How to create the right type.
“I’m a huge fan of layered, textured typography – there are some amazing type designers at the moment whose work I obsess over but whose processes I simply can’t decipher.” – Doug Mercy, Mercy Liverpool (quoted in The Fundamentals of Typography, 2nd edition).
Is good design like magic? Does it ruin the effect if you know exactly how it was done? Or – do you appreciate the end product all the more if you understand all the work that has gone into the illusion?
There is no doubt that typographic magic isn’t easy to create. For non-designers especially it is very easy to get the wrong typeface, although it might not be noticeable until your sign or ad (for example) is in place. Comic Sans in particular divides readers (although most designers are united in hatred). In this example from Basics Typography 02: Using Type, it is clearly inappropriate (‘Help prevent a tragedy’, below). Do you agree with the book’s author that ‘a tragedy has already occurred!’ with the use of this inappropriate typeface?
But do we notice when the right typeface is used? Do we give designers enough credit when all the elements of a design come together, with the typeface complementing every aspect of the overall effect?
Many non-designers are probably unaware of all the work that goes into choosing (or designing) typefaces. Obvious factors include legibility, size, intended audience, colour. Here are some factors which may escape the notice of non-designers but which most of us appreciate subconsciously:
- The designer has considered whether to use text typography or display typography. As the name suggests, display typography is not intended for reading at length but to draw our attention, acting as a signpost. It should be attention-grabbing, either because of its clarity or its ability to stand out in a crowd. Depending on how confidently it is handled, it may become image or image-like. Font families often have specially drawn ‘display’ or ‘titling’ variants. As they are intended to appear in larger sizes, they may have thinner stems and strokes, or ascenders and descenders of different length, or smaller serifs.
- Line lengths are very important in extended reading matter. Too short breaks the concentration and is disruptive to the reader. Too long and the reader may become lost. Line length needs to take account of letter-spacing, word-spacing and inter-linear spacing (leading).
- The anatomy of the page – for example the use of margins in publication design would involve head, foot, fore-edge (outside) and back. As a broad rule the ‘foot’ margin is always proportionally larger than the others, to prevent the text area from looking too low on the page. Margins may contain typographic matter such as notes, and also other typographic devices such as captions, running heads or footers and folios (page numbers). The designer also needs to consider the optical centre of a page, which is always higher than the mathematical centre.
- Hierarchy and scale are particularly important factors when dealing with posters. Will the poster be viewed at a distance as well as at close range? At close proximity, an overly large typeface may appear less clear and easy to read.
- If a designer is entrusted with creating a corporate identity, for example letterheads and business cards, they must be aware of standard conventions. You want your letterhead to look new and exciting but it also needs to fit into normal envelopes!
- Typography used in exhibition design will need to consider the average height of visitors to keep signs in their eye-line. A large block of text set in a small size at knee height isn’t going to be read by anyone (apart from precocious toddlers). Typography for the web is specified in pixels and em units. In information design, involving perhaps the most invisible of type treatments (as we usually experience information design when looking for something else, so are not aware of it as design), functionality is prioritised over all other factors. The medium dictates many aspects of typographic practice.
- The treatment of white space.
- Centred typography may suggest a ‘traditional’ design scheme has been chosen. But with centred typography, especial care needs to be taken over paragraphing. No clear edge for the reader’s eye to return to from one line to the next can result in problems with readability.
- Designers working with type constantly try to avoid widows, orphans and hyphos, plus rivers and rags.
- Kerning, tracking, hyphenation and justification. If you don’t know what these are, trust me, you would notice them if designers didn’t.
Even when a typeface has been chosen, there are many other factors to consider, such as what paper stock will be used,
what ink will be used,
what binding will be used.
Does knowing about all of these elements of design enhance the reading experience or take away from it? Do you care?
Some people are excited and enthused about type and others would rather stick to the same old favourites. Do you share Doug’s appreciation of layered, textured typography or can those processes be a distraction? Do you rather agree with Emil Rider, who said:
“Typography has one plain duty before it and that is to convey information in writing.”?
Or Erik Kessels:
“Wouldn’t it be interesting if there were only one typeface in the world? Designers would really have to think about the idea behind their designs instead of covering it up with fancy typefaces.”
We’re sure there are designers out there who are guilty of this but we don’t know any of them…
We may think it is obvious that a typeface that is barely legible will confuse and repel readers, rather than appeal to them. But is there an argument for using unusual letterforms?
Emerging research shows that we actually learn better when the learning is made harder. Although this sounds counter-intuitive, when we see an unfamiliar font, scientific research has shown that this forces our brains to work harder to process what we are seeing and this can result in a signal that the information is worth remembering. We often equate ‘familiar’ with ‘dull’ and ‘forgettable’. So move over Helvetica, Times and Arial…
A final plea for typographic thoughtfulness from G. W. Ovink:
“The typographer … who did not hit upon the specially appropriate type, will not have done actual harm to the transmission of the meaning of the text, but missed an opportunity to intensify the force of impression of the text…”
No one likes a missed opportunity for magic.
All images in this post are taken from the books below. If you would like to see more information about them on the AVA website, please click on the books’ titles.
The Visual Dictionary of Typography by Gavin Ambrose and Paul Harris
The Fundamentals of Typography, second edition by Gavin Ambrose and Paul Harris
Basics Design 03: Typography by Gavin Ambrose and Paul Harris
Basics Typography 01: Virtual Type by Matthias Hillner
Basics Typogrphy 02: Using Type by Michael Harkins