Type Design, Part 2

What constitutes a “type design”? How do you know if it’s a type design instead of just regular typesetting?

Let’s examine what type design is again: designing with typographical forms.

So by that definition, a straight typesetting operation—just selecting a font and setting a name or phrase in that font without type size or normal placement differentiation—is not type design.

Designing anything requires one to to apply the placement of shapes to a frame of reference, that being a “field” where you place your design. It can be a rectangle, such as a magazine cover or even a TV background. That’s a basic tenet of design. I suppose you could say that selecting a font to express an idea in print or on the web is an “aesthetic judgment”, but it’s not an example of designing with type, or even design itself.

But using type or type groupings can be a form of type design. The example at top left is such a design. This is minimal type design, but notice that it contains groupings of type; that these groupings have shapes; and that these groups are joined together in a way that forms an overall design (along with the shapes of the photos) within that particular frame of reference. The fact that “Apple” and “Pay” are joined together as a unit, and that they’re made to be the same width to form a unified simple shape, is a form of very simple type design.

The next example is a type design I’ve used before in this column. This design for Dancing with the Stars is an example of using words as shapes. Notice the designer chose the words “dancing” and “stars” for the most prominent shapes (and that these two shapes lock together in their close proximity), keeping “with the” (another shape) as subordinate. It’s far from being completely successful as a good type design, but you get what I’m saying about the shapes.

The third example is much better at using words as shapes. The way these shapes lock together and play off each other makes this one of the best type designs I’ve seen in recent years, and it’s practically perfect except for one tiny flaw. See if you can you spot it.

The last two examples are not type designs. Why is that? One uses a photograph as a substitute for a letterform, while the other uses a combination of a letterform and the shape of a key (rather convoluted) to express an obvious reference. Aside from further critique in those areas, neither works as type design.

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What is Type Design?

This week we’re talking about type design. What is it?

I’ll tell you what it isn’t. It’s not designing typefaces or fonts. That’s designing typography, the art of designing fonts. We can get into that at a later date.

No, we’re discussing type design, and that’s designing with type, the art of designing with typographical forms. Above are examples of type design.

Good designers know two things about type design—

1) they know that type forms, both letterforms and words, are shapes

2) they know that as shapes, these forms are parts, or pieces, of design

Some designers don’t regard type forms as shapes. But they are every bit as important in design—especially in type designs (such as logos)—as any other shape or color.

Non-designers would appreciate type forms as shapes merely by taking large type examples and flipping them upside down, looking at the curves, the proportions, and how one part flows into another.

Type has shapes. Elementary speaking, that’s what distinguishes one font family from another. Gill Sans looks entirely different from Myriad. Times Roman does not look at all like Bembo. Of course.

But up close, enlarged and examined closely, the type forms you look at are unique. As art, they are no longer “type”. They no longer have stems, ascenders and descenders, kerns or serifs. Looking at them as art, now they’re shapes. And as shapes, we can rotate them, reverse them, enlarge or reduce them and skew them. Place them where and how we want them to appear anew.

Does the design we assemble with these shapes have to spell something? No. The design can be abstract, without reference to anything else. It can stand alone as the art it is.

But of course it can spell something if the designer intends that. Like a logo or the title of a book.

Remember the thing I said in my “Tenets of Good Design, Part 1”? Design is intentional. Every example you see above is an intentional design. The designers worked the type forms well to achieve the effects they wanted to see on paper or on the computer screen. The placement, the proximity of the shapes, the way the shapes work together make these designs successful.

This is what I wish more designers would see when they do type designs.

 

 

 

 

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Letterspacing Again

Anyone who’s ever read my column knows that one of my biggest nits is letterspacing. Ever since I was first taught proper letterspacing in design school, I couldn’t let go of it. Even now I see bad examples everywhere, and there’s no reason for it to exist.

Some of you may say, “Well, that’s the font. It has spacing like that.” Nope, I say. Too bad. Fix it.

I saw an ad the other day on TV touting the services of a local air conditioning and heating firm. And I couldn’t believe my eyes. I thought maybe it was a glitch in the television transmission of the signal. But when I visited their website, there it was: the spacing in the name “And”. It’s just three letterforms and they couldn’t get it right—the giant space between the “n” and the “d”. With just three letterforms, this is certainly not the fault of the font.

I hope they didn’t pay big money for this gaffe. Worse, even if they didn’t, they can’t see it. It’s displayed all over their broadcast area. Do they do work like this, leaving gaps in their installations?

The designer of the logo did this: he/she took a design feature of the Avant Garde font—the cap “A”—and applied it to the Helvetica Bold font for this design. They didn’t quite get the right stem of the cap “A” to a perfect vertical (they didn’t shear it quite enough), but the intent is obvious. He/she liked the angle it presented, adding the snug “n” to it. But just where in his/her mind the “d” fell off that train of thought, I’m not certain.

If I were teaching a class in typography, this error would’ve received an F. And, folks, it ain’t the font.

In looking at the website, you can see the same error on their trucks. Very nice.

You see this kind of thing everywhere. And from reputable firms all over. In some cases the font is to blame. But that’s still no excuse. Thing is, if you don’t know that something is wrong, and there’s nobody around to point out the gaffe, then how are you going to learn? And then this type of thing will continue.

The way I see it is this: either these places hire people to design their logos who have no knowledge of type design, or they don’t care.

Setting type in a word-processing program is different than doing type design with a design application. The bottom image shows what happens when the font or something else is to blame. The space between the second “a” and the “t” in Manatee is too great. My guess is that whatever software or computer platform the Manatee County government is using to design their forms is not using the font’s natural letterspacing correctly or the person typing this did not use the auto-kerning feature available.

