A Critical Approach To Typefaces
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 typefaces 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.
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.
Further Reading on SmashingMag:
- How To Choose A Typeface — A Step-By-Step Guide!
- 30 Brilliant Typefaces For Corporate Design
- Best Practices of Combining Typefaces
- 60 Brilliant Typefaces For Corporate Designs
In this article we will cover two steps:
- Select your sources carefully,
- 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).
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:
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.
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 writings. 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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 Fundamentals 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 now 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 design 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 Reading 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 Reading 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 Giedryś.