Parallels Between Typography and Conversational Design, feat. Robert Bringhurst

I’m reading Robert Bringhurst’s The Elements of Typographic Style. It’s a beautiful work: a poetic book about a practical art, part philosophy and part a love-letter to the craft.

Given that my daily work is in conversational design, I found a few parallels here between typography and the aspect of conversational design wherein text-becomes-speech, which I’ll isolate here by calling it speech design.

Typography is the craft of endowing human language with a durable visual form, and thus with an independent existence. Its heartwood is calligraphy–the dance, on a tiny page, of the living, speaking hand–and its roots reach into living soil, though its branches may be hung each year with new machines. So long as the root lives, typography remains a source of true delight, true knowledge, true surprise.

Elements, Introduction

Speech design is the craft of endowing human meaning with an ephemeral aural form, and thus with a dependent existence. Which is a fancy way of saying: it’s what we all do naturally; it’s speech. And like music, spoken language uses time as its canvas.

Typography is to literature as musical performance is to composition: an essential act of interpretation, full of endless opportunity for insight or obtuseness.

Elements, Chapter 1

Like typography, the conversational designer acts as an interpreter. Instead of drawing on spatial concepts like kearning, leading, measures, ems, and picas–all “levers” that we can pull and change to change the color and experience of reading a page–a conversational designer pulls other levers. They draw on the properties of linguistics and speech by tweaking prosody, pitch, volume, rate, inflection, pronunciation, register, stance, pauses and breaks, sounds and ambience.

These properties are experienced aurally over time. And they are realized through a technology. Where the typographer had his or her printing press, we have our natural-language-processing and text-to-speech engines. These act as our “speech press.” It’s early days, and so we have limited control. But that control will likely increase.

One of the principles of durable typography is always legibility; another is something more than legibility: some earned or unearned interest that gives its living energy to the page. It takes various forms and goes by various names, including serenity, liveliness, laughter, grace and joy.

Elements, Chapter 1

As with typography, so with speech design. The first goal in speech design should be legibility, or better for this medium, clarity. In linguistics, this might be likened to the last of Grice’s four maxims: the maxim of manner, which suggests we should be clear in what we say.

I do not know if speech design should seek as another aim to be serene, lively, graceful, and joyous. Different contexts may require different tones and colors in the speech. But certainly, it should elicit the intended effect


I watched the Helvetica documentary this evening, all about–you guessed it–Helvetica. My New York City is prominent, especially because the subway systems are littered with Helvetica.

That word–littered–has such a negative connotation, as if Helvetica is a disease. And certainly, some of the people interviewed in the documentary think so. It was fun to see which of them possessed a dislike (or hatred) of the font, i.e. Erik Spiekermann. It was also interesting to see who really liked it, and felt they could do amazing things with just three or four fonts, i.e. Massimo Vignelli. Some of the people interviewed feel like type is a crystal goblet, and you shouldn’t see the goblet, but the content that’s in it. And some want the type to express something.

My main question going in was: is Helvetica a good font? I left with the impression that… it is. It’s spoiled by overuse and familiarity, but on its own merits, it’s legible and clear. Lars Müller called Helvetica “the perfume of the city,” and that appears to be true–not just of New York City, but of everywhere. The vignettes and montages in this documentary were really good at conveying just how ubiquitous this typeface really is.

Another question, which assumes that Helvetica is actually alright: is it possible to improve it? (Some of the people being interviewed joked that Helvetica was the End of History as far as type was concerned.) The question of improvement could be taken at least a few ways. First, can it be improved from a rationalist sense? Can we find a more geometrically pleasing, scientifically “good” ecology of type forms that combine together to create–well, something better than what we’ve got? Second, someone more engrained with romanticism or expressivism would probably laugh, and say–absolutely. It represents capitalism, or bureaucracy, or corporations, or the Veitnam war. It’s got to change, as all things must, to better capture the zeitgeist and make way for a new generation, who have new values beyond just “ideal proportions” and “rationalistic geometry.”

Anyway, it was a good documentary. A bit dated–the MySpace part made me wistful and nostalgic for the days when profile pages could have so much personality–but still good. This 2017 AIGA profile was a good 10-year anniversary that I enjoyed, and suggests the documentary still holds up.