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Type Design: Dancing With The Stars

      

              

I guess this will serve as another of my type nits, but so be it. Type design is one of my pet subjects. Back in design school when I learned about typography and how, in a good type design, letterforms interact with one another, that fascination never left.

So, like in a recent column when I compared TV news programs’ mastheads, here I am again chewing up another.

I don’t know why a high profile television show can’t hire a decent type designer. They can hire a good host (Tom Bergeron) and co-host (Erin Andrews), and the top dancers in the world. But the producers of the show must be largely ignorant of type design. Either that or they had rushed this through at the last minute and just left it the way it was.

Let’s look at the main image, top left, followed by the graphic version. The designer used Helvetica LT Standard Black, a well-used font, but not really a premier font for any kind of distinguished design. It’s too mundane for a show like this. Maybe someone at the show stipulated a very readable font for this (I can think of twenty fonts just as readable and twice as elegant), but we’ll deal with it the way it is and still improve it.

In looking at the graphic, notice how much the designer tightened up the letterspacing. That’s OK in a super bold font such as this, but also notice the inconsistencies: the differences in “an” and “in” in the word “dancing”, and also the “ar” in “stars”. These should all have the same letterspacing, yet not so.

Then look at the two main words and how they work together. I’m looking for a coupling, a relationship starting point. But there is none. And with line spacing this tight—literally overlapping—this makes letterform relationships more obvious, or not. Notice also that “stars” is slightly larger in point-size than “dancing”, although I’m not certain just why that is. It does not help the design.

I have solutions in row 2, and a more embellished solution at the end.

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Observations on Type Design

    

I love a good type design. What I don’t understand is why they don’t appear more frequently.

So this subject may be a recurring one.

Above are several type designs from national TV news programs. Most are run-of-the-mill designs, practically ignored by everyone in any walk of life. But to a designer, only one of them hits the mark of being an example of typographical thinking on the part of the one who designed it.

In doing type designs, one has to consider a few things about the type itself: 1) the font chosen for the design; 2) the shape of the letterforms; and 3), of course, the impact you want to impart with the overall design. Notice that I said “letterforms”.

In studying typography, any good school will teach just what is important in type design. We can go back and study the history of fonts, who designed them and for what purpose, the processes used to print them, etc. But what’s important more than anything is appreciating the shapes of those pieces of type: a lowercase “g” in Garamond Bold is not the same as a corresponding “g” in Universe Bold. They are the same letter, yes, but not the same letterform. The letters here are different shapes, something a good type designer cannot—or shouldn’t ever—ignore.

Another thing a good type designer should not ignore is that words themselves—groupings of those letterforms—are shapes themselves. And in design, the interplay of shapes is important. Their size, their placement and proximity to one another—all important considerations.

Let’s look at each of the above. “This Week with George Stephanopoulos”  is just an OK design. That black ABC circle is like a big punctuation mark preceding the rest of the design. The designer tried to make “this week” come together by fitting “this” between the left edge of the “w” and the stem of the “k” in “week”. The font chosen for “this week” is not refined enough for a high profile show such as this. It’s a stark design overall, and I suppose the red, white, and blue are somewhat rally points to say that this is an American political news show, which it is. It tries real hard. I’ll give it a C+.

Next is “The Situation Room with Wolf Blitzer”. Pretty plain, when you look at the placement of the words. The words “Situation Room” are larger than the rest—which is good—but the design has nothing going for it, so the designer relies on embellishments to the design by adding a slight chrome look to the letterforms along with a little 3D depth, then adding stars, and setting it against a background of a flattened image of the earth. Of course, the actual situation room is in the White House, but this show likens itself to that, so the image shown here aligns to that global importance and perspective. That’s just branding. But the type design portion here falls short. The design does have a tightness of assembly, which is good. So this gets a B.

Then we have “Anderson Cooper 360°”. I saw this and winced. I’m thinking right away that the “360°” in the name should’ve afforded the designer a lot of design possibilities, but I looked at several iterations of this design among the ones shown on my Google search, and they all have nothing inventive going with that angle. There’s just three “words” here, and look what the designer did with them: “Cooper” aligns to the right on “Anderson”, but then “360°” is centered on “Cooper”. Really? That’s the extent of it, and it’s not well put together. This gets a C+.

Next up is “Face the Nation”, and this one, despite having only three words again, has a certain alignment among its three parts that works only slightly better than the previous one. The font is OK—it’s plain and very readable—and the type spacing is OK, but it’s that the word “the” is stacked that drives me nuts. Words are meant to be read from left to right (in the vast majority of the world, and certainly in English-speaking countries), and not from top to bottom. You see it every now and then, but at least here it’s only three letters, so it’s not a mortal sin. But the designer didn’t lock it up very well by making those stacked letters fall short of the height of the letter “E” right next to it. This gets a B.

“Meet the Press” is nice in that it does lock up well among its parts. The shapes come together well, marrying the NBC peacock into that otherwise negative space upper-right. The rest is just OK. A-.

The last one takes the top prize among these type designs, and it does it without any frills. It has a tiny embellishment that it doesn’t really need, but that curvilinear contour that shows up in the “11th” is picked up from the background. The main image has everything a good, solid type design should have. And it locks up together well: the shapes of those words fit together like building blocks. And the emphasis is where it needs to be: “11th” is the largest assembled part, with one extra variable—its red color. It doesn’t even need that, but it does make it more noticeable on TV. A+.

You can always tell a good type design right away, because it works all by itself without any outside help from flashy backgrounds, shiny stars, or even motion.

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