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Information Design Journal
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4(2), 39–55
a semiotics
of typography
© 2006 John Benjamins Publishing Company
Theo van Leeuwen
Towards a semiotics of typography
The new writing
of texts in terms of the communicative work they do. At
the level of the clause, functional grammar has moved
beyond the formal, structural analysis of sentences,
allowing insight into the relations between clause structure and the communicative work that clauses do, for
instance through concepts such as theme and rheme,
and given and new (e.g. Halliday, 985).
The problem is, just as we have developed these
concepts and analytical techniques, writing itself has
changed. Much of the cohesive work that used to be
done by language is now realised, not through linguistic
resources, but through layout, colour and typography.
Consider the two text fragments below, from the
UK version of Cosmopolitan magazine (September
2003, p. 49).
Over the past thirty years or so, a range of methods has
been developed for analysing the coherence of English
text. Influential studies of thematic structure (Fries,
983), lexical cohesion (Gutwinski, 976; Halliday &
Hasan, 976; Martin, 992), reference (Gleason, 973,
Halliday & Hasan, 976; Martin, 992), conjunction
(Halliday & Hasan, 976; Halliday, 985; Martin, 983,
992) and other aspects of cohesion have provided effective and widely used tools for analysing coherence and
cohesion in written text. And linguistic genre studies
(Swales, 990; Martin, 992; Van Leeuwen, 993, 2005)
have made it possible to interpret the cohesive structures
Figure . Linguistically realised text coherence (UK Cosmopolitan, September 2003, p.49)
Keywords: connotation, distinctive features, document
design, ideational meaning, interpersonal meaning, semiotics, medium, mode, textual meaning, typography
This article outlines a social semiotic approach to analysing the ideational, interpersonal and textual meaning
potentials of letter forms, drawing on Jakobson’s distinctive feature analysis and Lakoff and Johnson’s theory of
experiential metaphor. X distinctive features are recognized and applied to the analysis of examples: weight,
expansion, slope, curvature, connectivity, orientation and
Theo van Leeuwen
Figure 2. Visually realised text coherence (UK Cosmopolitan,
September 2003, p. 49)
In the second sentence of Figure , the relationship
between the different ‘animal sex personalities’ is indicated linguistically, by the conjunction ‘either...or’, and
by the first sentence which announces that ‘there are
five animal sex personalities’, and so creates an implicit
In Figure 2, on the other hand, the relationship
between the different characteristics of the ‘dolphin sex
personality’ is indicated visually. Each of the ‘characteristics’ has its own visual identity, its own bullet point, and
at the same time visually resembles the other characteristics, creating a visual ‘classification’ syntagm (c.f. Kress
& Van Leeuwen, 996, pp. 79–89). As a result we understand that they provide the same kind of information,
that they all characterize the same type of ‘personality’.
But there is no explicit linguistic formulation of this, no
sentence announcing that ‘the dolphin sex personality
has three main characteristics’
Again, in Figure , a shift in the use of linguistic
resources signals a shift in what the text is trying to
do, a shift to a new ‘stage’ in the unfolding of the text’s
communicative work. As we move from declarative to
imperative sentences, we also move from a first stage of
‘explaining the concepts’ to a second stage of ‘instructing the reader in applying them’. But there is no visual
boundary between these stages. Visually the text just
runs on. In Figure 2, on the other hand, the two text
elements shown, the ‘enumeration of the main characteristics’ of the dolphin, and the ‘expansion of one of these
characteristics’ is indicated by a shift in the deployment
of visual resources, in terms of layout (bullet-pointed
text versus running text), colour (pink and black versus
black only), and typography (a shift to a different weight
of the same font).
Finally, in Figure , the link between text and image
is signified linguistically, through the sentence ‘Study
the pictures on the following page’, while in the banner
of Figure 2 the link between image and text is expressed
by means of layout, through a ‘Given-New’ composition
(c.f. Kress & Van Leeuwen, 996, pp.86–92).
All this applies, not just to text structure, but also
to sentence structure. An advertisement for cat food
(Figure 3) shows a fluffy grey kitten lying on a soft, silky
sheet. A linguistic analysis of the verbal text alone would
not make much sense. But together with the pictures, the
advertisement forms a kind of passive clause in which
Figure 3. Visually realised participants with verbally realised
Towards a semiotics of typography
Figure 4. Visually realised process with verbally realised
Figure 5. Vicks television commercial by
Jonathan Barnbrook
the process, the ‘verb’, is expressed linguistically, and the
participants visually – the agent of the ‘spoiling’ by the
pictures of the different kinds of cat food, and the object
of the ‘spoiling’ by the picture of the cat. Note the verbalvisual parallelism here: The word ‘spoilt’ is repeated four
times, corresponding to the four tins of catfood depicted
at the bottom of the page. We could paraphrase ‘This
kitten is spoilt by catfood a, and by catfood b ....(etc)’.
