The Introverted Designer: as a Type

Published in Freezine's 'Free Mind' issue, May 2020.

It was through my research into introversion that I discovered my obsession with ‘types’. Attempting to understand my own mind brought me to personality tests; ten questions and my supposed personality is condensed into a caricature, a type. My introversion makes me a type, an introverted type of person. I’ve found that even my design practice focuses on typeface design, another type. 


These two ‘types’ of  ‘type’ are homonyms, described by the Oxford English Dictionary as “A kind, class, or order as distinguished by a particular character” and “A small rectangular block, usually of metal or wood, having on its upper end a raised letter, figure, or other character, for use in printing”, respectively. This connection goes beyond a shared word: type designers need to be interested in personality type because all typefaces convey a sort of personality.


 We describe typefaces with the same words we use to describe people; eg. ‘face’, ‘character’ and ‘figure’. We anthropomorphize typefaces by using human anatomy as type anatomy, for example the ‘arm’, ‘ear’, and ‘leg’ are different strokes in a letterform. Typefaces are also literally sorted into their own personality ‘types’; often being described as ‘friendly’, ‘serious’ or ‘confident’. 


The visual language of a typeface is interpreted by its reader just as the text is, and a typeface’s ‘personality’ changes the read tone of any text: it’s important that this perceived personality suits the text not only in legibility but also in voice. In his essay on ‘Graphic Arts and Book Design’, Jan Tschichold argues that the “graphic artist” and the “book designer” are differentiated by their aims. The graphic artist’s aim is “self-expression”, while the book artist must “slough off their own personality completely”. In choosing a typeface that exhibits the personality of the text, the book artist must ensure that the letterforms don’t “overshadow nor patronise the content”. Tschichold is almost likening the self-expression of the designer to the supposed self-expression of the typeface, and warning against the use of either. In the ‘50s when this was written, designers didn’t have access to the huge amount of typefaces readily available today and rules were more strictly stuck to. Today there’s more tolerance for creative freedom as a designer, and understanding how a typeface communicates in its form can help designers produce exciting, contemporary work, particularly when creating personality. 


In a 2005 study designed by Jo MacKiewicz to find the anatomical reasoning behind why a typeface might be perceived as friendly or professional, 62 students were asked to identify the personalities of 15 typefaces. She found that typefaces including “features that invoke or mimic print handwriting greatly contribute to the extent to which a typeface conveys friendliness” and in contrast, the ‘professional’ typefaces were chosen for their “readability” and “bland” appearance. By analysing the features of the carefully selected letters J, a, g, e and n, the ‘friendly’ typefaces, (the highest rated being Bradley Hand and Comic Sans) were found to have several features in common. For example, they both have “single story” a letterforms and g letterforms and round terminals (ends of a lines) suggesting that simplicity, rounded shapes and a likeness to human handwriting are the features that communicate ‘friendliness’ in a typeface. The highest rated typefaces in the ‘professional’ category were Times New Roman and Helvetica, suggesting that straight horizontal lines, square terminals and upright stems communicate ‘professionalism’, when compared with the ‘friendly’ typefaces. 


For me, a key aspect of understanding personality is the lean towards introversion or extroversion. Laurie Helgoe opens Introvert Power by constructing an unfortunate image of the archetypal introvert; “ungainly”, “nerdy”, “neutral colours”. Though informal, this study suggests that there is an accepted visual identity for introverts, likely influenced by the shy and socially awkward stereotype that is understood to be introversion. If a typeface can appear to have personality traits, then an introverted or extroverted typeface might follow the patterns of this stereotype. If, as MacKiewicz suggests, ‘friendliness’ is shown through roundness, wideness and curved lines, then a typeface that is regarded as typically extroverted might use some of these traits. In contrast, a typeface that is adhering to the introvert stereotype might have features that make it look closed off, or awkward.

Many personality tests sort their subjects into introverts or extroverts, but I often find that most people are less willing to succumb to this binary. Introversion and extroversion sit on a scale where the middle ground is ‘ambivert’, a much less satisfying conclusion. We can’t categorise the mind, personality is too complicated to definitively sort into types or make into a typeface. However, these types serve a purpose in understanding ourselves just as a typeface with personality helps a reader understand the tone of a text.

Written by Zoe Oswin