New Expressive Typographic Characters for Digital Communication

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“As a dynamic representation of verbal language, typography must communicate. This functional role is fulfilled when the receiver of a typographic message clearly and accurately understands what is in the mind of the transmitter.” (Carter, Day & Meggs, 2012, p. 114).

 

Introduction

This essay and accompanying visual work aims to explore the need for new expressive typographic characters for text-based communication that is becoming more common in a digital age. I will first look back as to how and why we developed our current system and explore the need for new or altered typographic elements to aid us in expressing ourselves. Then I will look at how we communicate today and what has changed. Using this research I will develop new, alter current or create a new system of typographic characters that will best suite our modern needs. Finally I will discuss how I created my visual work then test, review and discuss the future of it.

 

How and why we developed our current typographic characters?

To understand why we have developed typographic characters beyond letters I looked back to Ancient Greek writings, which employed a boustrophedon style1 (with each line alternates in direction – shown in Figure 1). Text did not contain any spaces or punctuation and the “painstaking task of interpreting a document like this would have been accomplished by reading it aloud. At the time, the written word was very much an adjunct to the spoken language, and silent reading was the exception rather than the rule. Physically pronouncing the syllables helped a practiced reader to decode and retain their meaning, and to discover the rhythms and cadences lurking in the unbroken text” (Houston, 2013, p. 4-5).

Fortunately in the third century BC the Greek scholar Aristophanes of Byzantium devised the first system of punctuation2, he created a series of marks so that the reader could break up the text, know where to pause to add emphases and expression into what he was reading aloud “The so-called intermediate (middle dot), subordinate (.), and full (top dot) dots, signaling short, medium, and long pauses respectively, were placed after the corresponding rhetorical units called the komma, kolon, and perdiodos. Though it took centuries for these marks of punctuation to crystalize into the familiar visual forms we know today, their modern names are not so far removed: “comma”,”colon” and “period”” (Houston, 2013, p. 5-6).

fig1

Figure 1:  Boustrophodon style writing (Source: Rasmussen, 2014)

These original marks were born out of a readers need to be able to communicate a text to another person as they intended it to be interpreted, adding in pauses and breaks so they could better express the content.

The story of the question mark is slightly less straightforward; it is thought that question marks were developed by different languages independently from each other with origin stories ranging from the shape of a cats tail to the Romans abbreviating qvaestio or question by putting the q over the o3.

However the earliest question mark is believed to originate in the 5th Century BC from the Middle Eastern dialect known as Syriac, and was composed of a double dot called a zagwa elaya. The mark was inserted only at the start of a sentence that required a reader to understand that it was question, for example ‘you’re going away’ could be misinterpreted as a command without some form or question mark4. Dr. Chip Coatley argued that the zagwa elaya may have been used as guide for a reader to insert the expressionism required to communicate the text “Reading aloud, the same function is served by a rising tone of voice – or at least it is in English – and it is interesting to ponder whether zawga elaya really marks the grammar of the question, or whether it is a direction to someone reading the Bible aloud to modulate their voice” (University of Cambridge, 2011)

The current theory of the origin of the exclamation mark is that it comes from the Latin interjection ‘IO’5 which was written by combining the two letters and writing the I above the O6. The ampersands story is also quite similar, it too comes from the Latin and the symbol is result of scribes shortening the Latin ‘et, per se and’ to ‘et’ and then combining those letters7.

Another interesting and more recent character, which was formed by combing other characters – is the interrobang. Created by Martin K. Speckter an advertising agency head in 19628 who was “frustrated with the growing tendency of copywriters to combine the exclamation mark and question mark to yield a surprised or rhetorical question” (Houston, 2013, p. 25). An example of its use would be “who forgot to turn the oven off ‽”.

What the question mark and exclamation mark have in common is that they were created in order to prevent something being misinterpreted. Theo van Leeuwen in his writing on the semiotics of typography uses the example of Ice? and Ice!9 these are two different things, he says “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.” (van Leeuwan, 2006, p. 143).