In the case of Figure 4, the opposite happens. The
grammar, the structure of the proposition is realised
visually. The participants are demarcated as participants
in the structure by means of framing and colour, and the
process is expressed by means of an arrow, rather than
by means of a verb such as ‘causes’, or ‘leads to’ or ‘results
in’. But the ‘lexical’ content of the participants is realised
verbally, through nominal groups. In other words, the
‘grammar’ is visual, and the ‘lexis’ verbal.
The London typographer Jonathan Barnbrook has
used this principle in a series of television commercials. In Figure 5, the elements of the clause are realised
verbally, but each is given a distinct identity, defined as a
distinct element by different kinds of frame, colour and
typography, and these elements are connected to each
other by means of lines and arrows. Again, the (‘clause’
level) ‘grammar’ is visual, and the ‘lexis’ verbal.
The problem is, concepts and methods for analysing this new kind of writing, its coherence, and hence
its potential effectiveness, lag behind the techniques we
have for analysing traditional writing.
The new typography
Elsewhere Kress and I (Kress & Van Leeuwen, 996,
2002; Van Leeuwen, 2005) have attempted to outline
methods for analysing layout and colour which can be
integrated with already existing methods of analysing
linguistic text structure such as those referenced above.
Here I will try to apply the principles we used in this
work to typography. This is a relatively novel enterprise.
Most research on typography has concerned itself only
with legibility. Typography was not considered a semiotic mode in its own right. In the Thames and Hudson
Manual of Typography, first published in 980, McLean
says that ‘to a very limited extent, lettering may help to
express a feeling or a mood that is in harmony with the
meaning of the words’, but for the most part ‘lettering
and calligraphy are abstract arts (...) What moves us is
something formal, and, in the last resort, inexplicable’
(McLean, 2000, pp. 54–56).
Theo van Leeuwen
All this is now changing. Typography is facing
new challenges, as screen media such as the Internet
become more and more oriented towards the written
word and ‘page media’ such as books and magazines
become increasingly visual. A new typography has
emerged which no longer sees itself as a humble craft
in the service of the written word, but as spearheading
innovation in graphic design, and which no longer sees
typography as an ‘abstract art’, but as a means of communication in its own right. Designers Bellantoni and
Woolman (2000), for instance, write that the printed
word has two levels of meaning, the ‘word image’, i.e. the
idea represented by the word itself, constructed from a
string of letters, and the ‘typographic image’, the ‘holistic
visual impression’, and designer Neuenschwander (993,
p. 3, p. 3) calls typography ‘a fully developed medium
of expression’, possessing ‘a complex grammar by which
communication is possible’, quoting the Swiss designer
Hans-Rudolf Lutz who has said that ‘Gestaltung ist auch
Information’ [‘design is also information’].
This move towards a new role for typography is not
restricted to the work of professional designers, but
affects all writers. The time of the relative uniformity of
handwriting and, especially, typewriting, is over, and
the basic tools of the typographer are now available to
every word processor user. The problem is, despite the
programmatic announcement of the new typographers,
we do not yet have that ‘complex grammar’. And despite
the fact that a number of linguists have begun to explore
this new field (e.g. Myers, 994; Goodman & Graddol,
996; Crystal, 998; Walker, 2000; Cook, 200), we do
not yet have a systematic framework for the analysis of
the communicative work done by typography today.
Typography as a semiotic mode
In Reading Images (996) Kress and I used Halliday’s
metafunctional theory (Halliday, 978) to argue that
the image constitutes a semiotic mode in its own right,
a kind of ‘language’. According to Halliday, spoken and
written texts always, and simultaneously, fulfil three
broad communicative functions or ‘metafunctions’, and
specific linguistic resources, specific lexicogrammatical
and discourse-level ‘systems’, can be matched to each
of these three metafunctions. We set out to show that
images, too, can fulfil all three of these metafunctions,
and that the ‘grammatical’ resources of images, too, can
be matched to specific metafunctions.
To briefly gloss the metafunctions, the ‘ideational’
metafunction is the function of constructing representations of what is going on in the world (and in our minds).
The most important linguistic systems which realize it,
are the lexicon and the grammar of transitivity, which
outlines the different kinds of processes (e.g. material and
mental processes) that make it possible to create different representations of what must ultimately be the same
phenomena. In images, Kress and I argued, this function
is fulfilled by certain aspects of composition (e.g. Kress &
Van Leeuwen, 996, pp. 79–89) and by systems of vectoriality (Kress & Van Leeuwen , 996, pp. 56–7).
