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.

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.





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.

Evolution of a Logo

Readers: let me say that Hurricane Irma impacted us to a great deal down here in Florida. We were without power for almost a full week. Therefore, this is the first column after the hurricane.


A logo, being the face of a company on paper, TV, and the Internet, would normally be something that should stand for a long time. But because times change, and the way some companies do business changes with the times, a company’s logo can and probably should change along with that new model.

Few companies can say they still do business the way they always did. Coca-Cola is one of the few whose core business did not change in over 100 years. They became diversified in their product line to be sure. But then of course the familiar logo had already become ensconced in the mind of millions before any of that tree grew new branches.

RadioShack (now without a space between the two words) has been around for 96 years and its logo has changed 14 times since its inception. (It was always called “Radio Shack” except for a few short years in the early ’70s when it was called “Allied Radio Shack”, a result of an acquisition.) In fact, it changed logo designs ten times since 1963.

Of course, RadioShack has been trying desperately to stay what it used to be back in the ’60s. Long a retail store where one could go to buy all things radio (who does that anymore?), they sold everything from TV antennas to small gadgets that only radio people or audiophiles could identify. They sold parts to make crystal radios and kits to make your own TV set.

But in always searching for new clientele—and never wanting to lose their older customers—they felt the need to ever look fresh by updating their logo time and again. But regardless, they’ve filed for bankruptcy more than once, also this year. And they’re still here along with their 15th logo.

I never did understand that off-center “R” inside the circle, their design from 1995. Perhaps they wanted to distinguish it from a ®, the standard registration mark. I don’t know. But this time around they kept it, using a Gotham font. It has a bland look, somewhat corporate in feel, and the colors they’ve chosen—that washed-out red and seal brown—have come under some criticism from all over. One critique I read referred to the brown choice as “shit” brown. Whatever. To me the color scheme looks like a committee compromise somewhere between Gap-ish and Pottery Barn. And that’s kind, coming from me.

The other logo highlighted this week is Spotify’s design, an update from it’s original incarnation. This music and video streaming service is only eight years old (eleven on paper) and it’s changed already.

Spotify was founded in Sweden and is still headquartered in Stockholm. The logo designers stated that the “sound waves” signify streaming, and that first design has a funky look to it with a bouncing “o” to accentuate the streaming action.

The new design keeps the streaming waves, but puts them in a separate space, a circle, and that allows an adaptation of it to be used as a logo for an app. I had always wondered just why the those waves appeared to be off-angle. But in looking at the original design, the angle is there, the waves looking as though they’re being transmitted to a satellite, which works very well in essence. So Spotify has cleaned up their design to look more contemporary.

RadioShack, on the other hand, hasn’t pulled it together yet after 96 years. And the off-center “R” still makes no sense to me.

A Package Design That Remains True


As package designs go, few in the marketplace stay true to form as much as Frito-Lay’s. That Dallas firm has recognized their customer better than most.

Sure, there are others such as Coca-Cola and Pepsi, those long standing brands from way back (more than 100 years). As history records it, Coca Cola has been around since 1886. Likewise, Pepsi Cola emerged from a local drink—originally “Brad’s Drink” from a pharmacist in North Carolina—in 1898.

The Frito Company was born in 1932. Charles Doolin bought a recipe from a local corn chip manufacturer in San Antonio for $100, and along with a manual potato ricer and an oven, started making his own snack. I had a tough time running down the history of the name, but he called them “Fritos”—I would imagine meaning “fried” or “fritter”.

A year later he’d moved upstate to Dallas and by 1945 granted a license to H. W. Lay & Company (Lay’s Potato Chips) to make and distribute Fritos in the southeast. By 1961, the two merged into Frito-Lay. Then in 1965, Pepsi and Frito-Lay merged, and things were sunny for both companies after that. A year later, Doritos was born.

The name Doritos was derived from the Spanish “doradito”, meaning golden brown.

The thing about Doritos, as in all the Frito-Lay brands, is that it’s maintained the same design flavor, meaning it’s kept its brand design equity in two distinct areas: color and style. The red-orange-yellow color palette tells the consumer that the taste is bold and spicy, and the design style of the type and graphics tells us it’s festive.

Experience just one taste of Nacho Doritos and you won’t forget it. Just seeing the package on the store shelf reminds your taste buds of the spicy flavor.

Looking at the history of the package from left to right reinforces all this. From the 70s’ color blocks through the freeform scribble designs of the 90s reflect the zapping taste inside the bag. And lately the lightning-esque triangle shape of the chips reminds us of what’s inside, that true-to-form snack that remains true to itself.

How many brands across the spectrum can you honestly say remain true to form such as this? Relatively not many.


Letterspacing With Initialed Names


It’s probably one of those things you rarely look at. And even if you do, do you really see it?