What is interesting is to see how these marks have been created (perhaps with the exception of the question mark) the exclamation mark, ampersand and interrobang have all been created by combining different elements. I think what this shows is that if I were to go on and create a completely new set of  typographic characters that I need to derive them from something people already know, they perhaps have to be already in use in a different form or forms as we’ve seen the interrobang and they have to have the ability to better represent the statements they accompany.

 

Changes in the way we communicate

To establish an understanding of our typographic needs, I need to look at how we communicate today. We now have at our disposal a range of devices and apps on our phones, tablets and computers that make communication easier and faster – in the UK alone 64% of adults say that technology has changed the way they communicate10.

Digital text based services are having a huge effect on previous methods of communication that we have previously relied upon, outgoing calls from land and mobile lines decreased by over 31 billion minutes in 201211, we send fewer letters (physical post) today with the majority of all UK mail coming form UK businesses12, with each of us on average now send under 8 letters a year which compared to the average of 153 text messages we each send every month13 is a huge difference. The majority of adults who send fewer letters say they now use online methods more such as social networking and emails14.

The majority of people in the UK now have access to all this new technology 92% of us own a mobile phone, 80% of households have access to the internet, 79% of households own a PC or laptop15 and almost a quarter of households now own a tablet device16.

On a daily basis we are now communicating more with our friends and family by text than we are face-to-face17, and looking the younger generation (16-24’s) take that a step further and are more likely to communicate on a daily basis by text than they are face-to-face or even over the phone18!

And these communications are getting ever more personal, 1 in 5 16-24’s agree that it is OK to start a relationship using these text-based communications19. For me this is the key reason why we need to ensure we have the tools necessary to ensure our conversations are fully understandable and interpreted correctly. Drawing from my own personal experience at the start of relationships I would want to be at my funniest, flirtiest, expressive and I would want the girl I am trying to impress to know exactly how I am interpreting her humor and flirting. There is a huge list of facial expressions and tones of voice I know I would use in person, as well as body language and showing a degree of awkwardness so confidence would not confused with arrogance!

I am going to use this situation as the reference for what type of expressions we need to properly communicate with.

 

Expression through emoticons

“Typography is facing new challenges, as screen media such as the Internet become more and more oriented towards the written word” (van Leeuwan, 2006, p. 142). These challenges as discussed above occur when we are trying to type as we would speak to someone verbally, email is “easy and effortless and quick. It offers a welcome respite from talking, and, consequently, bears a closer stylistic resemblance to conversational speech than to written language.” (Helfand, 2004). With text based communication increasingly personal, frequent and more closely related to verbal communication we need to ensure that typography’s functional role is fulfilled by being accurately interpreted by its audience “this objective, however is not always accomplished. With a proliferation littering the environment, most are missed or ignored” (Carter, Day & Meggs, 2012, p. 114).

And for me the ‘proliferation littering the environment’ occurs in the form of emoji’s or emoticons. These are representation of faces used to convey feeling and create a sense of verbal tone through messages.

The emoticon’s first appearance was in 1881, when Puck Magazine designed a series of faces made up of typographical elements (see Figure 2) – although these were presented as a joke by the magazines letterpress department who said they were wishing “to let the public see that we can lay out, in our own typographic line, all the cartoonists that have ever walked. For fear of startling the public we give only a small specimen of the artistic achievements within our grasp” (Huffington Post UK, 2014).

Figure 2: The first emoticons (Source: Huffington Post, 2014)

Figure 2: The first emoticons (Source: Huffington Post, 2014)

These typographical faces were not in intended for use as a form of communication, but in 1982 Scott E Fahlman from the Carnegie Mellon University went onto his University bulletin boards and created a post that proposed all posts that were jokes should be labeled with a :-) and posts that should be taken seriously should be labeled with a :-( . Fahlman has been widely credited as the inventor of the modern emoticon21.

He explains about the misinterpretations of text communication that occurred on the bulletin boards “a good many of the posts were humorous (or attempted humor).  The problem was that if someone made a sarcastic remark, a few readers would fail to get the joke, and each of them would post a lengthy diatribe in response.  That would stir up more people with more responses, and soon the original thread of the discussion was buried.  In at least one case, a humorous remark was interpreted by someone as a serious safety warning.” (Fahlman, n.d.).