The ‘interpersonal’ metafunction is the function of
language to constitute social interactions and express
attitudes towards what is being represented. One of
the lexicogrammatical resources for the former is the
grammar of mood, which allows us to do different things
with language, such as making statements, asking questions and so on. The linguistic resources for expressing
attitudes have recently been reformulated in the theory
of ‘appraisal’ systems (Martin, 2000). In images the
interpersonal metafunction is fulfilled by the systems of
the gaze, size of frame, and angle.
The ‘textual’ metafunction, finally, allows us to use
language to marshal individual representations-cuminteractions into coherent texts and communicative
events, linguistically through the systems of cohesion,
thematic structure, and given-new, and in images through
the systems of composition, framing and salience.
Towards a semiotics of typography
Figure 6. Illustrative uses of typography
Figure 8. The interpersonal function of typography: expressing attitudes and feelings
Can typography fulfil all three of these functions? I
think yes. Typography can, and is, used ideationally, to
represent actions and qualities. The examples in Figure
6, for instance, show a ‘scratchy’ font used to illustrate
the idea of headache, and bones to illustrate the idea of
death. Again, in Figure 3 a soft, smooth, rounded ‘script’
font is used to express the idea of ‘indulgence’. Designers are increasingly interested in such illustrative uses
of typography, and in blurring the boundaries between
letter forms and images, something which, in the ‘old
typography’ was often frowned upon (e.g. McLean,
2000, p. 56)
Typography can also enact interactions and express
attitudes to what is being represented. A word can be
changed into a ‘warning’ or a ‘question’ through typography and typographic signs alone, as demonstrated
in Figure 7, and typography can also be used to express
attitudes towards what is being represented. It can
‘interpret’, or, you might say, ‘perform’ texts, or parts of
texts, as ‘modern’, or ‘traditional’, ‘capricious’ or ‘serious’,
‘exciting’ or ‘dull’ and so on. Figure 8 shows New York
designer’s Kathryn Marshal’s attempt to transform email
into a visually expressive communication vehicle.
It should be remembered here that not all typographical signs are letter or number forms (cf Stötzner,
2003). Many new non-letter signs are now emerging,
and some of them can realise ‘interpersonal’ meanings,
for instance the ‘emoticons’ used in email messages.
The way typography can realise textual meaning has
already been touched on in the discussion of Figure 2.
Typography can demarcate the elements, the ‘units’, of a
text and express their degree of similarity or difference
as textual elements, and it can foreground key elements
of a text and background less important elements. Many
typographical signs that are not letter forms realise
textual meaning, the most obvious example being punctuation marks – and they, too, are now rapidly developing new uses and new signs.
Figure 7. The typographical realisation of ‘speech acts’
Theo van Leeuwen
Typography and multimodality
It is important, however, not to isolate typography from
the other communicative modes with which it almost
always co-occurs. Just as, in the practice of contemporary designers, the boundaries between the formerly
distinct specialisms of design (illustration, typography,
photography, etc) are now eroding, so in the new writing the corresponding semiotic means of expression no
longer occupy distinct territories, but are interconnected
in many different ways. Typography itself, too, is no
longer just about letter forms. It is multimodal, integrated with other semiotic means of expression such as
colour, texture, three-dimensionality, and movement.
In Figure 9, for instance, the words ‘fall in love’ are in
red, which both lends them salience (a ‘textual’ meaning), and expresses the idea of love, though by means of
colour, rather than by means of typography.
Figure 9. Typography and colour
Figure 0. Typography and texture
Figure 0 shows the logo of the Swiss avant-garde art
magazine Parkett, which uses three-dimensionality
and texture, and was in fact hand-embroidered by the
designer’s mother. In this way it celebrates the values of
traditional hand-crafted objects, and opposes itself to the
slick, computer-generated logos which are so ubiquitous
Finally, in film and television titles and commercials,
and on Internet websites, typography makes increasing use of movement. A series of Channel 5 programme
announcements in the UK, for instance, used kinetic
typography both illustratively (e.g. writing the verb
‘cycle’ in a circle and making it rotate, or stretching out
the word ‘long’ in the phrase ‘a long wait’) and interpersonally, by creating visual equivalents of intonation and
speech rhythm.
This means that the key concepts we need to analyse
and evaluate document design should not apply just to
language, or to any other specific, single semiotic mode.
They should be functional concepts, concepts that label
a particular communicative function, and can be applied
to all semiotic modes that have developed resources for
realising it. Salience, making a given text element stand
out from its immediate textual environment, is such
a concept. It can be realised through a wide range of
semiotic modes, and, within each mode, by a number
of different means. Typography for instance, can realise
Towards a semiotics of typography
salience through size, colour contrasts, movement, or
indeed anything that can make a word or phrase or
clause stand out from others (different font, different
set, different weight, etc). Framing, the demarcation of
the elements of text, be they verbal or visual, is another.
