A Critical Approach To Typefaces

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I’ve always wondered, “What is it that makes a typeface or any other design good?” However simplistic this question may seem to typographers, it is a legitimate question many of us are trying to answer.

After several years working as a professional type designer, teaching, and running a type foundry, I pretty much gave up my attempts to find a golden set of rules. The answer is not so simple. There is no established set of features which, when present, make a typeface good (and I do not mean just “looks good,” but also works good). But there is a body of knowledge that can provide the necessary answers and also inform your inevitable personal view.

Author’s friend scared by his own library1

I will try to give you a condensed recipe on how to approach typefaces critically and perhaps even ruthlessly. In my humble opinion, this is the best way to get oriented in the field. Indeed, looking at typefaces this way is more generic and painful, and it does take longer, but it is a transferable skill and is totally worth it. Much better than any specific answer you can get.

In this article we will cover two steps:

  1. Select your sources carefully,
  2. Study materials from these sources closely and critically (“to study” means both to look and to read).

I tend to refer mainly to critical reading. Many young designers despise reading. Believe me, I hate those boring historical and theoretical treatises as much as you do, but even though images are worth a thousand words, they alone cannot say everything.

1. Selecting Sources

There are a lot of designed and written materials available. Unfortunately, it’s not always clear which ones are appropriate and trustworthy. So how do you find out?

Always try to be aware of the nature of the source. Are the materials educational or promotional? The difference might not always be clear. Promotional texts boast about all the positives and obscure any negatives. They are written for the benefit of the author or producer. Educational resources generally attempt a more balanced view and they are written for the benefit of the reader.

How can you find out whether the source is experienced or just well-known? Does not the first imply the second usually? Not always. Unlike celebrities who are primarily good at self-promotion and not necessarily at the job they do, authorities are those who actually have sound experience or knowledge, yet they might not be well-known. You would do better listening to the latter. It is hard, but try to disregard the PR noise and look at what they have done, if the quality of their work is consistent and respected and if they are conscious of what they are doing (e.g. they have a methodology). Note that length of the experience is a good signal, but not necessarily a solid proof of quality. There are old designers doing terrible work and young ones doing great too.

Keep some perspective: diversify your sources (never listen to just one), listen to what their competitors say about them and make sure you know the community they belong to — people tend not to criticize their own (at least not publicly).

The author’s friend in his reading room2

People have different characters and different politics. Be aware of that when selecting sources. I would not completely trust anyone who has never publicly admitted a mistake. For such a person, perfect public image is more important than the validity of the discourse.

You certainly do not have to read everything. For some, it is better to stick with a few examples and study them deeply; others prefer a broader perspective with less depth. But read you must.

2. Critical Study

Here is the painful bit. You have gathered materials to read and look at, and now you must study and question what you’re reading. Here are a few simple tests to start with:

Informed Experience

Are the authors’ actual experiences relevant to what they are talking about? Example: if a brilliant designer is explaining politics in South Korea, should you listen? Even if the designer has been to South Korea, does it constitute an informed experience? Perhaps not.

Context

Is the statement generally valid or is there a context to it? A great example is the discussion about the use of small caps where Joe Clark disputes their utility in academic writings3. One of the common rules in Anglo-Saxon typography is to typeset abbreviations in small caps to make them less pronounced. According to Clark, this actually hinders the reading and skimming of academic texts. Change the context and the validity of the whole statement changes. The article is amusingly rude and critical, but remember to read the reactions, too.

Blindfolded colleagues experiencing relativism4

Evidence Quality

Is the statement supported by any evidence? Is the evidence relevant to the point being made, and does it illustrate the problem? Example: type designers will often mention how much time they spent developing their new type family, but is it really that important to know? Does a longer (or shorter) production time make their type family any better or worse? This information does make you think about the value and effort put into the project, but it is not actual evidence of quality.

Evidence Completeness

Does the evidence cover the broad picture or is it just a narrow snapshot? Are the conclusions made with a broad or narrow perspective? Example: if I were to design a generic book typeface and conduct preliminary research, should I analyze book typefaces from just five books from a few different countries? Is that a representative sample? Perhaps not.

Reality Check

If someone writes about originality or critical discourse, does it mean that person is actually original or critical? Articles are often written to denote the discussed quality in the author. Example: feel free to apply right now.

Testability

Does the typeface have features that are testable? Run the tests and see for yourself. Example: check a cross-platform web font in browsers your visitors use. Does it provide a consistent reading experience across a wide array of browsers, or is the appearance highly inconsistent or even erratic? If it’s the latter, then perhaps the web font is not so cross-platform.

