Design Basics Part 3: Typography

I’ve never done a formal study, but I imagine that the time I spend on the typography of a project is often equal to the sum of the time I spend on all other aspects. I easily spend more time choosing a typeface than I do choosing colors. I also labor over placement and proportion of the type far more than I would a photograph. I am almost never satisfied.

As this article is written for the web, it’s easy to conclude that I am talking specifically about web-based typography; I am not. This article is in fact meant to pertain to mostly to printed typography. Typography on the web is slippery. You can rarely be sure of contrast and almost never be sure of size. Screen resolution is atrocious; the really fine, really exquisite examples of type simply don’t exist on the web.

Don’t expect this article to make your life suddenly easier. But if you’re just beginning (or are merely just interested), here are a few basics of the mystery that is typography. Choosing a Typeface

There are several categories and definitions of typefaces. Serif, Sans-Serif, Display, Decorative, Black Letter, Wood Type and so on. Then there are sub-categories of those, like modern, old-style, humanist and so on. Knowing how to classify these typefaces helps in discussion, but does little to actually help you choose which to use.

Typeface Examples

The first question to ask yourself is the most obvious, and yet is frequently not asked: Is the typeface capable of doing what you need it to do? Meaning: If your text requires fractions, does your typeface supply them? If your text requires a bold, and a roman, and an italic, will your typeface be able to handle it. If your text contains any foreign words, with symbols that are not common in English, does your typeface have these symbols?

You must also ask yourself: What does the type do, and is the typeface appropriate for that task? If it’s a long passage of text, you simply must use a typeface that is easy to read. That sounds like a no-brainer, but it often is not followed. Likewise, if the text is supposed to grab you right away and catch your attention, it’s probably best not to use a subtle and soft typeface.

There are historical and conceptual reasons for choosing a typeface as well. In his book The Elements of Typographic Style, Robert Bringhurst states that “There are books on contemporary Italy and on seventeenth-century France set in typefaces such as Baskerville and Caslon, cut in eighteenth-century England….To a good typographer it is not enough merely to avoid these kinds of laughable contradictions.” What he means, of course, is that if you’re designing a book about seventeenth-century France, you should use a typeface designed in seventeenth-century France.

Bringhurst has a point. He loves type like no one I’ve ever read, but this kind of detail and historical consideration (in my opinion) can be called overkill. That’s not to say his advice is without value, but it is often sufficient to use common sense. If, for example, you’re doing the page layout for a copy of the Holy Bible, it’s best to show the text some respect. Use a “respectful” typeface, one that reflects the earnestness of the text. You would not want to use House Gothic to layout the Bible. House Gothic is not a typeface that is easy to read over long passages, and it’s too “quirky” for something that your readers will consider sacred. (This begins to open up the question: Does the design of text effect the meaning? That’s a can of worms that we can discuss at another time.)

There are also conceptual reasons for choosing a typeface. And often, thinking about the concept is the best route to take in choosing one.

For example, I recently designed some wedding invitations. The old stand-by for a wedding invitation is the script face. Before designing the invitations, I searched for as many examples of wedding invitations as I could find, and I was overwhelmed by the amount of mundane script I saw.

The bride, spoke of her marriage as something that would last forever. The text that would be used on the invitation also alluded to permanence. I felt it important to choose a typeface that although contained a certain femininity (something that’s inevitable in a wedding), also conveyed a feeling of strength and permanence. I wanted a typeface that looked as if it had been carved in stone. After talking with the bride-to-be and reading the text that was supplied, I chose the typeface Requiem.

I felt that Requiem had these qualities. In that way, Requiem was a conceptual choice. I wanted to communicate strength and longevity, so I chose a typeface that looked as if it had been around a long time, and would be around for a long time more. Finding that typeface…well that meant scrolling through hundreds of fonts looking for it. A task that is inevitable.

Thinking conceptually about typography often helps me narrow down the choices. It doesn’t always work out, but often instead of browsing through fonts looking for one that stands out, it helps to think about the concept that you want the typeface evoke and then searching for that specific typeface. How Trendy?

It goes without saying that typefaces go through trends, just about as fast as fashions. What’s “in” this season, is defiantly “out” the next.

But there are the staples. Some typefaces are like blue jeans. There are the typefaces that have been around a while, and look to be around for much longer, like Garamond, Futura, and the venerable Helvetica. There are also relatively new typefaces that have certain classic characteristics about them that will probably not go out of style anytime soon, like Mrs. Eaves, Minion, and Meta. Then there are those typefaces that seem to be everywhere you look one day, and completely “played out” the next. It’s intimidating to know how cutting edge, or how conservative to be.

