to explore the art of typography.
Today, his main interest lies in the psychology behind type design and its impact on successful brands. Here, he explains why type design is key to branding, and seeks to answer the question, “Is it possible to send subliminal messages with type?”
We are so attached to our letters that it comes as no surprise that there is such a universal interest in them. Even though we came to understand type as a verbal communication tool, its construction carries a large amount of information beyond the words it communicates. This is not far from what letters were used for in the early days of our civilisation.
The graphic elements of early times were pictures. Mankind, in its quest to find more efficient ways to communicate, changed the pictures to symbols and later to letters. Those symbols were visual expressions of one's surroundings. The food, the body, one's home became the basis of the alphabet. With this imaginative presentation of the letter, Homo Sapiens projected a picture to the mind of the reader.
“letters were gradually designed with additional attributes, which fostered a series of internal codes embedded in the shape of the letter with the ability to evoke emotions”
The early messages and writings were carved on stones. Greek inscriptions were made with simple monolinear forms, whereas Romans used modulated strokes and serifs. But later on and after printing with movable type was invented, letters were gradually designed with additional attributes, which fostered a series of internal codes embedded in the shape of the letter with the ability to evoke emotions.
Typefaces acquired the power to change our mood and stimulate certain impulses. But could type also influence our decisions, the ones we believe we make using our own free will? And is it possible to send subliminal messages with type?
By default, a typeface bears qualities with positive or negative connotations that are impressed on our subconscious mind every time it appears in a book, a magazine, or a commercial ad. The recurrent appearance of a typeface builds a collective memory that unconsciously associates the typeface with certain cultural, ethnic, chronological, and emotional perceptions, gradually becoming commonplace in one's mind. It is through this process which takes place in our brain that typography has become such a powerful communication tool that influences our buying choices and lifestyle.
“it becomes a blend of art and science which includes research, creativity, and psychology”
The quest for growth in the modern world has forced brands to get involved in a constant race to penetrate new markets, outrun competitive brands and differentiate by investing in corporate branding and corporate typefaces. It is well documented that most successful brands build emotional relationships with their customers as the best way to engage and motivate them to take action. Typography can effectively take control of this task, maximise brand awareness and achieve a balance between the verbal and visual language of the brand.
If you look at type design only as part of the designer’s quest for aesthetic expression, then you may just consider this as being a simple craft. But if you look at type design as a problem solver, particularly in the case of a brand typeface, then it becomes a blend of art and science which includes research, creativity, and psychology.
Our mission as type designers is to create not just aesthetically pleasing but also functional, useful typefaces with a cohesive visual language that streamlines and solidifies a brand. This is not an easy task if you take into account the fact that the essential form of a letter is fixed. This leaves no ground for much differentiation among typefaces. As Frederic W. Goudy used to say, “You cannot reasonably expect any striking differences among typefaces unless they have a bizarre shape.”
“Our mission as type designers is to create not just aesthetically pleasing but also functional, useful typefaces with a cohesive visual language that streamlines and solidifies a brand”
Yet, a typeface can be bent intuitively in countless ways. Charles Eames once said, “The details are not the details; they make the product.” By adding a distinct detail without changing a character’s standard shape, or by including some kind of novelty which will differ from the qualities applied to another typeface of the same personality, or even refashioning what already exists, the new design demonstrates the individuality of its creator. This quality of distinction is not always apparent on individual characters, particularly at small sizes, but rather sensed or felt as a difference of expression on a printed page. ‘Invisible’ qualities such as readability and legibility convey a message of professionalism and a strong appreciation for details.
A creative selection of the right novelties is enough to elevate the status of a typeface from its pure functional purpose to an essential graphic design element that defines a brand. Magazines such as Rolling Stone have successfully used typography to create a visual impression that connects the reader to the typeface and is instantly identified by the consumer.
Likewise, a brand’s personality is expressed in the type of fonts we use. For instance, we have been conditioned to associate serif fonts with tradition whereas sans-serif fonts with modernity. In recent years several brands including luxury brands such as Yves Saint Laurent, Burberry, Diane von Furstenberg and Balenciaga have opted out of their iconic logos towards a more minimalistic and rather austere geometric word mark design. They are simple, modest, and confident, in an attempt to avoid being patronised as high-end or superfluous, leaving, though not much room for distinction. This sans-serif infatuation, which still holds strong, fades away lately in favour of the serif genre.
“A creative selection of the right novelties is enough to elevate the status of a typeface from its pure functional purpose”
The landscape of visual communication is changing at a fast pace. We have print in all different shapes and forms, digital platforms, physical backdrops, screens, wearables, all communicating in a multi-space global environment. Apart from its aesthetic part, a typeface must be functional and optimised for virtually any environment in order to convey the brand’s message clearly and effectively. Furthermore, exciting new developments have emerged, such as the variable font technology that offers type designers an unprecedented number of new possibilities for captivating UX and better reading experiences. Variable fonts can be designed to interact with music, light, temperature, create smart animations, interactive art, 3D effects.
Type design, once an unseen hero, has now become the star of the visual communications industry. When typefaces become part of the brand’s identity, they have a strong impact on how it is perceived, they trigger lasting associations and make your brand speak with a consistent and confident voice. Typefaces may be designed to portray an exciting visual rhetoric that signals a fresh start for an existing brand or an exciting career for a new brand.