Graphic design has many facets, many parts. One of the most overlooked areas is typesetting. Back in the day, before the personal computer came to the fore and applications made possible what became “desktop publishing”, we relied on professional typesetting companies to format our text into conventional norms of appearance, flow, proper punctuation and letterspacing.

And now that those typesetters are gone, it’s up to us—the designers—to set our own type according to those time-honored conventions. We still follow things like paragraph conventions (flush left, justified), single-spaced sentences, etc. Why not proper letterspacing with initialed names?

In the visual at the top, which is the correct way to typeset the name? I combed the Internet, that bastion of reference material that holds tons of information, and the reference guides that held sway were these:

• The Penn State Visual & Editorial Standards

• The Modern Language Association Formatting and Style Guide

• The American Psychological Association

• The Chicago Manual of Style

And in all those widely accepted references, it was found that the across-the-board standard is the first example. In other words, spaces after each period. The only exceptions are U.S., abbreviating United States, and P.O., abbreviating post office. But those of course are not proper names.

Funny, because when going to the Internet’s foremost search engine and typing in P. G. Wodehouse, you subsequently get the visual at the bottom. Note the differences in the way the author’s name is listed, all on the same page in Google (the color highlights are mine).

I even found one listing with no punctuation at all.

Either we have two schools of thought on this subject or we have half of all people being largely ignorant of just how to type a name such as this correctly.

The Latest Trend in Asian Automobiles


I’ve written before about Lexus’ designs and how their front-end grille contours are not reflected in the lines of the rest of the body styling. With the possible exception of the LC500, this remains so into the coming 2018 model year. And regarding Lexus in particular, their fleet of vehicles does exhibit the front grille motif throughout, the SUV looking the most ridiculous.

I’ve collected a few pics here. Although Lexus’ designers have augmented the grille’s contours and have added an attractive texture to the grille itself, the lines around the headlamp area make for an even more aggressive, squinted look (see my previous article entitled “Let’s Talk Visual Sensitivities” from April 7 of this year).

What I find strange is that this design trend is getting traction elsewhere. Toyota, the parent of Lexus, is getting its grille enlarged in a similar fashion, its contour like that of Lexus with that modified hourglass shape.

Having mentioned Toyota and Lexus, Mitsubishi (lower left photo above) has also adopted the look, although to a slightly less obvious degree.

Moving to South Korea, although the Hyundai Veloster Turbo has had this open-mouthed look for a while, the Sonata is about to show it (lower right photo) in the coming year.

Notice that none of these automobiles has a grille that is light in overall tone or color. They’re all dark if not black. The designers have all decided, as if they’d arranged a meeting and reached a consensus, that black equals a macho, no-nonsense, don’t-mess-with-me look. Add that to the deep-throated contour that goes all the way to the bottom extremities of the front-end and you have the appearance that these cars can eat highway.

I wonder just how the design world will regard this goofy trend ten years from now.

Where’s the Correlation?


TV advertising is becoming more and more disconnected. By that, I mean there are many commercials that stretch the correlation between the client’s product and the theme or initial message of the ad.

A prime example of this is the latest T-Mobile ad that shows a couple returning home after an evening out only to find a sassy babysitter wisecracking about her hourly rate increases while wearing the housewife’s shoes.

Then the ad closes with a few taglines for T-Mobile—which has absolutely nothing to do with the couple’s situation nor the babysitter. It’s a complete disconnect. I’ve seen the ad several times, and there’s nothing. It could’ve been an ad for skin cream or home security.

I’m not sure what happens in the minds of the copywriters in this way of thinking. I’m sure they think there’s a minor shock value in the babysitter’s snappy reaction to the parents’ inquiries. You watch the interaction between her and the parents and it does catch your attention. But I had to see the ad a few times to catch that it’s a T-Mobile ad.

If it weren’t for their signature hot pink color branding in the last few seconds of the ad, you would’ve missed it, too. Not a good idea.

I have a brother-in-law who’s done a lot of copywriting for ad agencies, and we discussed this disconnect. His theory is that ad agencies’ copywriters are beginning to hate writing for these kinds of commercials. Either it’s that or this commercial’s editing staff left too much on the cutting room floor. It’s also possible that this way of thinking is the new soft-sell approach. But the disconnect is so wide that it does not work.

Here’s the thing: it does appear to be a small trend. I say small to refer to a small number of advertisers doing this kind of ad, but I also say trend to say there will be more coming, if not a large number. I hope not.

There are however, advertisers who stretch the correlation and yet keep it as a comparative statement. Geico is one.

The latest Geico ad has a scene in a pharmacy with Boyz II Men singing the side effects of a prescription to a woman. Then the voiceover explains that Boyz II Men can make anything sound good (it’s what they do), and that if you want to save 15% or more on car insurance, you can call Geico (it’s what you do).

A small connection, but it’s just enough to make it work.