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Good Typography

Recently, a suggestion for discussion arrived in my inbox: “What constitutes good typography?” It’s one of those questions that unless asked is never addressed — mainly because of the ambiguity and subjectivity of the possible answers. I constantly praise the importance of good typography as a measurement of a good designer. Similarly, many of us seem to acknowledge when typography is good. But what in the world does it mean to do good typography?

In typography lies a big part of designers’ expertise: selecting the appropriate typeface(s) for each project, laying it down accordingly, spacing it evenly, not stretching it horizontally, etc. Ultimately anybody can do any of the above and call it design, so what separates good from bad? Is it the choice of typefaces (although I have seen marvelous things done in Cooper Black)? Is it the point size the font is set in (because I have come across annual reports beautifully set in 14 point Rockwell)? Perhaps it’s the combination of the classic sans-serif with serif combo that defines good typography? Or the leading? The kerning? What is it? What are the uncovered secrets of good typography?

A few other questions that I came up with while thinking about this:
— Is good typography only delegated to high-end projects like identities, annual reports and such or can it also be found in gigposters, night club flyers or mom & pop shops?
— What about the web? CSS now permits higher control of HTML type, however the options are slim and limited, how does good typography find its way unto the Web (please exclude typography created as images from this discussion).

And lastly, would you be willing to share some of your secrets to creating good typography?

(Samples of your work or of others to exemplify is encouraged).

Thanks to Carl Medley, student at Old Dominion University for the topic.

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PUBLISHED ON Mar.18.2004 BY Armin
jesse’s comment is:

I think Rebecca uses typography well. Nice and clean.

On Mar.18.2004 at 09:15 AM
Armin’s comment is:

True, but besides "nice and clean" what makes it stand out? After all, it's only an extra bold Helvetica. (Rebecca, not criticizing, just trying to get to the bottom of this).

On Mar.18.2004 at 09:30 AM
bryony’s comment is:

Good typography.

I don't think there is a right or wrong here, or a set of elements that need to coexist in order to make it happen. It seems to me, that if the font is chosen in accordance, and set in a style appropriate to the project, you are well on your way. If you take the next steps as playing with kerning and leading and line breaks, you will be enhancing your design and making the typography really work nicely, it will make it stand out from the rest.

On Mar.18.2004 at 09:31 AM
Armin’s comment is:

Well, (un)fortunately, I think there is right and wrong. That it is subjective is what hinders most from discussing it.

There is such a thing as bad typography. Sure, we can all argue that as long as it communicates the intended message and the client is happy we are doing our job, but there are better, stronger — and typography makes it both better and stronger — ways to communicate the intended message and make the client happy.

On Mar.18.2004 at 09:55 AM
jesse’s comment is:

I think Bryony put it nicely. It's a combination of choosing items which complement one another, and then taking it a step further with refinement.

True, but besides "nice and clean" what makes it stand out?

I think sometimes the best typography doesn't stand out, it just fits.

On Mar.18.2004 at 09:55 AM
ps’s comment is:

i guess there are different levels and different applications. different goals the designer wants to achieve with type, and the list of key ingredients to make it good

will vary.

does it support the reader in "getting" the message? (if it stands out merely because of its form, it might be not good, but if its there, supporting without making noise, it might be perfect... but then, sometimes its main purpose is to make noise.

the most misused (or unused) feature in layout software seems to be leading.

On Mar.18.2004 at 09:57 AM
Armin’s comment is:

> I think sometimes the best typography doesn't stand out, it just fits.

Sorry, bad choice of words on my part. By stand out I meant what grabbed your attention about Rebecca's cover (or any other example).

But you do bring up a good point — and is ultimately what would be great to achieve in this thread, a possible list of in/tangibles that constitute good typography. "Blending in" or "fitting" are important features.

On Mar.18.2004 at 10:01 AM
JonSel’s comment is:

Damn...I was happy just innately knowing good typography. To describe it...ugh.

What usually gets my goat about typography are the items I deem sacrosanct: horizontal compression/expansion, wrong quote marks, poor kerning. I can forgive leaving out ligatures, because they are hard to find sometimes, but I always rejoice when I see them, because I know someone is either using InDesign or understands good typography.

Essentially, type used well will support the design purpose or concept. Type not used well will stand out against the concept.

On Mar.18.2004 at 10:08 AM
Fritz’s comment is:

Maybe it would be worth while going back in history to see what constituted 'good' typography in the past.

Not too far though... Beatric Warde perhaps? Is 'good' typography invisible to the reader? Should it be? What significance does typography have beyond the fact that it should be read, and read well?