And the means by which these communicative functions
are realised can also cross over between modes, and be
applied in many domains of semiotic endeavour. Creating salience through colour, for instance, is not restricted
to typography, but is possible also in images, fashion,
product design, interior decoration, architecture, etc.
And colour, in turn is not restricted to expressing
salience, but can also express ideational and interpersonal meanings (Kress & Van Leeuwen, 2002)
In other words, if we are to do justice to the common
semiotic functions of different semiotic resources, and
if we are to be able to bring out the specific strengths of
specific semiotic resources and to explain what difference it makes whether a given communicative function
is realised through one semiotic mode or combination of
semiotic modes, or another, we need to extend the scope
of linguistics, and to incorporate it in a broader theory
of multimodality. But this cannot be done without first
separately exploring the communicative potential of the
different semiotic resources involved, and it is this I am
trying to do here with respect to typography.
Typography as medium and as mode
Semiotic resources can be organized as a medium or as
a mode (c.f. Kress & Van Leeuwen, 200). If a semiotic
resource is organised as a ‘mode’, it has both a grammar and a ‘lexis’. If it is organised as a ‘medium’, it has
only a ‘lexis’. Perhaps this is best explained by means
of an example. As Kress and I have described elsewhere (2002), in Medieval art the semiotic resource
of colour was organised as a medium. Pigments had
value in themselves. Ultramarine, for instance, had to
be imported from across the sea (as the name indicates)
and was expensive, not only for this reason, but also
because it was made from lapis lazuli. Therefore it was
used for high value subjects, such as the mantle of the
Virgin Mary. Such pigments were not mixed, but used in
unmixed form, or at most only mixed with white. Each
pigment was a very concrete, material resource, with its
own, unique identity and character. Around 600, in the
Netherlands, a new type of oil paint was introduced. It
was not only cheaper, it also made mixing possible. As
a result colours lost their individual identities. Colour
was no longer conceived of as ‘lexis’, as a large collection of distinctly different, individual pigments, but as
a combinatory system with five elementary, ‘abstract’
colours (‘red’ in general, rather than a specific red, and
so on) from which all other colours could be mixed, just
as language is conceived of as a system with a limited
number of speech sounds from which all words can be
constructed, and a finite number of words from which
all sentences can be constructed.
Typography has mostly been seen as a ‘medium’, a
collection of distinct, individual typefaces, with distinct
provenances, to be listed alphabetically, as in the word
processor, or at best grouped together on the basis of
historical principles and ‘influences’, rather than systematically, as in this example, from the Thames and Hudson
Manual of Typography (McLean, 2000, p.60).
Didone types, invented by Didot and perfected by
Bodoni, are classified in England by the meaningless
term ‘modern’. They are characterized by vertical shading and hairline serifs, introduced in the middle of the
eighteenth century when improvements in presses and
paper-making made such fine lines possible to print.
The 920s Bauhaus designer Jan Tschichold attempted
to change this. He analysed letter forms into their basic
building blocks, in order to create what he called a Skelettschrift (‘skeleton lettering’), a rational and functional
typeface, suitable for the modern, industrial age. Just
Theo van Leeuwen
as phonologists describe language as having a limited
number of discrete phonemes and regard the many
variations of pronunciation that result from the co-articulation of different phonemes as variations that do not
affect meaning, so, here too, the ‘meaningless’ variation
that resulted from typography’s roots in handwriting was
eliminated, and as many interchangeable components
as possible were created (e.g. the ‘bowls’ of ‘a’, ‘b’, ‘p’, ‘d’,
‘g’ and ‘q’ were all made identical, which usually they are
not). But this move towards typography as ‘system’ was,
and often still is, rejected by traditional typographers.
McLean, for instance, compares it unfavourably with
the work of the famous British typographer Eric Gill
(McLean, 2000, p. 67). It ‘reduces difference’, he says,
and eliminates ‘subtlety’, ‘refinement’ and the link with
Figure . ‘Circuit’ typeface (Peter Grundy, 982)
[Tschichold’s] seductive theory had to be paid for in loss
of legibility, since the effect was to reduce the differences... Eric Gill’s sans was different in that it was drawn by
an artist and designer who was already deeply involved
with the classical roman alphabet. His letters contained
subtleties and refinements which the German designers, preferring the logic (or dictatorship) of rules and
compasses, could not admit.
When a semiotic resource is organized as a ‘medium’,
meaning comes about in a relatively adhoc, unsystematic
way, through one of two principles, connotation or experiential metaphor (c.f. Kress & Van Leeuwen, 2002).