The difference between Puck’s and Fahlman’s faces and their success is because they came at a time when we needed them, a time when we are trying to have personal conversations, jokes and grievances in ways that were not possible in 1881. And because of this we need new ways to communicate effectively.

Falhman’s emoticons over time began to evolve and “Within a few months, we started seeing the lists with dozens of “smilies”: open-mouthed surprise, person wearing glasses, Abraham Lincoln, Santa Claus, the pope, and so on.  Producing such clever compilations has become a serious hobby for some people.  But only my two original smilies, plus the “winky”  ;-)  and the “noseless” variants seem to be in common use for actual communication.” (Fahlman, n.d.).

In 2008 performance poet Rives showed off the possibilities when he told a whole story about a boy meeting a girl using typographic characters arranged into faces, bodies, animals, places and events (shown in Figure 3).

Figure 3: A story of mixed emoticons (Source: Rives, 2008).

Figure 3: A story of mixed emoticons (Source: Rives, 2008).

“Here we have a story. The start of the story, where this means guy, and that is a ponytail on a passer-by. Here’s where it happens. These are when. This is a cassette tape the girl puts into her cassette-tape player. She wears it every day. It’s not considered vintage — she just likes certain music to sound a certain way. Look at her posture; it’s remarkable. That’s because she dances. Now he, the guy, takes all of this in, figuring, “Honestly, geez, what are my chances?…Right now, talking to you, I’m not even really a guy. I’m a monkey blowing kisses at a butterfly. But I’m still suggesting you and I should meet. First, soon, and then a lot. I’m thinking the southwest corner of 5th and 42nd at noon tomorrow, but I’ll stay until you show up, ponytail or not. Hell, ponytail alone. I don’t know what else to tell you. I got a pencil you can borrow. You can put it in your phone.” But the girl does not budge, does not smile, does not frown. She just says, “No thank you.” You know? [ “i don’t need 2 write it down.” ]” (Rives, 2008)

These sideways smiles have now moved on from being assorted typographical elements into pictures, Fahlman noted that Microsoft and AOL were turning these :- ) into J (which is exactly what Microsoft Word just did for me once I neglected the space in between the nose and mouth section). Facebook takes this a step further and turns them into colorized pictures. And now a huge library of pictorial emoticons is available through apps like Emoji on smartphones (shown on my own phone on Figure 4).

Figure 4: Emoji’s emoticons

Figure 4: Emoji’s emoticons

And these are easy enough to use, you click a button and your keypad is replaced with them.

 

The Problem with emoticons

An 18 year old girl was interviewed on her uses of emoticons and she said “When it comes to communicating with her friends, Hope says she just uses emojis to try to make the conversation a little more aesthetically interesting. She doesn’t know when it started to be an everyday thing, but now she says it’s weird when people don’t use emojis. Again, she reminds me that they’re right there in the keyboard, easy to get to and easy to use…She went on to tell me she sends an emoji of a rocket ship next to a heart when she wants to “send love” to her friends.” (Moss, 2013). And I believe that this is the problem with emoticons; they are not typography, over-used and miss-used to decorate messages and as typeface designer Eric Gill pointed out “Letters are things, not pictures of things.” (Houston, 2013: page 51) although he is talking about letters I believe the same applies to all typographical characters and as a founding editor of the Design Observer Jessica Helfand points out the worry is that  “In this dynamic landscape, our static definitions of typography appear increasingly imperiled. Will the beauty of traditional letterforms be compromised by the evils of this new technology? Will punctuation be stripped of its functional contributions, or ligatures their aesthetic ones? Will type really matter?” (Helfand, 2004).

So my intention for my visual piece is create a new set of expressive typographic marks, to rival the emoticons.