Word lists like 'blending in', and 'fitting' pertain (hint) to/at vague abstract words like 'readability' and 'legibility' which to a certain extent question whether 'good' typography should be 'noticed' or 'recognized' at all.

Maybe, if the reader (a layman not familiar with the technicality of the book or text) doesn't notice and the (typo)graphic designer does but both agree that it is an 'elegant' book/text, or a 'cool' book/text this will denote 'GOOD' typography.

What do you think?

On Mar.18.2004 at 10:21 AM
justin powell’s comment is:

good typography is in the details.

for me good typography is fitting typographic forms into an elegant balance with a coherent hierarchical message. typography may be subjective to some extent... but, for the most part we who appreciate the details notice the difference between good and bad. kern those caps.


On Mar.18.2004 at 10:23 AM
Rick Moore’s comment is:

To really understand typography, I think you have to really understand type. Get to know the characters, how they are built, and how they work together with other elements on the page or screen. Type often creates the underlying structure of a design, and if the designer doesn't understand the subtle nuances involved in creating "good" typography, it just isn't as strong. Adobe's every line composer in InDesign makes "good" typography easier to achieve, but it isn't perfect. You still need to keep an eye out for awkward rags, rivers in justified type, widows and orphans, and shapes that are created in the white space (and whether they enhance or detract from the layout). I have heard stories of art directors staying up all night tracking, kerning, and various other methods to adjust copy to create the best look. How many of us are willing to go that far with our typography?

There are so many guidelines to creating good typography that a lot of designers either don't know about or just simply ignore. As an example: I've lost count of how many great ads I have seen, both print and broadcast, that use "dumb" quotes somewhere in the ad. It's amazing to me that something that small gets missed. To me, that is akin to a professional basketball player missing a free throw.

I guess what I am trying to say is that if it is important to a designer to have strong typographic skills, that designer must educate himself on the structure of type and all the guidelines in setting it. Once you know the rules, they become automatic, and it becomes easier to break them and still have a good design. You just know if something is not right, or out of place. You just know.You can see it.

I think I am rambling...does that make any sense?

On Mar.18.2004 at 10:33 AM
JonSel’s comment is:

Is 'good' typography invisible to the reader?

If all we had were books and newspapers, then this would be a good criteria. I say yes and no for this. Jennifer Sterling's designs throw the conventional rules of typography in your face, but I'd say she has spectacular type skills.

There really should be a heirarchy to this topic. The first level should discuss the real rules of typography — kerning, leading, justification, etc. All your basic Bringhurstisms. These are basic rules that can, of course, be manipulated and adjusted, but they apply to the vast majority of work produced. Second, we should discuss ways to determine if a typeface itself is any good. Letterform construction, weights, families, italics. Theoretically, using a good typeface within the given rules should result in somewhat decent typographic design. And finally, actual usage within a design's context would be the final hurdle. Given a good typeface, is it actually used well in service to a concept.

There's a reason we go to school to learn this stuff.

On Mar.18.2004 at 10:38 AM
bryony’s comment is:

Well, (un)fortunately, I think there is right and wrong. That it is subjective is what hinders most from discussing it.

Essentially, type used well will support the design purpose or concept. Type not used well will stand out against the concept.

What you decide to do typographically in a project will work for or against the outcome, based on how relative it is to the message, and the way in which is treated.

Also, it is important to identify the difference between "beautiful typography" and "good typography", when we look at something and judge its value.

On Mar.18.2004 at 10:40 AM
jesse’s comment is:

I don't mean to imply that all good typography should be resigned to the background. Good typography can certainly stand out. So, not necessarily a bad choice of words.

What grabs my attention is probably what most people don't see. As a designer, one can tell when care has been given to setting text. Like Justin said, it's in the details. Good choice in sizing and spacing or else of typeface to match the subject matter.

I think often it's easier to pick out bad typography.

On Mar.18.2004 at 10:43 AM
Arikawa’s comment is:

Just a quick web/CSS tip.

To set acronyms and abbreviations in faux small caps; firstly wrap them in acronym or abbr tags (a debate in itself as to what defines an acronym v. abbreviation), and secondly add the following declarations to your style sheet:

acronym, abbr {




The values should be tweaked depending on your choice of "font-family" and the size of your type, but generally the values above work nicely.

On Mar.18.2004 at 10:47 AM
Brady’s comment is:

Good, great, nice, excellent, well executed, beautiful, appropriate, meticulous...

All these words generally say the same thing; yet have very different meanings to each of us -- as in the case of Armin's use of the phrase "stand out".

Therefore, it is fitting to say that typography is a chameleon.

