On my way to work I pass the Natural History Museum, an imposing neoclassical building. Above the entrance, chiseled in stone in monumental capital letters, appear the words Truth, Knowledge, and Vision – three powerful concepts that provoke contemplation.
Who chose these words? Why did they choose these particular words? Are these words still relevant today? Which of the three words is the most important? Why are they arranged in this particular sequence? How many letters are in each word? What is the ratio between the numbers of letters in each word? What is the total number of letters? How many rectilinear, triangular, and curvilinear letters are in each word? What is the typeface? How tall are the letters? How does the chisel technique contribute to the letter’s appearance? How would the words appear in upper and lower case? These kinds of questions are at the core of a typographic designer’s work. They show how a seemingly simple message can be deconstructed to reveal the numerous decisions that together affect the meaning and emotional tone of the communication.
Typography is the major component of visual communication, from books to posters, signs, packaging, magazines, newspapers, and electronic media. A huge amount of information, such as forms, lists, and schedules, is entirely typographically based. We are inundated with typography. Some of it is effective, but much is confusing, amounting to a mere nuisance that is instantly discarded. Because typographic design is ubiquitous, it seems a simple task. Anyone who communicates makes typography.
The basic elements that a typographic designer works with are letters, numbers, and punctuation marks. The twenty-six letters have been part of our memory since early childhood. By themselves, however, letters lack meaning and are incapable of transmitting information. Combined into a word, a series of letters can be very powerful, more precise than a picture. A physical condition like thirst, for instance, is better conveyed with a word than through an image.
Although letters, numbers, and punctuation marks are the basic material a designer works with, typography depends on additional elements, such as space, color, and type- faces to convey meaning. These elements communicate on two interrelated levels: the macroaesthetic and the microaesthetic. The macroaesthetic level includes the primary visual components that are recognized first: the size and proportion of the space; form, composition, and the color of key elements; the structure as a whole; and the contrast between the primary components and the space around them.
The microaesthetic level encompasses the form, size, weight, and relationship of secondary elements: typeface characteristics; letterforms and counter forms; and the spacing between letters, words, lines, and other graphic elements.
The function of typography is to communicate a message’s intellectual meaning as well as its emotional tone. Both aspects are necessary for the message to be effective. Letters and punctuation, word sequences, and spatial relationships all perform a utilitarian function in conveying the “facts” of the message. The nuances of a message, where the designer expands its intellectual content and introduces the desired emotional tone, comes primarily from the skilled and sensitive use of these elements. Without utility, the message is useless because it cannot be comprehended. Without emotional tone, the message is ineffective because it does not engage the reader.
Typographic information occupies two-dimensional space. The third dimension is time, the time necessary for the reader to comprehend the information. The more complex the composition, the more time and effort required for comprehension. Every person has a different tolerance for the length of a text. The reader loses interest and tires quickly when the text is too long and monotonous, exceeding his capacity to concentrate and focus. Conveying information in the shortest amount of time and in a visually enticing way is an important goal.
The designer to some extent controls the reader’s time. Through the skilful use of typographic materials and space the designer reduces the reader’s resistance to text. Intervals between the typographic elements contribute significantly to the visual qualities of design and influence the time required for reading. Ideally, the intervals derive from the structure of the text and are not imposed by the designer.
Typography is many things, to many people. Typographic design is a field that divides into small interest groups including traditionalists, revivalists, rationalists, constructivists, de-constructivists, modernists, post-modernists, and techno freaks, among others. Each group pursues typographic design in a different way. The result is an enormously diverse, constantly changing typographic landscape.
Regardless of what style is pursued, an important criterion in evaluating a design is clarity. Good typography is clear typography. The designer’s intent must be immediately clear and the design must speak with an unmistakable, clear voice that penetrates today’s clamorous visual environment.
Clear typography is frugal and restrained; it is produced with an economic use of materials and resources. Too many variations and indiscriminate use of typefaces, sizes, weights, alignments, space and color lead to unfocused, confusing results. Compared to the work produced today with unlimited resources and unprecedented technical finesse, the printed artifacts from the 1920s and 1930s – when materials were scarce – appear powerful and convincing. The simple means available then forced the designer to use his imagination and come up with new visual ideas.
High standards derive from a selective process that eliminates the superfluous and ordinary, leaving the essential and extraordinary. By working with voluntary limitations on the visual material we use to express an idea we can concentrate on developing our own unique variations on a typographic theme.
The typographic designer works primarily with existing elements. He rarely creates the typographic material he uses, which works against his disposition. Most designers are driven by creative ambitions. Creativity alone, however, is not sufficient to succeed.
Typographic design is practiced in a fast paced environment, under conditions that distract from the careful study of information and thoughtful development of ideas.
To function effectively, the designer needs sound know- ledge of communication theory, a good grasp of design principles, an understanding of the intended audience, and a clear focus on the goals of the communications. The more complete our knowledge, and the more fluent we are in the principles of typography, the more we can accomplish in a limited amount of time. The ultimate condition for good typography, however, is a good text.
Typographic design is a visual activity. As such, visual fluency in the components of written language – letters, words, sentences, spelling, grammar, and syntax structure – is required. After we master the components, we are able to create different solutions to a wide range of typographic problems.