The term ‘connotation’ is used here in a specific
sense. It refers to the idea that signs may be ‘imported’
from one context (one era, one social group, one culture)
into another, in order to signify the ideas and values
associated with that other context by those who do
the ‘importing’. Many aspects of the ‘Circuit’ typeface
in Figure  are ‘imported’ into typography from the
domain of the electric circuitry diagram. It can therefore be used, for instance, to connote ‘technicality’. The
‘Herculanum’ typeface in Figure 2 imports aspects of
Figure 2. ‘Herculanum’ typeface (Adrian Frutiger, 988)
the form language of informal Ancient Roman inscriptions an papyri into a contemporary typeface and can
therefore be used to connote the values we associate with
Antiquity and the Roman Empire.
The other principle that can be used to endow
meaning to the items in the typographic lexicon, is that
of ‘experiential metaphor’. The idea, inspired by the
groundbreaking work of Lakoff and Johnson (980), is
that a material signifier has a meaning potential that
derives from our physical experience of it, from what it
is we do when we articulate it, and from our ability to
extend our practical, physical experience metaphorically,
Towards a semiotics of typography
to turn action into knowledge (see Van Leeuwen, 2005,
Chapter 2, for a more extensive discussion). This is again
best explained by means of an example. Speakers and
singers often adopt a soft, breathy voice quality to signify
‘sensuality’. As experienced producers and interpreters of
speech we know both that soft, whispered speech can be
associated with intimacy or conspiracy, and that breathiness is associated with being ‘out of breath’, for instance
as a result of excitement or exertion – thus ‘intimate
excitement’ and ‘intimate exertion’ can become part of
the meaning potential afforded by this signifier.
A key aspect of the letter forms in figure 3 is their
irregularity. They differ in size and thickness, and
indeed in shape – different a’s, for instance, are drawn
differently. The distribution of ‘weight’ (thickness and
thinness), too, goes against the norms of typography, in
which it is usually the upright stem of the ‘n’, rather than
the descending line in the middle, which is thick. In our
own physical experience of writing, such irregularities
stem from an inability or unwillingness to apply the
rules of ‘neat writing’ we are taught in school. As a result,
irregularity has, amongst other things, the potential
to signify a kind of rebellion against the norms of the
school, or, by extension, other coercive institutions. In
Figure 3 this rebellion is of course neatly contained by
the controlled symmetry of the overall layout.
Figure 3. Cover of a Monie Love single (lettering by Ruth
Rowland, 989)
Distinctive feature analysis
In phonology, a breakthrough was made when Jakobson and Halle (956) described phonemes, not as the
minimal, not further analysable units of speech, but as
‘bundles of features’, different combinations of ‘distinctive features’ such as ‘voicedness’, ‘frontality’, ‘openness’ and so on. Although Jakobson and Halle did not
see these features as having a semiotic potential, it is
possible to argue that they do by using the principles of
connotation and experiential metaphor, and in earlier
work I have attempted to do just this for the semiotic
modes of sound (Van Leeuwen, 999, Chapter 6) and
colour (Kress & Van Leeuwen, 2002). Once this is established, it follows that not just formal features, but also
meaning potentials can be ‘bundled’, ‘mixed’, as in the
example of the ‘sensual’ voice, which ‘blends’ the meanings of ‘softness’ and ‘breathiness’ to get ‘sensuality’.
Here is a first attempt at identifying the distinctive
features of typography, and outlining their semiotic
potential. I am restricting myself to the actual letter
forms rather than also including other features such as
letter spacing, interlineal space, etc, which of course also
belong to the semiotic resources of typography. I would
like to stress that the list below is not a kind of ‘dictionary’, listing the ‘authoritative’ meanings of letter forms.
What I am doing here is presenting proposals for explicitly ‘semioticizing’ typography, for making something
meaningful that was previously was not regarded as
semiotic. But I am doing so on the basis of what I argue
to be shared experience, and hence on the basis of principles which promise at least the possibility of successful
communication. The principle of connotation of course
also makes shared meaning possible, but on a different
basis – on the basis of shared cultural knowledge and
Theo van Leeuwen
The metaphoric potential of this feature, which is,
again, a continuum, relates to our experience of space.
Maximally condensed typefaces make maximal use
of limited space. They are precise, economical, packing the page with content. Wide typefaces, by contrast,
spread themselves around, using space as if it is in
unlimited supply. But the values of the contrast may be
reversed. Wide typefaces may also be seen in a positive light, as providing room to breathe, room to move,
while condensed typefaces may, by contrast, be seen as
cramped, overcrowded, restrictive of movement.
This is the difference between bold typefaces or versions of a typeface, and regular
typefaces or versions of a typeface, as shown here
by the difference between Arial black and Arial.
As with many of the features to be discussed below, this
is not a binary but a gradual contrast – there is, at least in
principle, a continuum of boldness, even if technologies
like the word processor reduce it to a binary choice.
