Type Discipline You Were Never Taught

When I started work for a large greeting card company, they had type designers who handled all they type on cards. An illustrator would work with a designer to create the imagery and then it would be handed off to a type designer to add the copy in pretty and readable type.

Because I had come to the company with design and type experience, I was privileged to be able to design my own type treatments. It wasn’t until the company started offering type training to designers that I realized how little I truly knew. The four-week intensive training was… intensive and run by people who had over twenty years experience with solely designing type for cards. I went into the training feeling I wasn’t going to learn anything I didn’t already know but I was wrong.

Even with type classes under my belt from art school and work experience with top publications, I knew very little about the possibilities of type as an art. Many of my peers considered me to be “good with type.” That pronouncement just serves to show me how little most designers knew about type. When I left the card company, I found myself hired by design studios to do type treatment logos because they said I was a “great” type designer. At that point I felt I had earned the title but was embarrassed by my past type work, much like a seasoned professional would blush when coming upon their student portfolio, stashed somewhere in the back of a closet.

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If only there was a death penalty for typography such as this! Perpetrators would have their own graveyard with really badly kerned tombstones that no one could read.

The understanding I learned was not with kerning and leading, although those are basics too many designers miss. There is a personality, emotion and readability to type that most people ignore… or just don’t see.

We all love type and a common complaint about designers from non-designers is that we tend to go through life picking apart type in every day usage. Chances are, when you are in a restaurant and when your wife, husband or boyfriend/girlfriend asks what you’d like, you reply, “a better designed menu!”

You echo the hatred for Comic Sans and Papyrus but do you know why? Naturally you would choke if you saw a logo using Brush Script, all uppercase. It’s an abomination against design and civilization. Again, do you really know why?

Some Basics To Start

Let’s start with the basic form of a letter. Knowing the parts of a letter, terminology such as baseline or x-height is important. Start with the basics before you start to experiment. Here’s a fun little tutorial on some basics you should know.

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Let’s not waste time with serif and san serif, uppercase and lowercase. We all know those basics. The basic fundamentals of kerning and leading, unfortunately, seem to have escaped most art students and their teachers.

These two simple practices have been eluding designers for quite some time. We all trust that font houses build kerning (the spacing between the side-by-side letters) into their fonts. The better font houses (or foundries, as some are known due to the old practice of making metal type) do make fonts that kern well but there are always exceptions. Why? With a billion or so words in the English language (or any language for that matter), the combination of letters that will sit next to each other are too many for a typographer to adjust when creating type sets.

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If there’s a T-shirt, then it must mean something! – Link

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I take that back. A bad homage to the “I (Heart) New York” Logo, obviously the hate for comic sans extends to hatred for kerning between the two words. – Link

Here’s an unfortunate example a graphic designer put on his web site. What did he do that was so wrong?

Look at this example. What do you see that’s wrong?

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Here’s the same example with proper kerning. The spaces between the W, A and T has been closed up in the word Water, as has the R and U in Running. Several other letters were closed up a bit to match the kerning elsewhere in the two words. You’ll also notice that the fixed version isn’t as wide as the first version.

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A consideration to note is the choice of the font and the kerning. When a heavy (black) font is used, it’s better to leave more space when kerning to help readability. The reader will see the word better when the black of the font is more balanced with the white space. Emotionally, the bunched up letters make you feel anxious and claustrophobic.

Another much hated font, this example from an article on popular fonts also shows incredibly bad kerning. The problem is the tail on the R. Next to the serif foot of the A, it leave a bad kerning situation and a huge hole in the title. This is the problem with swoop and swash type (look at the swoop of the Q that runs under the R – it’s the only redeeming value in this font). They can be incredibly difficult when not designed letter by letter, almost in the same fashion as a logo. With swoop and swash fonts, you’d better know your Illustrator skills because there will be major manipulation needed to make these fit into a headline properly.

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Even with the proper, by-the-book kerning, this font is just difficult to stomach. Just because it exists, don’t feel you have to use it. Many typographers are in love with each letterform and don’t necessarily see the whole picture. Better to skip it if you can and choose one of the bajillion fonts out on the market.

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The favorite font of the 1970s, Cooper Black is fun and playful and the serifs are murder on kerning. Those little love bulges just ram into each other all over the place. Kern it wide or just don’t use it!

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The same principles apply to leading (the space between lines of copy). Ascenders and descenders will overlap each other if there’s not enough space given to the leading. With some thoughtful design, overlap can work well.

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This is a great example of how overlap is used with an eye towards how the brain fills in the missing parts (designed by Emiliano Suárez). Melding letterforms in this manner takes practice, trial and error and the knowledge of what the brain will complete even though parts of the form are missing.

Font Choices

I fully admit to being font crazy. However, along with that delightful insanity, I temper my enthusiasm with common sense that although a font may be fun and beautiful, it will not work for many designs. Some people wait all year to use certain fonts for Christmas designs. Others wait all there lives to use a funky old English font.