However, to succeed, a design must also have a strong intellectual component. Aesthetic qualities are not enough to sustain the reader’s interest. The critical reader is looking for an intellectual connection between the content of a message and how it is expressed. The challenge for the designer is to develop an appropriate intellectual component – a theory – as a base for the aesthetics. Theory is often dismissed as too intellectual, too far removed from practice. However, there is no difference between theory and practice. Every design has a theoretical base; in the end, the theory behind it may be obscured but traces of it always remain.
Typographic design involves making decisions. We carefully evaluate different options before deciding which of the possible designs communicates best. It requires organized thinking and an intellectual grasp of the facts pertaining to the design problem. If a problem can be precisely defined, it can be correctly solved. Reducing the available options to a manageable number requires making choices.
In typography the choices we make have a strong impact on design. A particular format, typeface, type size, interline space, composition, color, type of paper, etc. contribute to the quality and expression of a design.
Having too many choices can be overwhelming. Today, the abundance of choices is most obvious in the ever-expanding variety of typefaces. Many designers believe that by choosing a particular typeface the work will significantly change. Variety in typography, however, is not so much determined by the chosen typeface as by the arrangement of text within the chosen format.
Making the right choice requires extensive study, experience and practice. In good typographic design every decision or choice we make is consistent with the design objectives set out at the beginning. If the choices are logical and consistent with the objectives, the final design is cohesive and effective.
Making choices is difficult because good ideas and directions must sometimes be eliminated to arrive at a final solution. Making choices is the moment of truth. In evaluating our work, we have to be honest about its qualities. Does it measure up to the highest standards? Is it the best result we can achieve? The final choice inevitably leaves us ambivalent because it is almost impossible to determine whether the chosen design is the best.
Inherent in typographic design are many uncertainties. At the start there is uncertainty about the elements to choose: format, typeface, type size, color, etc., and the formal aspects of structure, sequence, contrast, proportion, rhythm, composition, form and counter form. Then there is uncertainty about the time invested, about the result of our efforts, and about the client’s reaction. To master these uncertainties the designer needs an open, divergent mind-set.
Our intellectual and visual capacities must be honed every day by observing our surroundings, by being interested in related disciplines such as architecture, painting, and film, by challenging the status quo, and by asking critical questions like: how can we reduce waste and visual clutter, improve efficiency, create a better world?
Finding a typographic solution in many instances is not a matter of ideas but of intensive work and commitment. We do extensive research and collect relevant material and facts pertaining to the problem. In the collected material we hope to find the seed to an appropriate conceptual idea.
The old adage “practice creates the master” still has resonance. Personal experimentation and learning from mistakes is much more valuable than looking at design annuals and magazines. Artist’s biographies and autobiographies, which reveal the connection between someone’s life and work, are a great inspiration.
Without a solid foundation the most creative idea will not be realized successfully. However, even creativity combined with theoretical and technical knowledge is not quite enough. The designer must be driven by an urge to be a pioneer. To find new territory and to develop genuine new ideas we must know the past but concentrate on the future.
In creating any kind of visual communication, typographic material is inexhaustible when used with imagination and skill. After years of practice, I am still fascinated and challenged by the endless variety of visual expressions that can be created with the limited set of typographic elements.
By absorbing the technical facts and learning a few standard tricks, the inexperienced designer can achieve decent results in a relatively short period of time. The results, however, lack depth, and the designer is lost when confronted with a new problem.
A designer should be able to function in any situation; he must be an excellent generalist. He must acquire a core knowledge from which he can branch off in any direction he chooses.
He must be able to develop an appropriate solution from the given economic, social and technical conditions and not impose a formula that has no relation to the problem. Typography has certain principles but no formulas that can be universally applied.
The typographic designer relies on divergent thinking as opposed to the routine thinking practiced daily by the average person. Routine thinking proceeds along a known path with a clear destination. The goal is to attain a predictable result with minimal effort in the shortest amount of time. Divergent thinking is needed to deal with the economic, social and technical demands that are difficult to define in advance and often change during the course of design.
Today, computer technology is ubiquitous; it controls our lives. Electronic equipment has replaced the traditional tools of expression: pencil, crayon, pen, and brush. The tactile qualities of materials such as tracing- and colored paper, boards, and overlay film that often were a source of inspiration are no longer deemed an essential component in developing a design. I first became aware of these changes several years ago, when the art supply store closed my account because I did not purchase enough materials to reach the quarterly minimum charge.
Technological changes and competition have eliminated many graphic professions. The typesetter, letterpress printer, silk screener, sign painter, and repro photographer are a few of the early casualties of the new electronic technologies. These changes will continue at an accelerating pace and will drastically transform typographic communication. Information is increasingly produced by technically trained people without formal education in typographic design. In an age where speed of production is the overriding criteria the typographic designer is constantly losing ground to the technical experts.
Bombarded with propaganda, it is easy to assume that a computer equipped with the right software is all that is needed to succeed. The typographic designer must resist thinking that with a computer, he can create solutions without much personal effort or engagement. The more sophisticated and powerful the electronic tools, the more carefully we must think about the impact they have on the way we design, and the more diligent we must be not to let the tools overrule human creativity, truth, knowledge, and vision.