Mark Chan

Phonetic Typography


Phonetic Typography

Exploring the relationship between speech and typography through computational and interactive design.

My senior degree project at the Maryland Institute College of Art explores the relationship between speech and type through the creation of a tool that can help typography carry meaning more effectively. By varying typographic forms with fluctuations in speech, users can see how a sentence is said just by looking at it, allowing words to speak for themselves.

You can try it for yourself here!
(Requires Google Chrome to run).





Visualizing Speech

Spoken language is filled with nuances, from different tones to different points of emphasis, that can drasticly change the meaning of a sentences. A lot of meaning is lost in the conversion from physical to digital. Phonetic Typography attempts to visual represent these naunces by collecting data of spoken language and converting it into typographic forms.


Behind the Idea

In our digital age, sentences and words inherently lose a part of their meaning when translated directly into characters on a screen. This has led to changes in the way we communicate digitally. Meme and GIF culture is flourishing, where type is accompanied by still or moving imagery in order to fully convey its intended meaning. The presence of millions of typefaces, each with their own personalities and forms, also speak to this phenomenon.


Designing the Typeface

While designing the typeface for my project, I looked at how different typefaces were perceived in the mind of the reader, trying to pinpoint how what they "hear" changes with the aesthetics of a particular typeface.

I've found that thinner letterforms evoke higher pitched sounds, while thicker ones evoke lower pitched, bass heavy sounds. Taller and shorter letterforms evoke louder sounds and softer sounds respectively, mimicking sound waves that users are familiar with. This resulted in the creation of a typeface that contained all these aspects, while still maintaining a sort of "neutral" appearance.


I started out by designing the base letterforms, before mapping out the extremes of both height and weight, and mapping these changes to variables that I could then manipulate with sound inputs.


Potential Applications

The potential uses of this new technology include aiding in the learning of new languages. By showing how words or sentences should be said tonally, learners can follow along and pronounce words with better accuracy.