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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My Two Favorite Nits on Type


Most people (non-designers) have no real appreciation for good type design. And it’s not their fault. After all, unless someone (a good designer) points it out to them, they wouldn’t know the difference.

Like, for example, my son enjoys fishing. I’m a novice at best when it comes to fishing, and I didn’t know how to cast with a certain type of reel until he showed me how. Now I know. The same can be said of type design, and the following two things are no exception. So for non-designers, this is a definite learning experience.

Typography is a first-year course in the design school I went to. And in that class, I learned about letter-spacing. The course also teaches the basics of font design, its stems and kerns, ascenders and descenders, counters, serifs, etc.

Wow. Getting complex. But I’m not going to teach you about all that today. Today I’m going to say something about letter-spacing and one other thing. Because as a designer, it kills me to see these two things misused.

The visual at left is from a TV show I watch on the DIY network. The letter-spacing you see in the visual is bad because there’s too much space between the W and the a and the t in the name Waterman. A good designer would not allow this to happen. The thing is (like the following instance) you see this kind of mistake everywhere. It’s on signs, on the back of trucks, in store windows, even on the Internet and—holy cow, on TV.

I know, I know. Some of you (designers) are saying something like, “Well, that’s the font. That particular font has letter-spacing like that.” Too bad. Correct it. I come across a ton of fonts that have bad letter-spacing. Usually they’re fonts found on many of the free download websites. The problem here is that these font designers don’t pay enough attention to the way some letterforms interact with one another. In this particular case, however, it looks as though the designer intended this letter-spacing. Wow. Ouch. Or he’s blind.

Also, some type designers try to emulate old fonts. And of course, there’s a trend right now toward retro design—‘20s and ‘30s styles— using old fonts. This does not make for good design. That’s right: retro design is seldom good design, if ever. Some advertisers will sacrifice good design for retro styles, anyway, trying to be in.

That’s one nit. Now for the other. The visual at right is a classic example of misuse of quotation marks. People that do this kind of thing probably did not make it past the ninth grade or maybe schools don’t teach English and punctuation anymore.

You see this common mistake in the same areas cited above. The person who did this was trying to place emphasis on that particular word.

Good designers know there are variables in type design that are used for proper emphasis of a word or phrase. Italics and boldface are two of them. Color is another. But not quotation marks.


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