Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Typography For Illustrators: 4. Association

When working with typography in an illustrative environment, there are two overriding areas of influence regarding aesthetic decisions and the application of type. The first involves the visual opportunities afforded by the illustration; it’s composition, format, use of media, and stylistic appearance. The second involves those visual possibilities that present themselves inherently in the type to be applied; it’s proportion, weight, size, and functionality. Also incredibly important, is any “association” a type font may have with an artistic or architectural genre, historical or time period, prior usage or over usage, or a specific subject.

In this instance, the word association refers to the native design appearance and attributes that are inherent in the typestyle itself, rather than in the illustration. Every font design was motivated by, and based on, a specific purpose. Certain fonts have been able to transcend their original purpose to become “versatile”, while other fonts remain stagnated by a narrow functionality, typecasting, or a stereotyped association. Use of a specific font may be for the purpose of creating a visual association to an historical or cultural form of style or usage. Type selection in this manner takes advantage of former usage and other visual characteristics a typestyle may offer to add to the content of an illustration assignment by capitalizing on any prior associations.

Architectural Association

Typography has often times been influenced by architectural style. German Fraktur fonts and Old English style fonts like Cloister Black bear a strong resemblance to the heavy stone cathedral architecture of the same period. Conversely, fonts like Gordon Heights share a stylistic relationship to an early 20th century urban environment, while fonts like Moderna relate to the use of geometry and clean lines of post-war International Style architecture. As in architecture, letterform structure plays a major role in this form of association.

Historical Association

Curiously enough, in most cases, many typestyles that associate with historical periods were not designed during the periods their look suggests, especially those fonts that associate with ancient Greece and Rome such as Papyrus. Likewise, fonts like Medieval Scribbish and other Celtic typestyles, although inspired by the Book of Kells were not designed until the 20th century. However, many of those fonts that were developed after the popularization of moveable type, document their historical periods accurately, so accurately that they are forever associated with that historical period, like Advertising Gothic, which was styled at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries.

Cultural Association

Perhaps most guilty of stereotyping, typestyles that project a cultural association are quite obvious when it comes to their fictitious appearance. These typefaces adopt an appearance that comes from mimicry of fonts, letters, and scripted styles that belong to another language’s set of letterform symbols. Nationalities whose alphabets are non-European are those typically used as inspiration for cultural association, such as Chinese alphabet forms for Gang of Three, and Hebraic letterforms for their reincarnation into those in English as in DS Shalom. And lastly, with some ingenuity, the English letterforms in Alhambra, were designed to look Islamic.

Aesthetic Association

There are typestyles that were crafted with formal visual aesthetic fundamentals providing artistic inspiration for their appearance. The visual sensibilities, which are related to artistic movements, form the basis for the design of fonts that carry an aesthetic association. Much less obvious than the prior association categories, aesthetic association is evidenced in those fonts that are tied less to a architectural, historical, cultural, functional, or subject based influence, but whose main inspiration is their artistic appearance. Mobius, Saisa Font, and Neues Bauen are respectable representatives of this form of association. Bauhaus is a font (not shown here) that stands as an archetypal example of aesthetic association.

Usage Association

Usage refers to typestyles that were created for, or have been associated with a particular usage or situation. In some cases it was the intention of the typeface creator to design a font for a specific purpose, but in many cases it happened independently. In either case, for better or worse, certain fonts, will be burdened with an associated use. Eurostyle  (shown here) and it’s twin cousin Microgramma (not shown) represent a class of usage associated fonts that fell victim of “over usage”. Both fonts were nearly universally adopted by the industrial design community, and appeared on a number of automobiles in the 1970’s and 80’s, and their look is still in use now. Other fonts are so “typecast” because they immediately suggest a product or genre. Dunkin Sans and American Typewriter are excellent examples of limitations that are presented by usage association.

Subject Association

Similar to usage association, and arguably even more stereotypical, are typestyles associated with a particular subject. And like usage, some fonts were created specifically to do so, while others were designed to be more general. In either case, these fonts cannot escape an association to the very obvious subjects they were consigned to. However, there are situations where the choosing of subject-associated fonts can aid the personality and communication value of an illustrative assignment. Computer Font, Circus Bold and Western Font, are three obvious examples of fonts that exhibit a subject-based association.

In The Too Much Information Category

“Type casting” originated in the mid 15th century in Europe. The term refers to a process where molten lead and alloy were cast into moulds to form individual letterforms for movable type printing. This practice, known as letterpress printing, is still performed today by custom artisan printers. The alternative term, “typecast”, is generally credited to have originated in the late 19th century and related to an actor repeatedly being cast in similar roles. It now carries several additional meanings, including a couple that relate to our present subject of association, such as “a thing that represents a class or a category”, and “represent or regard as fitting a particular stereotype”.


The images below are examples of various kinds of typographic association. Focus was placed on the style and usage of the fonts in posters and illustrated logos, not necessarily on the illustration style itself. However, in most cases, the illustration style and typographic choice play off each other.

Architectural association. Poster by Anderson Design Group.

Historical association. Poster by TLC Creations.

Aesthetic association. Poster by the Olson Agency.

Cultural association. Poster by The Craft Shop.

Usage association. Poster by Dave Ault.

Subject association. Poster by the Greteman Group.

Architectural association. Logo by Brandon Pickett.

Historical association. Illustrative logo by Mieke.

Cultural association. Logo by widestudio_IT.

Aesthetic association. Designer unknown.

Usage association. Logo by David Howie.

Subject association. Logo by S-de.