Increased weight is of course frequently used to
increase salience, but it can, at the same time, be used
metaphorically, to signify ideational and interpersonal
meanings. Bold can be made to mean ‘daring’, ‘assertive’,
or ‘solid’ and ‘substantial’, for instance, and its opposite
can be made to mean ‘timid’, or ‘insubstantial’. But the
values may also be reversed. Boldness may have a more
negative meaning. It may be made to mean ‘domineering’, ‘overbearing’. Other, co-present signifying elements
will narrow down the meaning potential and the values
invoked, and make them more specific.
I have glossed the typographical meaning potential
by means of adjectives, and that may suggest that their
meaning is primarily ideational. But while adjectives like
‘daring’, ‘assertive’, ‘solid’, ‘substantial’ and so on signify
qualities of what is being represented, they can also have
interpersonal significance. They can also signify attitudes
towards what is being represented, or do something to
readers. Boldness, for instance, can typographically
‘hector’ readers and the smooth, rounded letter forms in
Figure 3 can simultaneously signify the idea of ‘indulgence’ and symbolically ‘pamper’ and ‘soothe’ the reader.
This refers to the difference between
cursive, sloping, ‘script’-like typefaces and
upright typefaces, as shown here by the difference
between Lucida Bright and Lucida Calligraphy.
Again, there are degrees of ‘slope’, and slope can also
be either right-leaning or left-leaning, although the latter
is less common in typefaces.
Even when we cannot ‘place’ a cursive typeface in
a particular era, the contrast can be recognized as that
between handwriting and printing. The meaning potential of this contrast is therefore predominantly connotative, based on the meanings and values we associate with
handwriting and printing. Depending on the context,
it might signify a contrast between the ‘organic’ and
the ‘mechanical’, the ‘personal’ and the ‘impersonal’, the
‘formal’ and the ‘informal’, the ‘mass-produced’ and the
‘handcrafted’, the ‘new’ and the ‘old’, and so on.
Typefaces may be condensed, narrow, or they may be
expanded, wide, as shown here by the difference
between Arial and Arial narrow.
A letterform can stress angularity or it
can stress curvature, as shown here by the difference
between Copperplate and Century Gothic. ‘Black letters’,
Towards a semiotics of typography
as shown here by the ‘Old English Text MT’ font, have
pronounced angularity. Curvature may also be realized
by the difference between, on the one hand, rounded
ascenders and descenders, e.g. in fonts which use loops
and fonts which apply flicks (curved hooks at the end of
ascenders and/or descenders), as shown here by Script
MT Bold and Pristina, or, on the other hand, predominantly straight ascenders and descenders, as in typefaces
like Agency FB. Many typefaces mix and match the two.
Although particular types, such as Old English Text
MT, may have clear cultural connotations, this feature
also has experiential meaning potential, based both on
our experience of producing straight, angular forms,
which requires controlled, brisk, decisive movement,
and round forms, which require a more gradual, ‘fluid’
control of movement, and its significance may also be
based on experiential and cultural associations with
essentially round or essentially angular objects. Roundedness can come to signify ‘smooth’, ‘soft’, ‘natural’,
‘organic’, ‘maternal’, and so on, and angularity ‘abrasive’,
‘harsh’, ‘technical’, ‘masculine’, and so on. Both may either
be positively or negatively valued. Modernity, rationality,
functionality etc have often favoured the values of angularity, as e.g. in the paintings of Mondrian, while postmodernity has brought back round forms, for instance
in car design and architecture. Clearly the field of
possibilities is very wide. But it will be narrowed down
by other, co-present features, and by the context generally – a particularly important feature of the context is
the genre in which a font occurs, and the expectations
this sets up in the reader.
Letter forms can be connected to each
other, as in running script, have hooked
feet that extend to various degrees to the
next letter, or almost touch it, or lack
any of these features so that the
letter forms are quite separate and
self-contained, as shown here by Lucia Handwriting, Lucida Calligraphy, and Lucida Console.
Connection and disconnection can be external,
between letter forms, as in the examples above, or internal,
within letter forms as in the Bauhaus 93 typeface.
Connectivity is, again, associated with handwriting, and therefore shares much of its meaning potential
with ‘slope’ (see above). But it also has its own metaphoric potential. External disconnection can suggest
‘atomisation’, or ‘fragmentation’, and external connection
‘wholeness’, or ‘integration’. But the values may also be
reversed, with disconnection signifying the distinctive
individuality of the elements of the whole, and connection its opposite. Internally disconnected letter forms,
finally, have a sense of not being ‘buttoned up’, which
may be negatively valued, as ‘unfinished’, or ‘sloppy’, or
positively, as, say, ‘easy-going’.
Typefaces may be either be oriented towards the horizontal dimension, by being comparatively ‘flattened’,
as shown here by Bodoni MT Black, or oriented towards the
vertical dimension by being comparatively elongated, stretched in the vertical
direction, as shown here by Onyx.
