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My TypoWeek

The last week of January was unusually typographically themed for me. Various and somewhat disparate events, situations and miscellaneous moments made me very aware of typography. At the end of the week I just knew I had to write about it, though not knowing what the connecting thread was, if any, nor if I had a point to make. As a therapeutic exercise I decided to bullet-point these and see what, if anything, they reveal.

1. The Focus Group
At the office we have been working on an identity design since September of last year and arrived at two strong recommendations — two different icons, one shared typographic treatment — sometime in November. Since then, the identity has been presented to various interested parties to gain consensus and receive feedback. I sat in one session, one that particularly leaned towards a typographic discussion — much to everyone’s surprise. With most of the feedback received being “why would you choose such a font?” There was no reason this particular group would be feisty about typographic choices — much less about a sans serif — yet their feelings were undeniably fervent. We designers are regularly qualmish about people not getting what we do, but at this moment, when I was discussing the modern-yet-industrial qualities of this specific typeface I wondered if non-designers now knew just a little too much more about what we do. I was relieved that no one was actually able to articulate what they didn’t like about that typeface. That final jump from “gut feeling” to “rational contextualizing” of what a typographic choice conveys was something that they couldn’t quite bridge. We usually can.

2. John Hodgman on WIRED
The latest issue of WIRED hosted a wonderful redesign that features four type families from Hoefler & Frere-Jones. As part of the issue’s feature story John Hodgman answers questions about the universe in his trademark know-it-all way but not before praising — snarkily, yes — the typographic choices: “The new fonts are awesome”. Hodgman, now a celebrity in his own right, cheerleading font choices in an internationally distributed trade magazine may be an indicator of why things like number 1 above take place. And why the word “font” might eventually replace “type,” “typeface,” and “typography” — forget about “type families” — rendering it merely as an item from your pull-down menus in the computer, not as a discipline that relies on knowing the historic relevance of typefaces and succeeds in the thoughtful interpretation and execution of each typeface’s design. Here, again, is a gap that non-designers are unlikely to cross or care for, and where we can cement our expertise and consideration of typographic choices.

3. The “Type Selector”
About a month ago I received a copy of Thames & Hudson’s Type Selector, the “user-friendly font swatch.” Designed like a Pantone color guide, the Selector fans out to display over 225 typefaces categorized as Serif, Slab Serif, Sans Serif, Blackletter, Script and Display. At the office, I sarcastically joked that, finally, I would be able to select typefaces and I could quit my pin-the-tail-on-the-font technique. For the past ten years, at least, I have been gobbling type specimens, catalogues and foundry promotions, dumping a useless — “useless” because I doubt I remember all of them at the same time — number of type references in my head that make the Selector look like nothing more helpful than Cliff’s Notes. When one of our younger designers picked it up last week, he was giddy with excitement and fanned the Selector back and forth admiring the easy categorization and helpful layout. I acknowledge that ten years ago I may have shown the same excitement as he did. I then wonder how design students are learning about typography in school? Are they just pulling down fonts from a menu? Does anyone bring in a copy of the massive and legendary FontBook, or some of Emigre’s old catalogues and specimens? Can a lightweight novelty like the Selector be enough? Without any history and context or with more than eight lines of typesetting? I hope not.

4. Type Directors Club Judges Night, or, Typobsesiveness
On Thursday, the 28th, our own Marian Bantjes and type designer Luc(as) deGroot spoke about their work and showed how deep, varied and rich one can extend their passion for typography. What was most amazing that night was to see two polar opposites of obsessiveness and determination. Marian, it goes without saying around these parts, manipulates letterforms to her whims, burning hour after hour, to achieve highly complex and new typographic structures that are only reminiscent of their original form. On the other side of the globe (and of artistic expression), Luc(as) is pushing the boundaries of formal typeface design by kerning more pairs than snowflakes exist and by designing impossibly thin and thick typefaces — not to mention comprehensive type families used around the world. Both Luc(as) and Marian display a devotion to typography that is beyond the norm and most designers too.

5. Type Directors Club TDC53 Competition
That same Thursday, Graham Clifford, Chair of the TDC53 Competition e-mailed me about filling in for ex-Speak Up author Graham Wood who was unfortunately stuck in New Zealand and could not return in time to New York to judge the competition that weekend. I had been looking forward to sleeping in that weekend but I knew that would have been the lamest reason to turn down the invitation. So on Saturday at 8:30 a.m. I was ready to judge some typography. 2,046 pieces of typography to be exact. Now, the hard thing about this competition is that you have to judge use of typography, not layout, color or production. Sure, they come into play, but we had to extract only the typography and assess that “layer” above any other. An interesting exercise to say the least. After ten hours of being on our feet we had seen posters, books, brochures, logos, magazine spreads and more from the U.S., Europe, Asia, Israel and Latin America and I was floored by the quality of the entries. In less than a day I had a typographic education that could never be replicated in four years of undergraduate education or two years of graduate at the finest school. This was typography at its best, fullest and rowdiest.

