Part 5 - Smaller is Better

Typography in Motion -

Part 5 - Smaller is Better

Sometimes you just can't beat being in the comfort of your own home, that is the beauty of television. Television has gone through a renaissance in the past few years with more and more experimentation in what audiences want to consume, usually en masse, in their own living room. I though it prudent to examine the typographic qualities of this medium.


Hill Street Blues 1981, originally aired on NBC

A lot of the current trends in breakthrough television can trace their roots to this often overlooked show. It broke many of the formats of what a show should behave like and what content it can tackle. While it may seem tame by todays standards most of the time, some episodes still resonate, a sign of a true classic. Screenshot 2014-12-09 00.07.55 The typeface is a custom font, heavily embellished in regards to its capitals. It evokes a retro, almost harvest feeling to it. The first thing I think of when I see a font like this is hand painted signs, a different era, that directly contradicts the time and context of the show itself. What does this contrast say? Similar to the type decisions of the Bond films these typefaces reveal the heart of the content. The show takes place in a rough neighbourhood in an under-supported precinct, but at the heart of the station lives a family. Each of the officers will always have each others backs at the end of the day and that heart and deeper bond is what drives the characters on this show.


The Sopranos 1999, originally aired on HBO

While "Hill Street Blues" paved the way, "The Sopranos" broke everything wide open. There had never been a show like this before. The tale of a man, a father and a law-breaking murderer, and a vulnerable sensitive one at that. The show balances the exploits of Tony Soprano's life and his sessions with his therapist coming to grips with the man he is. This was a deeply complicated and honest story to tell every week in the living rooms of audiences everywhere, and it was a resounding success.

Screenshot 2014-12-09 00.29.38 The support type for the title sequence is interesting, it seems to mimic the road sign typeface of the New Jersey turnpike with some variations for a capital I with serifs. The motion of the type is the most interesting aspect of this support type. It is an homage to the title treatment of "Goodfella's" with the words zooming by the screen like cars speeding past on a highway.


Screenshot 2014-12-09 02.01.01 The main title treatment is another homage, this time to "The Godfather". It seems the title sequence of this show is trying to peel back what it is to be a gangster genre film (or in this case televisions show). By utilizing conventions of titles that have come before a designer can co-opt ideas and styles to suit their own needs.

Screenshot 2014-12-09 02.08.56

Lost 2004, originally aired on ABC

The show that shouldn't have been. Lost is an interesting example of how a television show breaks the standards that have come before. By all accounts it should not have been the massive success it was, and yet, it was. The title sequence has become strange and iconic just like the show itself. Short, mysterious and evocative of so much more. Screenshot 2014-12-09 02.20.29 The typeface used here evokes the field manuals and operations handbooks of the era that much of the mystery surrounding the island comes from. Futura was used on the cover of manuals and other utility documents during the 60's and 70's. By using this font the title designers are providing a subtle navigation tool for the audience on how to orient themselves. This is one of the powerful ways typography can be used.


True Detective 2014, originally aired on HBO.

Finally the show that did one thing very well. True Detective is the most recent entry into ground-breaking television. It proved that world-class storytelling can happen no matter the format. With all all-star cast and absolutely no punches pulled in its storytelling or presentation, True Detective is the best example of elegance in narrative so far. The opening sequence uses double exposure to combine imagery important to the context of the narrative with larger profiles of the members of the cast. The effect is similar to when images were projected on a body for the Goldfinger titles sequence, it distorts both the figure and the image in an interesting way. In this case it highlights the contrasting element in either image, the human qualities of a non-human image, and the reverse the very disturbing non-human qualities of a figure.

Screenshot 2014-12-09 06.11.28 The typography is a pairing of an all caps serif font for position title and Avant Garde condensed for the name. Avant Garde is a terrific selection for the main support typography as no other sans-serif font achieves and behaves quite like it. Its iconic R with a not fully close in counter sets it apart from the rest. It gives the feeling of modernity, and style while also remaining quite human. The small details mean it doesn't quite fit in the geometric, completely non-human sans-serif's like Futura, and so it lives in a world of its own, much like True Detective.   We have discovered again that typography is the heart and skeleton of the messaging of a piece but that it can carry a lot of the stylistic duties of a piece by becoming an homage to a piece of culture from the past. Next time we are going to break from passive narrative such as film and television into the interactive realm of video games to examine how this youngest story-telling device uses typography.


Leave a comment

Please note, comments must be approved before they are published