Motives Check

What are the author’s motives? If an author appears biased, check their reasoning twice. Motives are good, but supported claims are better. Example: look at someone commenting on their competitor’s work. Naturally, disagreement is in their job description, but do they have valid basis for what they say? No? Then ignore their comments! You do not want to be used for someone’s propaganda against their competitors.

The author’s friend again bewildered by the wider context5

Post-Modern Check

Do not give up your aspirations for objective knowledge too soon. Not everything is a matter of personal taste. Isn’t it better to have a slightly imperfect or incomplete objective statement, rather than a bunch of subjective feelings (depending on the subject of discussion)? Example: six pixel type is not readable, but that’s hardly a matter of personal taste. If someone says so, then maybe they do not have any opinion at all. (It is nearly impossible to fit readable Latin lowercase within six pixels.)

And Then…

Read, see and listen. Discuss. Think. Repeat. (Preferably in that order.)

Optionally, you might also share and test what you have learned and write something. It is good for everyone in the field (especially for those who are criticized; talk to them, but stay civil) to keep the critical discourse rolling, and it helps to strengthen your reasoning. There are plenty of opportunities on social networks (btw. Twitter has a pretty lively community of type designers) and blogs. Talking to your friends and colleagues works pretty well, too.

Playing with these and other questions ignites the curiosity which is necessary for close inspection of other people’s designs. Why else would you look at it for so long?

There is a very simple rule: the more questions you ask, the more insights you will get. And to ensure the answers are useful, you need to remain critical. Once you gather enough you will know how to recognize a good typeface.

Further Reading

So far I carefully avoided being specific in this article, but I must admit that providing actual starting points seems worth betraying any sort of attempt for objectivity. In the following list I tried to avoid the most known books and show what enthusiastic typographers would read and what I also deem easy to digest. Please, do consider this selection biased and limited:

Inside Paragraphs: Typographic Fundamentals6 written by Cyrus Highsmith.
This new and short book is an introduction to the merits of type spacing for design students. It expands on a chapter on spacing hierarchy from Gerrit Noordzij’s book LetterLetter. What I recommend about it most is the nice common-sense analytic style.

Counterpunch: making type in the sixteenth century; designing typefaces now7 written by Fred Smeijers.
Long-awaited second edition was finally published last year. While it may seem very historical at first, this book is worth re-reading every three years as it explains, not just presents. It is a fine example of research and reasoning in typography.

Letters of credit: a view of type design8 written by Walter Tracy.
There are two parts of this book. One is on printing and typefounding and illustrates how technology defines type design. The other is a set of in-depth typeface reviews. Reviews by an experienced type person, that is.

While You’re Reading9 written by Gerard Unger.
Very enjoyable read, a summary of Unger’s thoughts on what I would call “human-centered type design”.

MA Typeface Design at the University of Reading10
The website does not contain only the type specimens, but in many cases there are also essays about the development (look under the mysterious abbreviation ‘RoP’ which stands for ‘Reflection on practise’) some of which are very worth reading. If you like some typeface, you might as well read the essay too.

Illustrations created and designed by Anna Giedryś11.

(cp) (il)

Footnotes

  1. 1 http://www.smashingmagazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/01/ilustracje-do-artykulu-01a.png
  2. 2 http://www.smashingmagazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/01/ilustracje-do-artykulu-02a.png
  3. 3 http://blog.fawny.org/2010/01/11/goreschoice/
  4. 4 http://www.smashingmagazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/01/ilustracje-do-artykulu-03a.png
  5. 5 http://www.smashingmagazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/01/ilustracje-do-artykulu-04a.png
  6. 6 http://insideparagraphs.com/
  7. 7 http://hyphenpress.co.uk/books/978-0-907259-42-8
  8. 8 http://books.google.cz/books/about/Letters_of_Credit.html?id=y8NssjbqNcsC&redir_esc=y
  9. 9 http://markbattypublisher.com/books/while-youre-reading/
  10. 10 http://typefacedesign.org
  11. 11 http://ancymonic.com/

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David Březina is a type designer and typographer, writer and lecturer, director of Rosetta typefoundry, and the impresario of the TypeTalks conference. You may know him as a designer of the award-winning type family Skolar. So far, he has designed typefaces for Cyrillic, Greek, Gujarati, Devanagari, and various extensions of Latin.

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  1. 1

    That was an interesting post, although I’m not comfortable with typography.

    ps: Thank you the font ‘Skolar’, it’s my favorite.

    0
  2. 2

    As a web developer it would be nice for all typefaces to use standard sizing so ‘em’ size would be cross compatible with other fonts, saving a lot of time for developers like me.