I tend to look at what the object is. Are you designing a ticket stub? Someone is going to tear it in half, then throw it away. You’re as free to use the trendiest, quirkiest typeface you can find, because the trend will probably outlast the ticket stub. Is it a history book? People collect books. Books sit on people’s shelves for decades, so here you’re better off being a bit more conservative. Choose type that you know won’t look ridiculously dated five years from now, because chances are someone will still have your history book five years from now. A bit about the “I” button and the “B” button.

Anyone who’s ever opened any kind of publishing tool or word processor has undoubtedly noticed the “I” button and the “B” button. Clicking the buttons will turn you type to italics or bold, respectively. Don’t use them.

The reason is simple: there is a difference between mathematically correct and visually correct. When you click the “I” button to turn the typeface italic, the program mathematically slants the typeface. According to the typeface, the results can often be horrible. A good font will supply a true italic version of itself to use when you need it. Whenever possible, use the italic version (this means not pushing the “i” button, instead switch to the italic font). The same goes for the “bold” button.

Typeface Examples

With proper font encoding and more advanced typography features, many modern word processors will actually use the italic version when the “i” button is pushed. Still, it’s best to play it safe and choose an actual italic font, rather than risk letting your program slant a typeface to make it italic.

And while we’re talking about the font style buttons, it’s a good time to talk about the underline button. The only situation where underlining text is acceptable is if you’re wanting to reference a web link. Underlining text badly screws up the typeface, often cutting off descenders (the part of a letter that hangs below the base line) and visually creating inconsistant line spacing.

The underline is a carryover from the days of typewriters. With a typewriter it is the only practical way of creating emphasis (underlining is generally a substitution for italic). It’s time that we abandon the underline. With the computer, we have much more elegant ways of emphasizing text. Try a bold. Try an italic. Try changing it’s color. If you must, up the point size. Anything but underline. The Rules, and what they mean.

We in the design field, or any artistic field for that matter, often talk about The Rules. There is a romantic desire in all of us to break The Rules, as often as we can. Most of the time, we feel that it makes us more of a design-rebel or a little less institutional and more forward thinking. We love to rely on anything but tradition.

It can get silly. I’ve seen some terrible things happen at the hands of inept designers who seem to be vaguely rebelling against something they don’t understand. I’m reminded of a time when I was a design student. I heard a conversation between two designers that in which one suggested to the first that he make the “headline different from the text; so that it, you know, stands out”. The first designer replied: “I don’t want to just follow The Rules.”

Of course, this was an early class, and these were just students and student-work is almost always about being more daring and less conventional. But the idea that a headline should be larger than text is just blindly following The Rules is kind of absurd. This is an admittedly extreme case of a designer doing something, anything, as long as it’s not following the dreaded Rules. I only mention it to make a point: Breaking The Rules is fun, but not always a good idea.

It’s worth it to mention that never was there a cranky old design professor or over-educated critic who sat down and wrote out The Rules, just to spite all designers who follow. In fact, The Rules can more easily and more accurately be understood as a set of techniques that have developed over the centuries. These techniques have developed for one simple reason: they work.

Headlines are generally larger, or more colorful, than the text because they work better that way. In the English language, we align text on the left because we read it from left to right and it’s easier to read when it’s left-aligned. We letter-space text that is set in all caps, again because it makes it easier to read. We do not letter-space lower case text because it looks horrible and it becomes hard to read.

But there is always the desire to break from the status-quo. If someone tells us “Don’t letter-space lower case letters”, we try our best to successfully letter-space lower case letters, just to spite the status-quo. We must do anything to march onto new, untried ground. No amount of rationalizing will break our need to rebel from The Rules. And the idea of breaking them successfully is not without precedent.

Think of The Rules as grammar. Like “design rules”, proper English grammar, developed over the course of centuries. And there are rules to grammar, which developed in order to make reading easier. You should put a period at the end of a sentence. You should not capitalize words mid-sentence, unless they are proper nouns. You should italicize titles. And so on.

But, some of our best works of literature and best authors openly flaunt terrible grammar. Hunter S. Thompson capitalized words that were not necessarily proper nouns. William Faulkner wrote run-on sentences that lasted for pages. Jack Kerouac pushed it even farther by writing a novel with no punctuation at all.

But just because these writers were able to defy convention, doesn’t mean that using proper grammar is wrong. And just because headlines are traditionally larger than the text on a page, doesn’t mean that it’s a arbitrary convention and a good rule to break.

All rules are breakable, but you should do so with intelligence. You should not approach any project with contempt for tradition, because that contempt will eventually stand in your way of doing something that is traditional, but also the best solution.

So when thinking about typography, don’t blindly try to defy convention. That’s often the best way to create and unreadable, ugly mess that communicates nothing. That’s not to say that doing something radical and different isn’t admirable, but it takes skill. It should be done with great restraint and practice, not with reckless rebellion.

Happy designing.