The meaning potential of horizontality and verticality is ultimately based on our experience of gravity, and
of walking upright. Horizontal orientation, for instance,
could suggest ‘heaviness’, ‘solidity’, but also ‘inertia’,
‘self-satisfaction’, while vertical orientation could suggest
‘lightness’, ‘upwards aspiration’, but also ‘instability’.
Other related aspects of orientation are (a) the
difference between typefaces with short ascenders and
descenders that hardly extend beyond the ‘x-line’ and
the ‘base line’, as for instance in Bernard MT Condensed,
and typefaces with long descenders and ascenders, as
Theo van Leeuwen
for instance in the aptly named High Tower Text,
and (b) the difference between a downwards orientation
in which the descenders are longer than the ascenders,
as exemplified here by Viner Hand ITC, and an
upwards orientation, in which the ascenders are longer
than the descenders, as exemplified here by Poor Richard.
In the former case the letter forms seek roots, as it were.
In the latter case they aspire to some form of metaphorical ‘elevation’. When the extent of the ascenders and
descenders is minimalized, the letter forms ‘stay within
their allotted space’, and neither aspire to take root nor
to some form of metaphorical ascension.
The contrast between regular and irregular typefaces
has already been commented on in relation to Figure 3.
Many typefaces have deliberate irregularities, through
an apparently random distribution of specific features,
for instance curvature (e.g. some descenders with, others
without a playful flick or ligature), and through entasis,
which can also be interpreted in terms of regularity – in
some cases the different parts of a letter form differ in
weight, and in others they do not. Entasis may either
be fairly regular and systematic, in ‘traditional’ oblique
shading and ‘modern’ vertical shading, or differ from
these two standard forms, as in this typeface called Chiller.
Irregularity may also be created by not staying within
the lines, going above the x-line or below the baseline, for instance, as here in Kristen ITC, or by variation in slope, as in Ravie (compare the ‘t’
and the ‘l’, for instance).
Traditional typography has set great store on regularized forms of differentiation, for the sake of the distinctiveness of letter forms, and hence of legibility. But
regularity and irregularity also have their metaphoric
potential, as seen in the brief analysis of the letter forms
in Figure 3.
Non-distinctive features
Some features of letter forms are, strictly speaking, not
necessary for telling them apart, although they may be
said to contribute to legibility, as in the case of serifs.
Typography has developed a wide range of flourishes,
ligatures and capricious additions, and they, too, can be
said to have a meaning potential, in many cases derivable from that of the distinctive features described
above. The flourishes of Edwardian Script IT, for
instance, are both ‘rounded’ and ‘expansive’, while the
curls of Curlz MT are irregular, including pearl-shaped
loop terminals, circular dots on the i’s and, capriciously,
within the bowls of the ‘o’, the ‘p’, the ‘g’, and the ‘q’. I
am not able to do justice to this complex area within
the space of this paper, and hope to be able to explore it
more fully in further work.
Typography as a semiotic mode
pp. 151 & 152
not included
Table  summarizes the discussion above in the form of a
system network (e.g. Halliday, 978). The curly brackets
signify ‘parallel systems’, that is, ‘both...and’ rules (for
instance, ‘a letter form must have both a certain weight
and a certain degree of expansion and...’). The square
brackets signify binary systems, ‘either...or’ choices
(for instance ‘disconnection must be either internal or
external’). The double-headed arrows signify graded
contrasts, continuums. This brings out that, overall, this
aspect of typography operates as a parallel, rather than a
linear system.
At the same time, at least some of the parallel systems
can be modelled as binary systems, usually because they
have, in the practice of typography, been standardized to
the degree that they have become a set of discrete alternatives, whether for technological or other reasons. The
system of ‘serifs’ (Table 2) is a good example (I use typographical terminology here, rather than functional labels)
Towards a semiotics of typography
The same applies to the textual meaning potential
of typography, which I have not explored in detail in
this paper, and which is closely related to the meaning
potential of layout (c.f. the theory of layout in Kress &
Van Leeuwen, 996).
Typography and document design
I would like to end by using the framework developed
in this paper in a slightly more extended analysis of
two examples from the everyday practice of document
The example in Figure 4 comes from the brochure of
a real estate agent. It uses two different fonts, one for the
first sentence, a statement of self presentation in which
the company headlines the nature of its operations, the
other for a list of the areas in which it operates.
The textual meanings expressed here are obvious. The statement of self presentation is bolded and
coloured, and hence more salient. It is a headline. But
other features are also relevant, and they can not all
be explained on the basis of salience – salience could
also have been achieved, for instance, by bold uprights,
rather than italics. This self-presentation statement also
uses typography ideationally (the company is constructing a representation of itself) and interpersonally (the
Figure 4. Real estate information brochure
company is also addressing its potential clients in a
certain way).