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When I first started my design career, I loved Milton Glaser’s Baby Teeth. No, not the thousands of tiny teeth he shows when he smiles but his popular and funky font. I used it for my first business card and stationery. Every now and then I run across a card while going through my files, shake my head and smile and wonder what I was thinking. I was funky!

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We all suffer from the same font love. This designer wanted WOW! Effect and obviously wanted to use a favorite funky font but what does it say to the viewer? What message does it put forth?

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Grunge fonts were the fascinating bane of design. So cool yet so unreadable. Most came from individual designers and were not only kerned horribly but also the sets often didn’t include those pesky little add-ons like apostrophes and exclamation marks.

Oh, the call for free grunge fonts! VTKS is one of my favorite sites for free fonts that are an absolute mess.

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When choosing fonts, remember that they might not actually be free. Look at the copyright information. Some independent foundries will allow you to “play” with them but using them on professional printed pieces and web sites are another. Likewise, font “sharing” is a breach of the copyright law. Many foundries and font creators are tracking where their fonts are appearing and if they are licensed for such usage. There was a recent case where a large broadcasting company used a font it didn’t own. The company was, to make a long story short, sued for the purchase price of the font, which wasn’t a huge deal but the damages and fine for copyright infringement had to have stung quite a bit, aside from the public embarrassment.

There are several top, reliable font houses/sources out there and if you would never consider pirating design software for your computer, then you should extend the same respect for the legalities and penalties of font ownership. Letraset and House Industries are two of my favorite font makers. Ownership is not cheap but it’s also not impossible. Stay legal!

Mixing Fonts

There are those who believe that there are only a few fonts worth using in design. Massimo and Lella Vignelli, of Vignelli Design (New York, Milan), believes twelve fonts are all he needs for his designing. He is not alone in this belief (watch this video).

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His favorites are extended font families and that gives you a better range of the one font. Italics, condensed, bold, black, thin, and even expert certainly provides interest in a layout by offering different weights and emotions.

Personally, I like to mix fonts upon occasion. This is not to say it should be done to the point of having your design look like a ransom note but sometimes adding a swash character with another typeface lends charm and interest, for example.

You can achieve a look of fun, drama, playfulness and sophistication with the right combination. As with any departure from the norm, it takes practice and a good eye. When mixing fonts, you must work each letter individually to make the whole match in a coherent mass. It takes Illustrator manipulation, adding strokes, removing parts or adding some. Balance is important.

It may be as simple as setting one word in one font and another word in another font. That’s the most common mixing and isn’t as hard as mixing two or more fonts within the same word.

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Certainly fun and interesting but WATCH THAT LEADING!

Neat Tricks With Type

One of the hardest things to do with type is to create an image using words and letterforms. As with the example of the snake shown before, these examples show some planning and an incredible eye.

A play on the old ASCII art of a couple decades ago. The designer touched up the ASCII with a few fonts to add to the freshness of an old technique. There’s actually a couple of words in there!

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Fun and colorful, this piece uses a lot of manipulation but it’s extremely well done and the color balances beautifully.

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With a little Illustrator work and some Photoshop, you too can create a piece like this. There is always the chance of going insane in the difficult process.

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Creating objects from type is a difficult but fun project. Give it a try!

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Sometimes, you can’t mix fonts effectively, as described in the previous section, so just buckle down and insert a piece of twisty corn spiral crunchies. Using objects as letterforms is one of the most hilarious and memorable ways of giving a logo or headline umph!

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Just Your Type!

So, these are just a few of the very basics. Type is not just words to be plunked down on a page or web site and when it is sloppy and unreadable, it reflects poorly on you as a designer. Type is just as important of an element as images, colors and shapes – in fact, type alone contains those elements. It’s not an easy thing to master, so practice, practice, practice!

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  1. This was a great article, so much so that I clicked out of Google Reader just to leave a comment. I love everything about this article, especially your ability to laugh at yourself (Milton Glaser’s Baby Teeth: ) I have to say I liked Hawaii Lover by Billy Argel before I knew better…

    • HA! We all have our skeletons. Actually, I’ve used a skeleton font, too! ;)

  2. This was a great article! Thanks

  3. Taught web design for 8 years and this touches on the one topic that no matter how hard you try, students never take the time to appreciate…looking for the emotion behind the typeface and the mechanics of it. Very well written. Thanks!

  4. There is a personality, emotion and readability to type that most people ignore… or just don’t see.

  5. Thanks for sharing these useful information….

  6. Aha! I found it.

    Thanks, great article.

  7. Thank you for the insightful article! It’s not to decide on Font for beginners like myself but this article definitely helps me understand the basic requirements.
    I especially appreciate the warning on using fonts which might not be free! I wouldn’t have given it a thought.

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