Mood type

Posted on Jul 28, 2003

Mood Letters. Why cast typefaces in “immutable metal” when digital offers so much more possibility? Such was the attitude brought by Erik van Blokland and Just van Rossum of the Dutch design firm, LettError to a competition to create a “civic typeface” for the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota, as reported by Matthew Mirapaul in The New York Times (7/24/03). The competition was sponsored by the University of Minnesota Design Institute, and the winner, chosen from among six entries, is best described as “a typeface that can’t make up its mind.”

This “morphing” typeface, appropriately named Twin, is based on “three typographic traits.” Formality is conveyed by “serifs,” informality by “roundness” and “weirdness” is “signaled through exotic means, like a lower-case ‘I’ made with four vertical dots.” Based on this standard, the designers created a total of 880 variations, and ranked each one based on “how much it expressed each trait.” Then the interactive part—the designers wrote software that allows “people to decide how much of each trait they wanted.” Just assign a value—from 0 to 100—to each trait, and enter your word, which will look stodgy, surreal, or anywhere in-between. Play with it yourself at: the UMN.edu site.

The truly intriguing idea is that the typeface can be controlled not only by people, but also data. For example, it can programmed to respond to temperatures (always a matter of concern in the Twin Cities). The more frigid the weather, the more formal the typeface; as the temperature warms,
the typeface turns “friendly and rounder.” Erik Spiekermann, a Berlin type designer, envisions the typeface responding to bull and bear markets. “Or, he says, “you could plug it into a calendar. Halloween will look as distinct as Presidents’ Day or the mayor’s birthday.” Ultimately, he says, it’s up to consumers—not designers—to work it all out. “When the Wright brothers built their first plane, they weren’t thinking of moving 350 people from Frankfurt to Minneapolis…They just wanted to soar.”