In terms of the distinctive features I have discussed,
the typeface is not only coloured (a royal purple) and
bold, but also fairly wide, sloping, fairly rounded, not
entirely regular, and with just a hint of flourish. The
other features seem to be relatively neutral and do not
appear to play much of a role in the contrast between
the two typefaces. The typeface of the list, by contrast,
is not only black, but it also has less weight, is more
condensed and upright, less rounded (compare the a’s
and the e’s for instance), more regular and without even
a hint of flourish (compare the f ’s, for instance). The
differences are slight, but slight differences matter in
Applying my discussion of the meaning potential
of these features, the company here presents itself in
‘personal’ way (the sloping font, reminiscent of handwriting), as ‘human’ rather than ‘mechanical’ (rounded,
and slightly irregular), but also quite assertively (bold
and wide). The typeface of the list, by contrast, is less
personal, more formal (the upright font), and ‘mechanical’ (more angular and regular), and lacks the ‘assertive’ features of the presentation. It is, in short, factual
and informative only, oriented towards legibility rather
than expression. This contrast is also realised in the
semiotic modes of language and colour. The language
of the self-presentation has a personal element (the use
of a first person pronoun), while the language of the
box is a neutral, factual list, eliminating all the interpersonal resources of language. And the colour of the
self-presentation sets up connotations of value (the
royal purple), while the black and white of the list is
neutral in this regard. In short, typography plays a role
both in expressing what kind of company this is, and in
expressing what communicative work it is doing in this
text fragment.
The second example is from an information brochure
of an insurance company, National Mutual Life.
Theo van Leeuwen
phy. In other words, text and typography do not always
double each other. Some meanings may be realized in
both modes, others only in the one or the other.
Figure 5. Heading of National Mutual Life information
brochure for independent financial advisers
The text in this example uses a ‘dialogic’ question and
answer format, mixing information (‘n the past it has
not always been easy to compare the effect of charges of
the different pension providers’) and self promotion (‘One
company really stood out ... Who is this company? Answer.
National Mutual Life’), and adopting a relatively informal,
personal tone. The font used for this information is a
serif, with differentiated letters, wide, fairly rounded, with
more than usually long ascenders and descenders (the
other features would appear to be relatively neutral). In
terms of the discussion above, this could be interpreted as
an attempt to appear both personable, ‘showing a human
face’ and assertive – within the limits of the factual genre
and the legibility requirements of running text.
The treatment of the phrase ‘for the Independent
Financial Adviser’ is of particular interest. The font has
clear connotations of traditional calligraphic script. It
is wide, differentiated (two different d’s, for example),
sloping, rounded, connective, quite assertive in terms of
the extent of the ascenders and descenders, and it has
pronounced flourishes. Thus the independent financial
adviser is flattered as being personal, flexible, enterprising, but also rooted in solid traditional values, someone
with a ‘pedigree’. Nowhere are these meanings expressed
linguistically. They are expressed solely by the typogra-
My conclusion will be short, because I feel that this work
has only just begun, and not yet reached a stage in which
conclusions can be drawn. This paper should therefore
be relatively open-ended, inviting others to join in the
enterprise, rather than presenting a finished product.
So let me just briefly recapitulate. I have suggested,
persuasively I hope, that typography can be seen as a
semiotic mode - systematic, multimodal and able to
realize not just textual, but also ideational and interpersonal meaning. I have argued that developing a detailed
‘grammar’ of this semiotic mode, and detailed approach
to analysis, is important, and that this should be done
in a way that can be integrated with the theory and
methods of other semiotic modes. In the age of the ‘new
writing’ it has become imperative to analyze and evaluate documents multimodally, rather than on the basis of
the linguistic text alone - however important language is,
and will always remain. To integrate the study of typography into such a multimodal analysis, it is necessary to
go beyond the formal approach that has characterized it
so far, to put it on the basis of a theory of communicative functions, and to develop that ‘complex grammar’
Neuenschwander called for. I fully realise, of course, that
what I have done so far covers only part of the territory
and captures only the broadest outline of the ‘grammar’
of this complex and fascinating field.
I would like to express my thanks to the two anonymous readers who reviewed the manuscript and spotted a number of
inaccuracies and inconsistencies.
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about the author
Theo van Leeuwen is Dean of the Faculty of Humanities and
Social Sciences, University of Technology, Sydney. Previously
he was Director of the Centre for Language and Communication Research at Cardiff University. He has published widely
in the areas of social semiotics, critical discourse analysis and
multimodality. His latest book is Introducing Social Semiotics (Routledge, 2005). A second edition of his Reading Images
– The Grammar of Visual Design (co-authored with Gunther
Kress) will appear in 2006.
University of Technology, Sydney
PO Box 23
Broadway NSW 2007