Cultural Diversity and Type
Brazil vs USA
Moving from Brazil to the United States coincided with the beginning of my graphic design journey. Every time I traveled back home, with constantly evolving, sharp designer eyes, I grew more and more intrigued with the difference in typography between the two countries. I realized that each individual cultural identity influenced design choices and styles; it transcended people and their attitudes.
In my senior year of college, when the opportunity to write my thesis arose, it became clear to me that I needed to explore this subject that fascinated me. I was interested in knowing more about it not only because of personal experiences, but also because it wasn’t something examined thoroughly enough by scholars in the field. I wondered what role typography played in branding visual communication in each country. Was typography more than just a way of transmitting a verbal message? How much did it differ from culture to culture?
For the sake of narrowing down the topic, I focused on investigating typography in branding design. But I could only find hints of the answers I was looking for to show me I was on the right track. As soon as I began my theoretical research, I noticed a common ground emerge between culture and typography: the expression of different moods. That was something never expressively linked before in an academic field, and it allowed me to match cultural and typographical attributes to typographical categories to determine which categories more accurately represented each cultural identity. A survey seemed crucial to prove my argument, from which surprising results surfaced.
Was typography more than just a way of transmitting a verbal message? How much did it differ from culture to culture?
More than using it to support my hypothesis, this survey allowed me to categorize the two countries without bias. My thesis survey had a total of nine questions, and it was answered by a total of 87 people: 45 Brazilians and 42 Americans.
One of the questions I posed asked the interviewee to choose one adjective to describe their country’s culture. The options provided in the survey matched the adjectives used to describe different typography categories. Each typography category triggers a particular response, which can be a direct representation of cultural identity. The survey showed clear patterns, which proved helpful in defining individual cultural traits, along with how typography reflects cultural identity.
In Brazil, the categories “friendly, easy-going” and “warm, informal” were mentioned much more than any other category; they covered 91% of the Brazilian interviewees. In the United States, the categories “assertive, confident” and “reliable, strong” were the most popular, representing 78% of the American interviewees.
In Brazil, casual/script (warm, informal) and humanist sans serifs (friendly, easy-going) are indeed the most used to depict brands relevant to cultural identity. Not coincidentally, they convey the informal and friendly characteristics of Brazilian culture. Whereas script typefaces are used to illustrate a more dialectal, street-style feel, the humanist sans serifs are used in corporate branding.
In the U.S., slab serifs (assertive, confident) appeared in theatrical poster designs during the Nineteenth Century, and the same style is still used today in the U.S. to convey a vintage, nostalgic mood. Geometric sans serifs (reliable, strong) are used more in corporate branding, as they are suited to communicate a tone of reliability.
The survey question about the prevailing cultural mood reaffirmed the cultural characteristics of each country. “Happy” and “excited” were the most mentioned by 65% of Brazilian interviewees, while 62% of the Americans answered “stressed” or “tense.”
The survey also asked participants to select a shape that reminded them of their own culture to see if there was any pattern relating to letterforms and cultural identity. The answers were distinct and confirmed the previous cultural/typography relationships. Sixty-five percent of the Brazilians answered “circle” or “triangle;” circles imply softness and movement and are associated with the letterforms of casual fonts, whereas triangles may be related to the breaks of the Brazilian vernacular fonts. Fifty-six percent of the Americans interviewed answered “rectangle” or “square,” shapes that connote stability and trust. These characteristics go together with the most mentioned American characteristic of “assertive, confident” and “reliable, strong.” Slab serifs have square brackets, and geometric sans serifs provoke a sense of strength to the reader.
From my research, I learned that the primary and most direct use of typography is to give messages a written form. The other meaningful layers, however, reflect different cultural understandings and perceptions of the world and should be taken into account to empower the branding message. The letterforms carry meaning that match intrinsic cultural traits. Typeface choice, form, size, weight, color and tracking can change the way individuals perceive the message, thus altering its meaning. Brands that intend to appeal to the Brazilian or the American audience should use typographical choices wisely to address these concepts in their visual identity systems. Each letterform’s intrinsic characteristics make them more than just shapes, and these characteristics can be tied to cultural traits as well. Historical experiences, personality, mood and cultural background connect typefaces and viewers. Choosing the right typeface based on the audience and specific cultural identity allows for more appropriate messages.
The demand for relatable typefaces in branding lead to the appearance of patterns in typefaces that differ in Brazil and the United States. The more suitable typefaces are to the audience the better, as they can represent their respective cultural identity with greater accuracy. The survey made during this thesis research proves the different patterns of the Brazilian and the American cultural identity in relationship to mood, characteristics and brand image.
To take a singular, one size-fits-all approach to branding design is to miss the potential impact diversity can have across cultures. To recognize that is to honor and amplify a well of deep and varied cultural layers.
Ganon, Carolina C. (May 2018). Cultural investigation on typography in branding in the United States and in Brazil. Retrieved from https://ir.library.louisville.edu/honors/155/
Ganon, Carolina C. (March 21, 2018). Culture, Type & Brand Thesis. Retrieved from https://issuu.com/carolinaganondelucca/docs/honor_thesis_book_pages_issuu_386cc0b53d1e10