 

New Expressive Typographic Marks

Figure 5: New Expressive Typographic Marks (Source: Stanway, 2014)

Figure 5: New Expressive Typographic Marks (Source: Stanway, 2014)

Pictured above in Figure 5 are my the typographic marks I have created, the happy mark, the sad mark, the ‘haha’, the crying mark, sarcastheses, awkward brackets and the wink. I started out by looking at the most used emoticons, I used the real time twitter emoticon tracker shown in Figure 6 to discover which were the most used.

Figure 6: Emojitracker (Source: Emojitracker, 2014)

Figure 6: Emojitracker (Source: Emojitracker, 2014)

I used this list as a guide and used a combination of what I learnt from this list with my own personal experience to decide what characters to produce. I decided that it was important to be able to show happiness and sadness as I often express this as tonal changes in my voice as well as the speed in which I talk. I decided that it would be important to have levels to these expressions, some on the most popular emoticons on the tracker were various levels of sadness and happiness and again through personal experience I also would express various levels of happy and sad differently – so I felt it was important to have the ‘haha’ (a laughter mark) and a crying mark. Sarcastheses or sarcastic brackets derive their name from parentheses (brackets), sarcasm for me has always been a problem expressing through text – I would say I can be quite sarcastic but I only feel confident being sarcastic in text-based communications to people I believe know me very well and so I felt it was important to include some marks that would be able to highlight this kind of wit as for me it can be a big part of some peoples personality so to truly be yourself or in this case myself I would need these marks. The next set of marks I have developed are the awkward brackets, I had noticed that the wincing and embarrassed emoticons appear quite well used on twitter and I was reflecting upon the statistic discussed above in which a fifth of UK 16-24 year olds feel that it is OK to start a relationship using text-based communications and thinking about how I would act at the start of a relationship, I would use my awkwardness to convey a sense of humbleness to show the girl I wasn’t arrogantly asking her out and that she was important enough for me to be nervous – that’s why I felt it was important to be able to communicate this. The final mark is the wink, there are two types of winks ranked quite highly on the tracker, I never physically express myself by winking but I do use different techniques such as nudging someone or laughing and the end of a communication to indicate that something is not meant to be taken literally and perhaps is meant to be purposely interpreted differently.

So I have chosen the above not only because they will rival some of the most popular emoticons but also they would personally help me out.

To develop my characters, I decided to take what an audience would be familiar with and rather than fight emoticons with something completely new I would take elements from them that people have become familiar with as well as elements from well established typographic characters and combine modern forms with the traditional. You can see this most prominently in the happy, haha, sad and crying marks where the upper section of a exclamation mark has been combined with smiles and frowns which have been doubled to indicate a higher level of happy or sadness rather than adding a more open mouth like on emoticons, this is with how they would be used in mind. For example on a phone screen the characters would be quite small, and to differentiate between and a slightly open mouth and wide-open mouth would be difficult at that size. For the sarcastheses and awkward brackets I decided that I have to be able to indicate what portion of the text was meant to be interpreted in those ways, as my own expressions I would use a physical and vocal expressions the whole time whilst being sarcastic or awkward, so like speech marks are used to indicate that a portion of the text may be a quote the brackets are able to indicate that that portion of the text is to be interpreted in the respective ways. The shape of these marks derives form my own interpretation of these expressions the sharp and jagged lines on the sarcastheses imitate the cut and sharpness of sarcastic wit whilst the awkward brackets visually represent the feeling of my muscles squeezing me in when I feel awkward and the looping in out comes from my experience of wanting to get out of an awkward situation and not being able to. The wink is perhaps the most simple, the eyes are essential as they communicate that someone is winking so I stripped it all the unnecessary other parts and rather than place it at the bottom I chose to put it in a similar position to a asterisk at the top in a higher position than the ‘smile’ on the happy and sad marks to indicate they resemble our eyes.

I chose to develop these characters to become part of the Helvetica typeface, as it is the typeface used on the worlds best selling smartphone the iPhone22.

 

Testing

I wanted to test these characters firstly to see if people would understand them with no explanation, I believe part of the emoticons success is because everyone can interpret them, as they are based on expressions we are already used to. I also wanted to ask people weather or not people would actually use them.