It was during this weekend that I convinced myself that despite all this worry about non-designers taking our jobs and doing our work thanks to the proliferation of affordable software and availability of “fonts” there is a sensibility that good designers possess that separates all of us from non-designers. We know how to combine typefaces, we know how big or small to scale them, we know when less is more and when more is more, we know when to make it black and when to knock it out, we know how to manipulate all these variables to convey an idea, a sentiment, a promise. We know. We know typography and that is the one skill that will consistently allow us to do better, and more meaningful, design work than marketers, lawyers and cooks ever will think they can do. People might never realize that, when it comes to craft and adding power to message, typography is the one thing we can offer that no niece-who-can-draw will be able to deliver. People might know “fonts” and John Hodgman might make them sound funny, but typography, good typography, can’t be downloaded for free from the internet and can’t be understood from joking commentaries. You earn it. And you earn good typography by practicing it, understanding it, taxing it and challenging it until you can make it do what you want. “Typography” can do you want. “Fonts” can’t.

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PUBLISHED ON Feb.06.2007 BY Armin
Matt Gavenda’s comment is:

Thanks for the article, Armin. I agree with your sentiments that typography is key to the trade of a graphic designer.

I had a type/font poster thrown before me this weekend. One of those situations where a friend that knows I take design seriously and do it freelance as well. He had an advertisement that's going out for a bash at his company. Probably from hearing me rant and rave about usage of type and placement in different situations. He showed me this poster, realizing it wasn't very good, I assumed. I was mortified. It was hidious. So I actually went about trying to explain why it was ugly and a horrible display of advertising, much less design. I got part of the way through my explanation and I realized...I can't explain this. There was so much wrong with this poster, it would take me all day to explain why everything, especially the usage of type, was just ugly. I appreciated your article b/c of how this incident occurred. I explained what I could, but I fell back on...I would just have to redesign this. It's too badly designed to salvage. Our jobs are at least safe in the typography realm...thanks for reminding us of that.

God bless,

On Feb.06.2007 at 04:54 PM
Ricardo Cordoba’s comment is:

Great post, Armin! Gracias.


On Feb.06.2007 at 08:05 PM
Samuel’s comment is:

Armin, Wow! Typography took over you this week(end).

Try judging a Photography or Illustration competition next.

It will do wonders to you!

On Feb.06.2007 at 09:30 PM
Lila’s comment is:

Being someone who gets really overwhelmed and frustrated when trying to select type from huge digital libraries, I long and gravitate towards any sort of type specimen book(s) to help aid me in the type selection process. Though Thames & Hudson's Type Selector isn't a replacement for a design education or the classic type specimen books, I think it's a step in the right direction.

As a young designer who has only been lucky enough to see these kinds of books at the college library and at some of my jobs, something like the Type Selector will encourage young designers to be less reliant on the computer screen.

On Feb.06.2007 at 11:04 PM
Kevin M. Scarbrough’s comment is:

When possible, I refer to the large Tomes o'Type, and when they are not, I resort to a carefully laid out InDesign document (thank you style sheets), and print out my own sample on a laser printer. I keep said prints in a good ol' three ring binder (and a copy of the laid out file on hand, in case said binder destroys itself).

On Feb.07.2007 at 12:46 AM
Christina W’s comment is:

I had one of my comments rather slandered on a DO post in regards to type... something along the lines of a 'pretentious piece of crap.'

Armin, your last paragraph is all I need for my sole defense. Thank you,


On Feb.07.2007 at 01:08 AM
Randy J. Hunt’s comment is:

Optimism! Mark your calendars!

Here, here on the font-savvy, but not quite typographically-savvy, client. I've got a couple of those myself, and what's exciting, is that they seem to become fans of design with each little bit they learn. They're empowered by knowing the name of "their font" and especially once they understand that supporting an independent Dutch type designer is better for them than licensing something that they see used 5 times a day in other applications.

On Feb.07.2007 at 08:04 AM
Armin’s comment is:

> Though Thames & Hudson's Type Selector isn't a replacement for a design education or the classic type specimen books, I think it's a step in the right direction.

Lila, yes, it definitely is and perhaps I put it down a little hard. My biggest complaint about it is its lack of context: there is no mention of who designed the typeface or when... Good thing I double checked. There is a credit for every typeface, designer and year; they are printed in a light mustard color about a sixteenth of an inch away from the edge and I had not seen it. So, now knowing that that's there, I wish they used the blank backs of each page to expand on the history of the typeface. This would make it a utilitarian product as well as educational.

