The Most Important Invention
What is the most important invention? It is not the iPad, the iPhone or personal computer. It’s not even the internet, TV, or pizza. Though, in some part it relates to all of these, even pizza (though less directly), this is all much too recent in human history. The invention I’m thinking of dates back much further. As a matter of fact, it dates back so far that no one really knows when it was invented.
The tool I’m thinking of allows people to connect with each other and understand the inner working of another person’s mind. Without this invention we would be isolated to the confines of our own inner thoughts. But this is not the case, humanity has created abstract verbal symbols that represent the sensations that pass through our bodies.
If you haven’t guessed by this overly grandiose introduction, this invention is language. Spoken language has given birth to most tools we use today; the internet, tablets, smart phones, computers, etc, are all means of propagating and expressing the inner workings of the human mind. But the sister of spoken language is often overlooked and underappreciated, that sister being written language, or type.
Reaching Across Time
Words, written or typed, offer something that speech, on its own lacks, longevity. While the lifetime of a spoken word is determined by the memory of whoever hears it, written words can last as long as the material they were written on. Written language preserves language and allows information to be passed on from person to person.
Typography improves the speed that people can deliver and record their ideas. It allows us, as people, to deliver information to each other quickly, and in the process, make a record of the information itself, transcending time. A printed word becomes an encoded time capsule of meaning. Most have heard the adage, “A picture is worth a thousand words.” But it could also be said, a word is worth a thousand pictures.
Type: The Physical Form of Information
Too often the fonts we use and what they are printed on is chosen on a whim with very little care or thought. When in reality, type becomes the physical form of our words and ideas. If we value our ideas, the fonts we choose to represent them and what we publish them on should be a major consideration.
Typography can also be a measure of how a society values its ideas as a whole. The Egyptians in many cases carved their epics into stone in a manner that can be understood thousand of years later. We know many details of their everyday life and the things they valued because they recorded it legibly and timelessly. Will the same be said of our society 4,000 years from now?
It seems we should be more mindful of how we preserve our language and spread information. The better we preserve it, the better people in the future will be able to access the things we learned today. We should strive to create and use type that is timeless, that gives our cherished ideas the value they deserve.
Recently the sustainability of our environment has become a popular topic. Shouldn’t also the sustainability of our own words and ideas be treated with the same concern. It is easy to identify what the Egyptians and many other ancient cultures valued. We see it carved into wall of stone with stark clarity. Thousand of years from now a person will be able to look back and do the same thing when studying the time period we live in now.
The things we have printed to last will tell our story. Currently, that story will heavily consist of; made in China, corporate signs carved out of plastic and metal, and plastic bags with nutritional warnings. We are what the artifacts of our language say. Type tells the story of humanity. Every word we write, type, or print becomes part of the human manifesto, which in-turn, is curated by time.
An Invisible Tool
Type is one of the most vital tools we have. It is so efficient we often forget about how important it is to our society. So next time you send an email, create a spreadsheet, or make a Powerpoint presentation, remember that the font you select becomes the outward representation of your own personal thoughts and feelings. And if poorly chosen, risks watering down or misrepresenting the meaning of what you want to say.
In music the structure and physical makeup of an instrument, paired with the person using it, determine the quality of sound the instrument is capable of producing. The same is true with type. An effective font, one that is designed well, resonates and amplifies the meaning encoded inside the text. A page with good typography entices people to grasp for meaning and understanding within the text. Good typography resonates clearly and is the written instrument of the human mind.
Images Courtesy of