Some Things You Can’t Overlook

Having been in and around design my entire creative life, I cannot unsee mistakes in anything related to it. All I want to do is correct them. But I can’t. All I can do is try to ignore them, which I also cannot do. Catch that.

One of my close friends sent these images to me the other day, and they impressed me so much I felt I had to make examples of them. Literally.

Remember that in type design, readability is key. The examples above don’t all have the same issues, but they all suffer in readability.

In the first example at upper left, I can’t help but realize the type design in the yellow sign was intentional. But I can’t see the reason for it. There is no play on words, no “bucket list” correlation. It’s just a gimmick to make you stare at it and piece it together. A promo for, it’s just a cheap idea.

Next we have one of two things: Spicy Soy & Garlic, or Sp & Soy Icy Garlic. Look at it. Are you kidding me? The other design thing that makes me cringe is the pepper overlapping the type at left but the garlics at right do not overlap anything. An example of non-parallel design thinking.

Another tenet of good type design is that things generally read from left to right. We are conditioned to read things that way because we learn to read from books and other publications where the copy is in sentences. Make sense?

Next: a mug with copy reading “Take THE Time”. Except here the type is sitting against texture too complex for the chosen font and tone not contrasting enough to make it readable. And the word “THE” has its own texture competing with the background. Terrible. What—no art direction?

The last two examples are just laughable. The one at left is on an entrance to a park, and is supposed to read, “PUT PETS ON LEASH”. But the first two words have commas after them (one misplaced), possibly added after the sign was spray painted (you can see the stenciled letterforms) trying in vain to make the word spacing evident.

The signage on the restaurant facade is so funny, it’s ridiculous. BBQ Ribs on a bison silhouette is OK, I guess (ribs from a bison are easily questionable), but fried catfish from a moose would make Bullwinkle question his DNA. I’m not saying it isn’t funny, but alongside the bison it isn’t parallel design thinking.

You can bet I’ll make an issue for parallel design thinking in the future. But right now just enjoy staring at these goofy examples of horrendous type design.



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A Logo Redesign

Usually I don’t do instruction. But occasionally I like to show how the things I preach in this blog can be used to improve an existing design. If we can critique a design, we should be able to tear it down and rebuild it to make it work better, right?

This week we’re going to get into a logo I had cited months ago that certainly needed help. And seeing it on TV over this past weekend reminded me that this would be a good time to get into it. The designer chose a good font to start with, and that helps us as designers but also helps in understanding a few things in this lesson, one of which relates to type design, something that’s a pet subject of mine.

With a sans-serif font such as this one (Avant Garde), it’s much easier to see the letterform relationships: just how one shape of one letterform interacts with another by its close placement (proximity) to another. The elongated rectangular shapes make that much easier to see.

So let’s follow along, class, and see what’s going on. The top left visual shows the existing logo of the State of the Union show, emceed by the reporter Jake Tapper. The first thing we’re going to do is look at the way this was put together.

First, let me say that this logo has too many wacky things going on. Mixing uppercase and lowercase can work, but not so much with the major elements in play, here being the two large words, “State” and “UNION”. Not sure why the designer chose to mix them that way, because there is no interplay between them. Then we have two lines running between those two elements, having some unknown purpose. Notice the small space between the cap S and the cap U, which is not carried through to the two lines above it.

So with the top right visual, we can begin to look at just where those aforementioned relationships should occur. If you recall, one of the main tenets of good design is organization. And with organization, you have flow from one element to another. Good type design follows that tenet, because good type design recognizes letterforms as shapes.

I’ve taken the logo down to the main portions of it to illustrate a some of those wacky things apart from the uppercase and lowercase problem. And using a few dotted lines, we can see the things that are not lining up, consistently. The “t”s have almost exactly the same offset from the vertical elements below. The “a” misses the same opportunity with the “N” below it. And then those lines have a strange feature: they not only end at a place that has no relation to anything else in this design, they’re offset from each other where they end as well as each one being cut off on a diagonal. Not sure what the intention was with that—they play off no other diagonal. Maybe they tried to balance the overhang with the S on the other side, but that doesn’t work, either.

In the lower left visual, I’ve reset the design in a different alignment altogether, for a few different reasons. I couldn’t see the reason for the enlarged S and U, for one. I chose all caps because with just two main elements, it’s easier to line up vertical elements when you have stacked designs such as this. Here, the Ts go hand-in-hand with the U and I below, and notice how the A centers over the N right below it. Then I fattened up the type by choosing a bolder version of Avant Garde. There are a few things that still bug me, but we can bring it all together in a further step.

In the last visual, I’ve butted the word UNION up with STATE and kerned (tightened up horizontally) all the type. I like tight type arrangements. Also I’ve taken apart the U and widened it so the initial stem of the U is centered under the S, which also makes for a more unified type width across the word UNION. Then I set the small element “of the” in lowercase letters to fill the void at right.

It’s easily seen in the original design where the designer intended to use the United States flag colors. I would guess that maybe the two lines are supposed to reflect the flag’s stripes, but the stripes on the flag are red and white, while the stars are white. So…

Putting the star (now white) in the A where it lives in the blue ground like the flag (also as a shape more akin to the A itself) makes much more sense. Then I took the flag stripes and made them wave as a flag would do, but in the shape of the O. Finally, I added the words “with Jake Tapper” in a small area where you still pick them up visually.

Jake Tapper may not always be the host of the show (Lord knows, Meet the Press has had a few), and let’s face it, the words “State of the Union” are the important elements here.

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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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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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