On Feb.07.2007 at 08:55 AM
ege’s comment is:

Most undergrad educational institutions have only one, if any tyopgraphy class. They normally meet twice a week for 14 weeks minus holidays. This is a total of about 56 hours schooling on type. Most of the time is spent critiquing a typographical project. Is this enough time understand how to use type properly? There is an major influx of students who are coming out of schools only knowing a few programs. How do we let the youth know about the importance of the history behind a typeface and why it is appropriate to use it if the schools cannot fit it into the curriculum?
The future of the industry is in their hands.

On Feb.07.2007 at 10:40 AM
marian bantjes’s comment is:

I was judging for the TDC with Armin, too, and it really was an interesting experience looking at work and assessing it purely from a typographic perspective. It was so easy to get seduced by a piece and then say "But, wait, what about the typography?" A second look often resulted in No vote. It was a form of dissection and then reintegration: viewing the type specifically in isolation, and then putting it back into context. I enjoyed it because it was so analytical. And for me it was easier to stay focused.

And I have to say there was a lot of good typography, but in over 2,000 pieces you're looking for something exceptional. What makes exceptional typography? That is really hard to answer, but there is a level of adventurousness while maintaining good use that is hard to find.

And while I think it's very possible that software could eventually make excellent typographic decisions (if people cared enough to make it do so) that would give most documents decent, or even good typography, excellent typography will only ever come from training, practice and inspiration.

On Feb.07.2007 at 11:50 AM
Brad Brooks’s comment is:

Great article Armin. I think that the real difference between a designer and a non-designer is just how obsessed you become by typography. Ben at NoisyDecentGraphics calls it the Design Disease, and he's right. It's when you can't walk past a sign because the kerning is so bad it makes your eyes water, or spend hours tweaking a five line passage of type to make it just so, even though you can't charge the client for it. Thankfully, there's no cure.

On Feb.07.2007 at 12:57 PM
Ricardo Cordoba’s comment is:

And while I think it's very possible that software could eventually make excellent typographic decisions (if people cared enough to make it do so) that would give most documents decent, or even good typography, excellent typography will only ever come from training, practice and inspiration.

When I first learned about the optical kerning feature in InDesign, I came to a similar conclusion. No matter how good the algorithms that make this feature possible, a trained (and patient!) eye is still needed to look over the results, which will probably need some final adjustments.

On Feb.07.2007 at 03:18 PM
David E.’s comment is:

We know typography and that is the one skill that will consistently allow us to do better, and more meaningful, design work than marketers, lawyers and cooks ever will think they can do.

I couldn't agree more.

Even if students may have only one class solely devoted to typography, it should still be stressed in EVERY class that involves type. If young designers are having to rely on books like this, they're hardly the ones to blame – it's the schools (maybe not every school or every teacher). If there were only one skill that students should come away with, its a firm grounding in typography.

Typography is the heart, soul, meat and potatos of design. It's not only about form and spacial relationships, but a strong knowledge of history and context as well.

Strong typographic skills are the most important skill a designer can have, bar none. It's what creates the opportunity to turn every piece of printed communication into something that makes our world a better place, instead a bigger heap of junk. Unfortunately, many working designers seem to have no idea what typography is, or that there even is such a thing.

On Feb.07.2007 at 07:33 PM
Pesky’s comment is:

I'd like to hear more from Marian or Armin about what that nearly indefineable quality IS that makes a piece - to their professional eyes - the apex of typographic choice, nuance, expression and appropriateness. (If that is possible to convey.) Is it both analytical and emotional for you? An example?

On Feb.08.2007 at 07:33 AM
Rob’s comment is:

How often it is the typegraphy can make or break the success of a design piece or idenitity/logo. We all know from experience the whys while generally, the public just gets the impression that it's not right.

I've found the best way to enforce the need for a knowledge of type beyond the pull-down menus, is to limit a student's choice of type on particular projects. This gets them into using one or two fonts to communicate a message, and encourages them to think about how they are using that font and it's various weights. In limiting choice it broadens perspective.

Thanks Armin for a great write up on issues that I'm sure we think of in this day of Arial overuse and unweildy font menus at the hands of even general computer users.

On Feb.08.2007 at 01:38 PM
David E.’s comment is:

…the public just gets the impression that it's not right

Unfortunately, I think the public gets the impression that the bad type IS right (after all, it was done by a professional), making designers' jobs even harder.

In limiting choice it broadens perspective.

