Al-Husseini: The secret language of letter design

Special What does the unique lettering in this well-known Douglasville sign say to you?

"Fonts turn words into stories" -- Sarah Hyndman

Typography is the little-appreciated, yet tremendously important practice of arranging type in a legible and aesthetic way. We live in a world where all around us are hundreds of fonts, yet we rarely realize it. Take a walk in downtown Douglasville and pay special attention to the passing signage. Each font was consciously selected by someone, meant to represent something. The thick, yet simple red lettering in Gumbeaux's logo connotes pride, but also simplicity and Cajun cuisine. Make it a challenge to determine the thought behind the signage for Fabiano's Pizzeria, Gabe's Downtown Louisiana Bistro, and Hudson's Hickory House.

That we do not explicitly notice unique lettering is partly by design; as is often said, one can read or they can look, but not both. A well-designed, situationally appropriate font seems natural to us, and therefore does not catch our attention. Nonetheless, the message represented by the font is still subconsciously communicated.

As letterer Martina Flor says in her 2017 TED Talk, "By giving shape to the letters, I can decide more precisely what I mean to say and how, beyond the literal text." Just as a home is more than a complex of well-engineered construction materials and a sentence is more than a collection of words, text is more than the literal definition. The context associated with text brings to bear its value. Think of sarcasm for example, which can reverse the meaning of a statement in its entirety. Close your eyes and imagine an eerie sign that welcomes guests to a haunted house. Chances are, your imagined sign is not written in the same font as this newspaper article.

I am a large proponent of recognizing the role excellent design plays in our everyday lives. Whether in hospitals or flags, skyscrapers or signs, design is prominently featured, bringing extraordinary meaning to ordinary things. There is something innately special about recognizing how much thought has been given to that which we otherwise don't think about. Design is truly a world within a world, even in something as simple as a sign.

Mahdi Al-Husseini is the volunteer organizer of TEDxDouglasville, a senior at Georgia Tech studying biomedical engineering and public policy, and a U.S. Army cadet.

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