Exploring phonetic symbolism through type design

Fonograf is a conceptual typeface rooted in the topic of phonetic symbolism—the idea that there is a non-arbitrary link between a word and the concept it describes—or the signifier and the signified. This might, at its extreme, mean that words for concepts like “ball” or “split” were arrived at due to their symbolism, rather than being completely arbitrary; the common understanding in linguistics. The most well-known study of the topic is the bouba-kiki experiment. It proved that if you show people two shapes—one sharp and pointy, the other round and bubbly—and ask them to name them either “bouba” or “kiki,” they will almost invariably call the sharp one “kiki” and the round one “bouba.” Over time scientists have found various nuances to the effect, e.g. that the effect is gradual, rather than only marking contrasts, or which letter sounds yielded the largest effect, and the nature of those effects. I built my own questionnaire based on this research to further connect these shapes with letter and alphabet anatomy. The results from this questionnaire, combined with the existing research, form the basis for this exploration.

Fonograf is also a mostly conventional typeface; it’s meant to lay within the acceptable range of legibility to be usable in sizes as low as 10pt. It consists of three styles: an ultrathin condensed style, a regular style, and an extra bold extended style. The variable version interpolates continually between the three. All text you write in the text input above will automatically be set in the style indicated by my system based on the theory of phonetic symbolism—as you write. Try it out!

If you wish, you can buy Fonograf for the low price of 10 euros. As you read this, it is undergoing extensive reworking, expansion and improvement. Anyone who buys the font before I finish the updated version(s), will get all future versions of the typeface for free. Send me an email to order!