To do this I set up a multiple choice questionnaire and sent it out over two digital communication platforms Facebook and Twitter, the questionnaire features a series of statements (one of which is shown in Figure 7) that could interpreted in differently way depending on how they are expressed with one of my characters on the end, the characters were not explained to them before hand and they had to select from four expanded versions of the statements which gave a more obvious description on how that statement should be interpreted.

Figure 7: Survey Question (Source: Stanway, 2014)

Figure 7: Survey Question (Source: Stanway, 2014)

The results of my survey (see appendix) were encouraging; out of the 62 people that took part the majority of participants correctly interpreted all of the characters. Out of the characters surveyed the haha, sad and crying mark all scored highest with above 90%of the audience correctly interpreting what I meant, the sarcastheses scored slightly lower with 80% interpreting this correctly. The happy mark was interpreted less correctly with 75% and then the awkward brackets were interpreted correctly by 55% of the people.

However this is a multiple choice is unlike the real world when statements would not be accompanied with further explanation, I would view these results as an audience agreeing that those characters were suitable for each of those statements – not as conclusive proof that they would of interpreted the statements correctly. I also asked would people consider using these instead of emoticons and 46% said yes!

 

Conclusion

A quote from typographer Beatrice Warde I think nicely concludes this project “Imagine that you have before you a flagon of wine. You may choose your own favourite vintage for this imaginary demonstration, so that it be a deep shimmering crimson in colour. You have two goblets before you. One is of solid gold, wrought in the most exquisite patterns. The other is of crystal-clear glass, thin as a bubble, and as transparent. Pour and drink; and according to your choice of goblet, I shall know whether or not you are a connoisseur of wine.” (Warde, 1955, p.11).  Emoticons have become so widely ingrained and understood in text-based communication now that I do not think these or any other new typographic characters will be able to replace them for some people, however I believe for some of us that respect the traditionalism of what typography is – we pick up the crystal clear goblets, and will continue seek and develop type to have the complete functional ability to able to communicate effectively in new environments.

The characters I have created are a start but to really measure there success they would need to be adopted, used and evolved into something everyone appreciates and understands – like we have seen with Fahlman’s emoticons – to ever stand a chance against the might of a smiley face!

 

Illustrations

Figure 1. Rasmussen. C. (2014). Law Code Detail. [photograph] Retrieved 15 March, 2014, from  http://holylandphotos.org/browse.asp?s=1,4,12,226,230&img=GICRGT14

Figure 2. Puck Magazine. (1881). Puck Magazine. [magazine page] In. Huffington Post UK. (2014). Emoticons Are Older Than You Think. Retrieved 13 March, 2014, from http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/2013/07/17/emoticons-first-appeared-1881-puck_n_3609236.html

Figure 3. Rives, J. G. (2008). Rives: A story of mixed emoticons. [online video] Retrieved from http://www.ted.com/talks/rives_tells_a_story_of_mixed_emoticons

Figure 4. Stanway, A. (2014). Emoji’s emoticons. [photograph]

Figure 5. Stanway, A. (2014). New Expressive Typographic Marks. [typography]

Figure 6.Rothenberg, M. (2014). Realtime Emoji Use on Twitter. [screenshot] Retrieved from http://www.emojitracker.com

Figure 7. Stanway, A. (2014).New Typographic Expressions Survey. [screenshot] Retrieved from https://www.surveymonkey.com/s/8ZXMLH2

 

Reference

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University of Cambridge. (2011). The riddle of the Syriac double dot: it’s the worlds earliest question mark. Retrieved 10 March, 2014, from http://www.cam.ac.uk/research/news/the-riddle-of-the-syriac-double-dot-it’s-the-world’s-earliest-question-mark

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Carter, R., Day, B., Meggs, P. (2012). Typographic Design: Form and Communication (5th ed). New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons Incorporated.