I agree completely. To have strong typographic skills, a designer doesn't need an encyclopedic knowledge of typefaces. I think all designers (and especially designers without a lot of experience) should stay with a small core group of typefaces for most work – and develop a real understanding of what can be done with them.

On Feb.08.2007 at 02:17 PM
Armin’s comment is:

Pesky, here is one web example. These are two blogs about Chicago: Chicagoist and Gapers Block. I hope that I don't have to point out which one I think displays the better typography.

Every single typographic choice in Gapers Block helps create a more thoughtful layout that is memorable, easy to navigate and displays personality. It combines four or five different typefaces in a very succesful way, letting each one do a specific job. Things that need to be graciously letter-spaced are, things that need to be tighter are; things that need to be big are, things that need to be small are. It is a considered design that is elegant and establishes hierarchy through typography with a few supporting visual elements.

Chicagoist on the other hand is a typographic dump (and by "dump" I don't mean poo, I mean that the typography is just dumped on there without any care or intention). It is not pleasant to look at and it's not an interesting or memorable viewing experience.

"Good typography" is emotive, supportive and perfectly executed. And I, personally, do assess it on an analytical and emotional level at the same time. You can't separate the two, I think.

On Feb.09.2007 at 10:01 AM
marian bantjes’s comment is:

Pesky, I agree with Armin: both emotional and analytical. There was a piece I considered for my Judge's Choice that was very complex, typographically. I don't remember what it was, but it contained several items (a booklet, poster, etc.) and a lot of variable information that was handled extremely well, and consistently and interestingly throughout. Unfortunately it lacked an emotional response. I admired it, I was impressed by it, but I didn't feel that "God Damn, I wish I'd done that." On the other hand, there was another piece I considered as my Judge's Choice that I had a huge emotional response to—I loved it, but I had difficulty sorting out what exactly I was responding to, and when I looked at it coldly and analytically, there was something missing typographically that caused me not to put my name behind it. And yet another project I considered was a beautiful book: again, a lot of complex information, handled extremely well; I loved the book, I wanted to buy the book, but in the end I didn't make it my Judge's Choice because they didn't use small caps with the old style figures. (This being a surprisingly frequent sink-or-swim detail for me.)

All of this is familiar to me from marking student assignments: it heightens my awareness to my own work. Do I live up to my own standards? Goddamn, I try, but I don't always make my own cut.

On Feb.09.2007 at 11:45 AM
Doug B’s comment is:

I admired it, I was impressed by it, but I didn't feel that "God Damn, I wish I'd done that."

That is always my viceral standard for looking at annual work, am I *jealous* of the piece... do I think, "Man, I wish I had done/thought of that." That's what makes memorable design for me...especially when you are looking at postage stamp-sized annual winners.

On Feb.09.2007 at 03:48 PM
Pesky’s comment is:

Thanks for the insights, Marian and Armin.

Doing good typography, I'd think, is like figure skating at the Olympics and not falling on your face - while most bad typography thinks it's perfectly fine skidding along on its frozen ass...

On Feb.09.2007 at 04:39 PM
David E.’s comment is:

So Armin, was Gapers Block an influence on Speak Up's design? It's a beautiful site – one of the nicest website designs I've ever seen. Speak Up is of course very nice too – while we're on the subject. :)

On Feb.09.2007 at 05:07 PM
Armin’s comment is:

David, it probably was... Actually I can't remember if we were up first. Their site says 2003, and we were online in 2002. When I was in Chicago I read Gapers all the time so I wouldn't be surprised if I was influenced by their style. Looking at their site right now, which I hadn't visited in a while, I can see that I have the same middle-column layout going on Quipsologies. Just goes to prove that there ain't nothing new under the sun.

On Feb.09.2007 at 05:13 PM
Stephen’s comment is:

Like all font guides, I had similar thoughts about "Type Selector". I'll post a more thorough review on Typographica once we relaunch. As for the ultimate reference, there is a new edition of FontBook.

On Feb.11.2007 at 12:58 PM
Kevin M. Scarbrough’s comment is:

>>Stephen's link

YES! I just ordered a copy. I've seen used, older versions on Amazon and here and about, but the price was $300+.

On Feb.12.2007 at 12:35 PM
Frances’s comment is:

I agree with Lila that it can be difficult to find just the right typeface for something as a beginning designer. In school it is encouraged to try new typefaces, but you are not always given/directed to the places with type that is right for the applications you are working on. This is where the pull down menu comes into play and overused fonts become that much more overused.

This article was great to read because recently I was thinking about how I can find more fonts to use without scanning through and filtering the pages of older type directors club books (which is my current technique). While this scanning is certainly helpful and often inspiring, I think that something like the FontBook is more along the lines of what I was looking for.

so thanks for that!

On Feb.15.2007 at 02:19 PM