Join Ina Saltz for an in-depth discussion in this video Using type as a neutral canvas, part of Foundations of Typography: Choosing and Combining Typefaces.
I've shown you how using type that has a historical appearance can suggest the qualities of another era and how type can express emotion and personality through our associations with its shapes. There's an opposite approach to using type that you should know about, I call it type neutrality. Just like an artist starting out with a blank canvas and bringing it to life with brush strokes, composition, and color, type can also be a blank canvas that takes shape and conveys it's content by it's context and by how it is used.
This school of thought holds that a neutral plain type, a type face that has no specific personality at all can take on any shade of meaning that the designer desires. In other words, the designer brings meaning to the text by the way the type is used rather than the type itself suggesting meaning by its form. Here's an example of a neutral Sans Serif being used to convey strength, energy and movement. It's the way in which this neutral typeface is used that gives it these qualities, by skewing it and giving it dimensionality with a drop shadow, the type works together with the image to project action.
This Sports Illustrated book cover brings action-packed excitement into some neutral Sans Serif letters by filling them with imagery. The type acts as a container for the content. Neutral typography can provide consistency and yet be versatile. This logo for the Brooklyn Public Library is a deceptively simple arrangement of letter forms. Used alone, it is a memorable mark with the commonly used abbreviation of Brooklyn. It has a tight typographic construction and the tail of the y bisects the words public and library.
But its neutral appearance can provide a great jumping off point for a designer. Here are two examples. The logo appears quite festive in the gala invitation by reversing it out and adding some colorful graphic elements. And here the designer has animated and enlivened the neutral letter forms by adding imagery of Brooklyn and some familiar illustration within the letters. So it is how the type is used that matters and a neutral typeface that doesn't call attention to itself allows the designer more freedom to create an effect.
This book cover uses the neutrality of a bold Sans Serif font to play against the active image. There is nothing about the type that suggests Texas or surfing. It just allows the words and image to convey the meaning. The typographic forms serve as a graphic foil, a blank canvas. If you need any further proof that one typeface can fulfill all your design needs I recommend that you see the documentary Helvetica which can now be viewed right here at lynda.com. It's a fascinating look at the ubiquitous type face that crosses all boundaries and can mean anything to anyone.
Helvetica is incredibly versatile, its appearance depends on how the designer uses it. You will be amazed at all of the corporate logos, signage, and branding, that has been created using just this single type family.