Good, bad or indifferent good typography (we'll stick with that for now) can be elegant, minimalist, abrasive, bold, conflicting, distressed, and yes, even "horsy". It all depends on the communication and the intent of that communication -- the message, the concept, the tone, etc. all filing under the brand. This goes for both the slugs that anchor an annual report cover, a print ad or a title sequence and -- I think -- more significantly the textual typography that supports them. Bad text/body typography irks me more than a poorly kerned headline.

In the end, my feelings about what constitutes good typography are this;

Good typography is done well when you can't help but notice it and even more so when you don't notice it at all.

This statement can be illustrated in the contents of the TDC's Typography Annual each year. It is, by far, the best collection of the results born from relentless typographic pursuit.

On Mar.18.2004 at 10:51 AM
rebecca’s comment is:

After all, it's only an extra bold Helvetica.

Actually it's Smokler.

On Mar.18.2004 at 10:52 AM
jesse’s comment is:

Also, slightly off-topic, I've been looking at ads in magazines from the 80s and early 90s. The trend seemed to be for extremely tight or negatively-spaced type for headlines and sometimes body copy. Some of it seems fine, but other examples bother me ... not sure I would call it "good" typography.

What really grabs my attention, however, is the consideration that was given to individual words and letters. If the dot of an "i" was in the way, it was dropped. If a ligature didn't exist, it was made up. Letterforms were customized to fit together better in the space available. I don't see this happening much now that typesetting is done in layout programs. Does this matter?

On Mar.18.2004 at 10:54 AM
jesse’s comment is:

Smoking what?

On Mar.18.2004 at 10:56 AM
Armin’s comment is:

> Actually it's Smokler.

Well… um, yeah. There.

> There really should be a heirarchy to this topic.

I like JonSel's idea.

On Mar.18.2004 at 11:01 AM
fritz’s comment is:

RE: JonSel | Mar 18 2004 10:38 am

>> "There really should be a heirarchy ... to a concept."

Yes, I agree to this statement. However, what is GOOD

typography? Better yet, what is BAD typography? Is there a SO-SO typography? If so, what is it? How/ where is the difference? It would be nice to stick to the subject...

On Mar.18.2004 at 11:04 AM
Paul’s comment is:

I think Armin's idea, some sort of collection of workable typography principles, is a good one. I have benefitted from these types of discussions before and I'm sure there are plenty of readers here who are hoping for something a little more concrete. I'll start with the more detailed side and leave broader concerns to others...

To recap what we have so far (in no particular order):

1. Use smart quotes.

2. Use ligatures if they are available

3. Don't scale type disproportionately

4. Kern your caps.

I'll add a few more:

5. Line lengths for body type should typically not exceed 75 characters, and should ideally be somewhere around 66.

6. Don't use doublespaces after periods.

7. Use old style figures unless you are setting all caps

Appendix E from The Elements of Typographic Style is the source I'm constantly referring to for these kinds of things...

On Mar.18.2004 at 11:08 AM
Paul’s comment is:

Re-reading the thread, my list is trying to kickoff JonSel's “first” level...

On Mar.18.2004 at 11:12 AM
Sam’s comment is:

This may be heresy, but obsessing about rags is about the most pedantic aspect of typography. There's an enormous difference between typography and typesetting--huge. What Paul just enumerated is typesetting--rag, kerning, smart quotes, small-cap-to-x-height ratio (sort of straddles both). My guess is this is what people talk about because in school it's the easier thing to teach, so everyone comes out thinking that typesetting is typography.

I have done tons of typesetting and I get that there's a craft to it and all, but it's something that's pretty easy to learn because the general principles are all pretty well established and accepted. If you don't know the word "Bringhurst" it's pretty easy to learn it. Typesetting is much more about practice than artfulness.

Typography on the other hand, the art (as opposed to craft--and I'm not downplaying the value of either), typography is the art of designing with type. Of creating form and expression with letterforms as your tools. This is the far more difficult practice and I don't hear it said nearly ever, but type choice is 75% of the task.

I don't mean always usually Madame Eaves to signify elegance, or Helvetica for modernism. I mean using type expressively. Often the "wrong" type can be right. How do you know? You must have the eye. Jennifer Sterling's type choice is "wrong" for her crazy anti-classical typography style, but Garamond 3 is a brilliant choice because its elegance underpins and influences the different, more radical type of elegance she's after. If Sterling were to use some distressed Plazm font, it would be amateur hour. Even the old serif+sans style can be wrong, though it can also be right. Personally I would never use Scala and Scala Sans together--it seems easy and flat. But maybe sometimes that can be right too.

Good typography is like pornography--it's hard to define but you know it when you see it.

On Mar.18.2004 at 11:39 AM
Sam’s comment is:

Arikawa, I think you'd also want a "text-transform: uppercase" in there, just in case.

