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Guest Column

Do You See What They Are Saying?

by Hans Kleefeld

Pictures may excite but words can smite – when they deliver memorable messages


Human communication is fundamentally verbal. We talk, we listen; we read, we write. All businesses are referred to by their names (their visual identities notwithstanding), as are their products and services.


And while much of what is spoken goes in one ear and out the other, once words are fixed in media, especially print, they tend to have a stronger impact and longer lifespans. 


Millions of words are uttered every day by corporations, governments and others that aim to inform, convince, exhort or entertain us, coming in a 24/7 torrent from every direction, including the twittering, blogging universe. Sadly, much of this is incomplete or false information, or trivial gibberish, particularly in social media, where the trend is truncated conversations, which undermines meaningful communication. 


The Tower of Babel keeps rising.


As more people embrace visual communication through the latest smartphone and tablets, they may continue to believe “a picture is worth a thousand words,” but that is not always the case. 


Consider, for example, how often dramatic events caught on video and transmitted around the planet depend on verbal context.  For all the emotional impact of moving images of disasters and violence (or, mercifully, the occasional happy event), we would be left clueless and confused without the accompanying words. 


When words are the sole message carriers, the overriding objective for designers deploying them in the form of typography must be to make them visible and legible. Yet we are surrounded by words that are difficult to read – mainly because they are too small, too weak in colour against their backgrounds, or because they strain our eyes with mangled letters plucked from idiosyncratic alphabets – on signs, pages or screens.


If odd fonts are occasionally chosen to visually reinforce unusual subject matter, fine. However, one weakness of “creative” typography has always been an excessive preoccupation with purely graphic effects. One gets the impression that extravagant design efforts aim to compensate for insignificant content, or reflect someone’s ego.


If words are meant to make a succinct point or tell a hot story, then why inhibit their legibility?


U.S. designer and master visual communicator Herb Lubalin once observed that “the best typography never gets noticed,” meaning that the impact of strong and unique statements rests within the words themselves, only subliminally assisted by their visual appearance. That clearly cannot be said for verbiage delivered in ways reminiscent of Lady Gaga costumes, in frantic bids to be noticed at any cost.


So what kinds of statements, irrespective of their typographic presentation, are likely to stop roving eyes and engage minds? Surely not the stereotypical advertising words such as “New, Improved, Special, Extra, Guaranteed.” Reflect on a few examples of words in action, that may lack the surface glitz that many designers cherish, but which in their very simplicity represent a mode of communication that is all too rare.



This "heart-stopping" message from a pharmaceutical company ad evokes a fatal event in progress more effectively than a picture of a grimacing man or woman clutching his/her chest.
Typographically clumsy by any measure, but its unexpected reversal of emphasis in the right spirit does invite readers to pour a shot and try it.
A classic example of form of presentation reinforcing a message – when IBM launched its first small computers. When this ad appeared full page in magazines and newspapers, it proved to be an irresistitble eye-stopper – and a powerful sales driver.
This gutsy sentiment, capturing the street-smart mindset of the day, poses a challenge for readers to contemplate whether they've got brains, balls or maybe both.
Envision here a stack of stereotypical CVs, and how this guy would have come across to a prospective employer.
A reminder to be ever media skeptical. How often to you hear a talking head on TV proclaim: The truth of the matter is . . . only to have the next expert make the same claim and state the oposite? Why take either at their word?
This goes back to young American resistance to the Vietnam war. It was brutally on the mark then and, sadly, remains current with so many conflicts raging.
Maybe this sentiment will be offensive to some. But doesn't a free-market economy thrive and survive only as long as plenty of currency keeps vigorously circulating.
As you scan displays of news vendors and bookstores in search of worthwhile information, look beyond the visual fireworks stressing form over content. There will be verbal gems amid all the blah-blah-blah.
Hans Kleefeld is an award-winning pioneer of Canadian design and a design educator who lives in Oakville, Ont.




susan huber

March 13, 2013 12:05 PM


Thank you Hans...since I am hearing impaired...I am a fine art photographer working with alternative processes....analog ...I have begun to work on collages and being very visual I have been using my particular direct way with words a big hit along with wonderful images. Since I am very visual....( and yes, I do hear with aids quite well), I rely on the visual media...and words have always been my saving grace....out of many sticky situations...I do remember the travel to exotic lands and kill them sticker years ago and that stuck with me..as we as young UNI students protested the involvement in war.

always, susan




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