The three Layers of Text

To figure out what text really is, let's imagine that text consists of three layers. One: the story or the meaning of what is to be told, two: the actual writing, and three: the styling of what is written down – the so called typography.

Text seems to be a simple thing. We are constantly surrounded by written words and use them to communicate and pick up information in our everyday routines. Text is taken for granted. But when we ask ourselves what text truly is, the answer may not be as simple as we first think. Even science is still in its early days when it comes to reading research. What is certain, however, is that our eyes and brain do an incredible job when we read. Even more so when we keep in mind that writing and reading are not part of the human DNA, but a learned cultural activity.

Text consists of black blobs placed on a flat, empty sheet of paper. Or it flickers as shadows on bright displays. Either way, text is not even a real object in our understanding. It hardly has a third dimension. So text is everywhere and yet untouchable.

In the flatness of texts, we have to search for their depth somewhere else. In fact, it is the person who writes and the person who designs that give the written word its depth. This essay proposes the theory that text is made up of three imaginary layers, one on top of the other. These layers aim to help us explore the depths of texts. So let's toggle the layers.

Layer One: The Heart of a Text

We are most effective at deconstructing the complexity of texts when we start at the beginning. Writing and reading has its origins in storytelling. It's like a journey, and it's basically about nothing more than taking the reader from A to B.

The first layer is the layer of the author who tells us their story. Once we have heard the story, it does not matter whether we can remember the exact words or not. The story has come alive, we can feel it, images awaken in us, and we can retell the story to someone else in our own words or even in another language. From now on, the story no longer needs letters to exist, it is self-sufficient. It still stands even if every book in the world, in which the story was written down, has disappeared.

This means we can't visualize this first layer. It is invisible or non-objective. Still, we can call it the heart of a text, for it contains the meaning or the sense of what is being told.

Layer Two: The Role of Scripture

So the author has a story in mind. It is possible to tell the story orally, of course, but for the sake of this essay we will assume that the author makes use of a technical trick that allows us to transmit stories very efficiently and permanently: Scripture. It is a storage medium for information and narration. While the creative freedom of an author is infinite, scripture is only a tool that must bend to the thoughts of the writer. It consists of an alphabet, of letters, that we chain together in ever new combinations to form words, sentences and entire texts. And not only that: We decode this information again when we read. This process is highly technologized and moves at the extreme limits of what our perceptual and cognitive systems are capable of. Even though this amazing "technology" is many hundreds of years old, science cannot quite comprehend it yet.

Letters are basically nothing more than bricks assembled from simple geometric shapes. However, the letters themselves do not actually have a concrete shape at all. They consist neither clearly of a line nor of a surface and their shapes can be formed in every way imaginable. Therefore, this second layer – just like the first one we have considered – is still invisible. When we talk about type in general, we cannot think of a standard typeface, for such a thing does not exist. There may be common typefaces – such as Helvetica and Times – but even those will never be given the status of a standard typeface, because they, too, are just contemporary and likely ephemeral examples among thousands.

So when we speak of type in general, we cannot point to any specific typeface as a representative example. It becomes clear that we must think of the alphabet as something universal. Writing is more of an "idea" than an actual visible invention. But what makes it so brilliant is the fact that this idea is shared by an incredible number of people. For example, in the area of the Latin alphabet, and over a period of many hundreds of years, humans have agreed on some basic letter forms. That is how the letters of the alphabet have become a convention. Now, its greatest strength is that they hardly change – and if they do, they change very slowly. The second layer is therefore the layer of constancy. This makes scripture a trustworthy way of transmitting information.

Let’s say that scripture – in a general sense – has both no form and all forms at the same time. It is a functional skeleton of which countless formulations exist – thousands from long ago, and constantly new ones as well. The Garamond, for instance, a popular typeface from the 16th century, is still in use. It is a font with enduring forms. Nevertheless, every era has its own typefaces, whether they follow trends or turn out to be timeless at some point.

Layer Three: When it comes to Style

Layer three is the top layer, the tip of the iceberg. Now we are talking about the visible part of text. Words only come into their readable form when they are set in a certain typeface. This last part of the essay is about the role of typography.

A font belongs to the most important design elements of graphic designers. Along with images, colours and shapes, typefaces are one of their most powerful tools. This is because the choice of typeface has a significant impact on the perception of what is written. It can influence emotions and atmospheres transmitted by the text. For example, sans serif fonts like Helvetica can make text appear more modern and minimalist, while serif fonts like Times can appear more traditional and formal. German graphic and typeface designer Erik Spiekermann once said, "The choice of typeface alone can manipulate the meaning of a word."

In a research project, I attempted to classify and systematise the different effects that can be given to a text with the help of the right choice of typeface. I defined four poles: organic and technical, formal and informal. The two pairs of terms cover a wide spectrum in which countless highly specific attributes can be placed. I found typefaces that appear natural, dynamic and soft and others that are static, robust and hard. Still others are serious, authoritative and rational or playful, emotional and sensitive.

This wide spectrum is the power and meaningfulness of typography. In view of the immeasurable variety of effects, it also becomes clear why there is always a need for new typefaces on the market. Authors are constantly inventing new stories, unexpected events are taking place and people are writing down ideas that no one has ever thought of before. And they all want to be dressed appropriately. But we also need typefaces that create a visual identity, link things together or create a recognition value.

But when we speak of variety in the context of scripture, we always mean variety within sameness. Typefaces are not allowed to drift too much from convention as long as they are to be legible. They must bow to convention – or, from another point of view, guard over convention. For type designers, these circumstances are both a limitation and a delightful challenge. Designing typefaces always means challenging the boundaries and exploring new terrain in detail. For me, the fascination of typography lies especially in the fact that it combines a technical phenomenon with an artistic component. After all, it can only be evaluated and used subjectively. The perception of the effects of typefaces is never universal. It always depends on the reader's personal experience and preferences.

It is important to carefully select and test a typeface to ensure that it achieves the desired effect. As type designers at Bleifrei Type, we see our role in providing graphic designers with new tools so they have more and more options to respond to texts very specifically. At the same time, we are graphic designers ourselves and practise using our own typefaces as well as the typefaces of our colleagues. We also help you to find the most suitable typeface for your text.

To sum up, we can say that an author starts with a story in mind (layer 1). Let's say I have something to tell. To transmit my story permanently, I use a brilliant technical system: Scripture (layer 2). I write down my thoughts and then I try to find the right way to dress the story (layer 3). The choice of the right typeface supports the message through its effect. Only then does a text become visible and is now equipped to be released into the wide world and be presented to the critical eyes of the readers.

Aaron Aebi
October 30, 2023