By Steve Matteson, Creative Type Director for Monotype
Typography is central to any written message: books, brands, web searches or wedding invites. In a passing glance at a logotype or in-depth study of a research paper, poorly chosen or poorly used typefaces cause a visual disconnect between the words and their meaning. Being ‘off brand’ or ‘off message’ is a situation that good designers and good writers naturally fear.
Choosing or designing typefaces which reinforce or emphasize the content is the ‘Holy Grail’ of typographic execution. American type design pioneer, Frederic Goudy, once said, “If one type is more suitable than another for a given purpose, then there must be some type most suitable, and print to be (considered artistic) will not be satisfied with any but that right type.” (Figure 1) Today it can be overwhelming for a designer to feel confident in choosing typefaces – there are so many available with varying degrees of quality and utility. It was not always so.
Typography 1.0 is a term I use to describe a time when physical pieces of type material (wood or metal, or – much later – photographic film) were used to print on a physical substrate. Type production, along with other book arts, was a highly specialized and industrial process. In some ways it is justifiable to call Type 1.0 a ‘golden age’ where professional typographers skilled in the art of arranging words on a page focused their efforts at creating the best possible reading experience. Type manufacturers specialized in producing type to very fine tolerances. Printers, binders, ink manufacturers, paper makers – each required years of training to become masters in their trade.
After 500 years, type began a 2.0 revision: intangible bits of software code replaced physical type forms. This transformation in the late 1980s gave the layperson immediate access to typographic expression. Typeface choices increased and computer software became more sophisticated. While computers were used to create the content, the message was still mostly transferred and preserved in physical form through laser printers, image setters or an offset printing press.
With the wide adoption of web typography and the mobile reading experience, type has entered its 3.0 version. This involves intangible font software drawing temporary pixels on a screen, which then refreshes the intangible content after it’s been consumed. (Figure 2)
Type 3.0 is the most significant change in the evolution of type creation and type use since Gutenberg assembled movable pieces of type for mass production of thought. Words are now portable and temporary. Anybody can create content and exercise typographic decisions like font size, alignment and position. The ‘art’ of arranging letterforms in a message, or an interface, or an advertisement is open to anyone who interacts with a device.
Likewise, the process of creating type is widely democratic with the proliferation of commercial design software. Letters may be created for very specific tasks such as a brand tagline or the body text for an e-book. Letters may be created for multiple languages and writing systems – including those with little or no prior printed history.
Freedom with a Caveat
With all this freedom, it is more important than ever for designers to study carefully what they intend to implement in their typographic solutions. All fonts are not created equal. Nor can they be expected to work well in every possible scenario from e-readers to tablets to desktops to large and small print. For example, of the many thousands of typefaces, only a few have been created for comfortable extended reading on screens; typefaces designed for elegant style in print may not work well on mobile displays.
Type 3.0 has introduced a new layer of complexity for the designer – interactivity. While print was a static medium with an obvious beginning and ending, web pages require a user to navigate an intangible medium. Typography is usually central to this experience, and if the type does not function well in the medium, a user may become misdirected.
In the earliest era of Type 1.0, typographers used wayfinding techniques developed by scribes before them. Initial capitals letters, ornamentation and ample margins helped guide a reader through a story. Now with multiple options of colors, icons, illustrations and other multimedia tools, navigation may be more ‘fun’ but eventually may become tiresome. Since the number one job of type is to communicate clearly, a breakdown here would only cause frustration and a failure in design.
As with any milestone, it is important to take a look back and be sure a measure of quality is not lost to the new generation. Type 3.0 makes it easier than ever to seamlessly integrate well-communicated messages in every form of media. Designers who master this notion will flourish and raise the bar of quality higher for future practitioners of typographic arts. Things every designer should consider:
Exercise restraint: when a designer is given the option of thousands of typefaces, the temptation is to try too many at once. A sans serif family with 24 styles is a magnificent toolkit but seldom does good typography require more than three or four weights on a page.
Practice voice recognition: designers need to try several typefaces with the same words and look for discontinuity. Just as voice commands might be mistaken by a computer, the graphic voice of a word may confuse a reader about meaning or intent.
Mind the gaps: the space around the words is equally important to the words themselves. Restraint in the number of competing elements will clarify the message, allowing the reader to fully engage. This is not to say avoid decorative elements or graphics but to make sure there is clarity and distinction in words and images.
Manage expectations: during the era of Type 1.0, some typefaces performed better than others simply based on the quality of paper and ink. This is true today but multiplied by the number of electronic displays and types of software used to present a designer’s message. Be aware of environments which may be problematic and be prepared to adapt accordingly.