    8
  3. 3

    Phil, I am sure you are not the only one who would like that, but the issue is bit more complex since each typeface looks “differently big” depending on the size of the space within its letters (counters). Also the effect is not linear, two typefaces which look equal in a large size might not look equal in smaller sizes. And it gets more funny on screen where hinting could affect the x-height significantly from size to size. And then there are issues like diacritics, non-Latin scripts (both need more vertical space => the base Latin has to be scaled down), and different strategies type producers may have.

    6
  4. 4

    Hi

    I am a UX designer.

    If there was only one book I read about type, which one would it be ?

    Thanks

    Ahmed

    1
    • 5

      Unfortunately, there can never be “just one book” you read about anything!
      You seem to have missed the most important part (and point) of the article.

      **Keep your sources of information many and varied.**

      5
    • 7

      It’s a little dense but I think that the Elements of Typographic Style http://amzn.to/YxQth4 is the best comprehensive book one can read about typography.

      An easier read but just as helpful would be Ellen Lupton’s Thinking With Type http://amzn.to/XjeeeI it even has helpful pictures and references.

      If you read either one of those you’ll be well on your way.

      0
  5. 8

    Wonderful post! :)

    -3
  6. 9

    This is by far the most interesting treatment of a topic I cared totally (almost) nothing about.

    I think that what he is describing is a Critical Approach to choosing ANYTHING.

    Good read, as it can be applied to most every topic,NOT SO GOOD if you are looking for some meaningful OBJECTIVE CRITERIA that you can apply to a typeface to determine or at least evaluate its worth in any particular application.

    Obviously “readability” is a factor, but what makes a typeface more ‘readable’ than another?
    The presence or absence of serifs? Something else?

    Who knows? Who will tell?
    Sadly, the article falls a wee bit short, at least for me.

    2
    • 10

      The problem legibility research is that it’s very difficult to design an experiment that can test a particular aspect of a type-design (e.g. serif vs sans-serif) and that can deliver salient results. The reason is that reading is a very complicated process involving many-many-many factors working simultaneously, and changing one entails changes in the others.

      At best, what legibility research has so far accomplished is to arrive at some general rules that a designer should consider in relation to each other. These rules were largely known to typographers/typesetters for centuries as tricks of the trade.

      Unfortunately, any article on a topic such as this will fall short of your requirements (valid as they may be) simply due to the nature of the beast.

      3
      • 11

        Readability (how easy is it for me to read) depends on what’s going on. Colors, sizes, backgrounds, widths all play a factor. A particular font-face might be perfect for headlines and large type, but fail miserably as body copy. This is why many typographers include “book” and “display” sets as a part of their offerings. The only way to know if something is readable is to experiment.

        Legibility (am I able to make out what it says) ties closely to that, but not everything that is legible is intended to be readable, mouse copy for instance.

        2
  7. 12

    David,

    Interesting and Informative post. I agree with you that there is no golden set of rules not just for typography, but also in context of design. It’s been 12 years in designing and I am still learning and evolving each day. My personal favorites from the book list are Inside Paragraphs: Typographic Fundamentals.

    0
  8. 13

    No ‘Elements of Typographic Style’ by Bringhurst?

    Sure it’s commonly mentioned, but for a reason.

    1
    • 14

      Yes, that is a great book. But Inside Paragraphs looks so nice haha.

      An interesting approach to typefaces, I think a lot of times as humans we are just told/see things work and never really question why or delve deeper. I really respect your academic approach to typefaces.

      PS. Can someone tell me why text renders different in browsers/applications even though they are using the same font file to render the text?

      -Cheers,
      Johnson – designhandbook.net

      1
      • 15

        Johnson Lu: that is because the applications use different rasterizers to render the fonts. And different fonts deal with that differently (OpenType/PS vs. OpenType/TTF). It is very annoying, indeed, but not unlike HTML being treated differently by different browsers. Rasterizers might have different strategies. Some prefer crispier shapes (Windows XP–Vista), some go for more faithful representation (Mac) or compromise (Win 8). And that ties to different understanding of what readability is and how long we will stick with low-resolution screens.

        0
    • 16

      Andrew, I did not attempt to compile a list of basic reading. There is a plenty of them. I wanted a short list of interesting and readable (and fun) materials. That why: I tried to avoid the most known books and show what enthusiastic typographers would read… Bringhurst’s TEoTS is a great book and has enough attention (the 4th edition was published recently). You see, it is also about the danger of a monoculture. If we recommend and read all the same book, design will become a dogma while it is a discourse.

      3

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