Eveleth, R. (2012). The History of the Exclamation Point. Retrieved 10 March, 2014, from http://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/the-history-of-the-exclamation-point-16445416/?no-ist

Fahlman, S. E. (n.d.). Smiley Lore :-). Retrieved 22 February, 2014, from http://www.cs.cmu.edu/~sef/sefSmiley.htm

Garfield, S. (2010). Just My Type. London: Profile Books. p. 94

Helfand, J. (2004). Electronic Typography: The New Visual Language. Retrieved 23 February, 2014, from https://www.typotheque.com/articles/electronic_typography_the_new_visual_language

Houston, K. (2013). Shady Characters. London: Particular Books.

Huffington Post UK. (2014). Emoticons Are Older Than You Think. Retrieved 13 March, 2014, from http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/2013/07/17/emoticons-first-appeared-1881-puck_n_3609236.html

Latdict. (2014). Io. Retrieved 10 March, 2014, from http://www.latin-dictionary.net/search/latin/io

Long, T. (2008). Sept. 19, 1982: Can’t You Take a Joke? :-). Retrieved 13 March, 2014, from http://www.wired.com/science/discoveries/news/2008/09/dayintech_0919

Moss, C. (2013). ‘People Don’t Use Words Any More': A Teenager Tells Us How To Use Emojis Properly. Retrieved 15 March, 2014, from http://www.businessinsider.com/how-teens-use-emojis-to-talk-2013-10

Ofcom. (2012). Communications Market Report 2012. Retrieved 13 March, 2014, from http://stakeholders.ofcom.org.uk/binaries/research/cmr/cmr12/CMR_UK_2012.pdf

Ofcom. (2013). Communications Market Report 2013. Retrieved 13 March, 2014, from http://stakeholders.ofcom.org.uk/binaries/research/cmr/cmr13/2013_UK_CMR.pdf

Rasmussen. C. (2014). Law Code Detail. Retrieved 15 March, 2014, from  http://holylandphotos.org/browse.asp?s=1,4,12,226,230&img=GICRGT14

Ried, C. (2011). The History of the Question Mark. Retrieve 10 March, 2014, from http://historicallyirrelevant.com/post/3708038709/the-history-of-the-question-mark

Rives, J. G. (TED). (2008). Rives: A story of mixed emoticons. [Lecture]. Retrieved 15 March, 2014, from http://www.ted.com/talks/rives_tells_a_story_of_mixed_emoticons

Rothenberg, M. (2014). Emojitracker. Retrieved 10 March, 2014, from http://www.emojitracker.com

University of Cambridge. (2011). The riddle of the Syriac double dot: it’s the worlds earliest question mark. Retrieved 10 March, 2014, from http://www.cam.ac.uk/research/news/the-riddle-of-the-syriac-double-dot-it’s-the-world’s-earliest-question-mark

uSwitch. (2014). iPhone 5 is world’s best-selling smartphone. Retrieved 15 March, 2014, from http://www.uswitch.com/mobiles/news/2013/02/iphone_5_is_world_s_best_selling_smartphone_research_suggests/

van Leeuwen, T. (2006). Towards a semiotics of typography. Information Design Journal + Document Design. 14 (2), 142 – 143.

Warde, B. (1955). The Crystal Goblet. London: The Sylvan Press.

 

Bibliography

Carter, R., Day, B., Meggs, P. (2012). Typographic Design: Form and Communication (5th ed). New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons Incorporated.

Crisp, D. G., (2012). Typography. London: Thames & Hudson.

Eveleth, R. (2012). The History of the Exclamation Point. Retrieved 10 March, 2014, from http://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/the-history-of-the-exclamation-point-16445416/?no-ist

Fahlman, S. E. (n.d.). Smiley Lore :-). Retrieved 22 February, 2014, from http://www.cs.cmu.edu/~sef/sefSmiley.htm

Garfield, S. (2010). Just My Type. London: Profile Books.

Helfand, J. (2004). Electronic Typography: The New Visual Language. Retrieved 23 February, 2014, from https://www.typotheque.com/articles/electronic_typography_the_new_visual_language

Houston, K. (2013). Shady Characters. London: Particular Books.

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Appendix