On Mar.18.2004 at 11:40 AM
mitch’s comment is:

I would also add to the list:

7. all caps need some added tracking that should increase with font size.

8. use Em-dash and En-dashes properly, as opposed to hyphens.

9. (personal preference) use serifed typefaces for lengthy text, not sans-serif.

10. (personal preference) use a complimentary sans-serif typeface for emphasis outside of a column of serifed text (e.g. a caption, or a new section header, etc..)

11. Own The Elements of typographic Style by Bringhurst and refer to it often. Also own The Complete Manual of Typography by Felici.

On Mar.18.2004 at 11:43 AM
surts’s comment is:

I'd offer up that there's good typography where a designer is the intended target audience and good typography for the rest of the world. Both categorizations overlap naturally. I subscribe to the theory mentioned above that good typography is invisible b/c it's inviting to read, however on occasion typography as image is pretty great. It opens the reader up to new possibilities that ms word can't do.

On Mar.18.2004 at 11:51 AM
Armin’s comment is:

Sam, makes an important distinction which also relates to JonSel's third point: actual usage within a design's context would be the final hurdle. Which is a big — if harder to define — part of this discussion.

Choosing the appropriate font is essential and it will probably help the piece to not suck from the beginning. It is then a matter of finding the right optical balance between letterforms and how those relate to the space (whether it's a business card, poster or book). However, legend has it that Mr. Vignelli and followers can do marvelous things with only 5 typefaces.

Also, it must be said that work from designers like Art Chantry, Aesthetic Apparatus, Planet Propaganda, Wink, Charles S Anderson, et al show excellent use of typography without it being elegant or beautiful; like Sam said: using type expressively. I think after making a choice of typeface and a style (however loosely you want to define that) is where the intricacies of typesetting come into play and where you can worry about the details of the kerning and rags (whether it is perfecting them to look completely even or uneven).

The combination of sensitivity towards selection with attention to detail are what constitutes good typography. The former harder to achieve and develop, while the latter comes with practice and paying attention to others' work.

On Mar.18.2004 at 12:12 PM
ps’s comment is:

type choice is 75% of the task.

i tend to disagree...

On Mar.18.2004 at 12:15 PM
Arikawa’s comment is:

Arikawa, I think you'd also want a "text-transform: uppercase" in there, just in case


Good point. That would work as a fail-safe in case you didn't type in all caps, but in case someone was viewing your web content sans styling, you'd probably want to make sure that your acronyms and abbreviations were typed in all caps to begin with.

To my understanding, most screenreaders will initialize words in all caps; reading C-S-S, instead of css (however that would be read phonetically) eventhough they might disregard the stylesheet.

A few other good typesetting tools for the Web:

Em-dash, use & #8211; ( – )

Ellipsis, use & #8230; ( … )

(Without the spaces between & and #, used here so that they don't convert to the symbol)

On Mar.18.2004 at 12:21 PM
Arikawa’s comment is:


& #8211; is an en-dash.

Em dash would be & #8212; ( — )

Anyway, if you use MT and SmartyPants, you don't have to remember the hex values for smart quotes, dashes, etc.

On Mar.18.2004 at 12:27 PM
Sam’s comment is:

Armin, I think you put it all very well, but I wouldn't give too much credence to the Vignelli legend--it may be just that.

Jesse, I have always wondered about whether the real reason for all that tight-tight letterspecing in the 70s and 80s was just because, with the advent of phototype, they could. It was simply possible, all of a sudden, to tell your typesetter* to have letters overlap--so they did, in the same way that designers later would be unable to resist the blur filter. Michael B., is this at all historically accurate?

*Note also that in olden days of the late 19 and 20 c., as there arose a class of graphic designers, a (usually geographical) separation developed between designers and typestters/printers. This separation got conflated obvuiously with the computer, but I think it's still helpful to look at typesetting and typography as ratehr distinct practices. Not that you can have one without the other--as soon as you choose a typeface, you've typeset it.

On Mar.18.2004 at 12:29 PM
Sam’s comment is:

(I did not intend just now to imply that Michael Beirut is an old man. Sorry!)

On Mar.18.2004 at 12:31 PM
Armin’s comment is:

> but I wouldn't give too much credence to the Vignelli legend--it may be just that.

Yeah, I wasn't. Part of my point with that is that you can actually stick to say… Trade Gothic and Garamond 3 and if you have the sensitivity and attention to detail you can churn out every single project with those typefaces alone — of course, you would inevitably go mad in the end.

As far as uncovering secrets… does anybody go thorugh type specimens for inspiration? I highly recommend it, not so much for appropriation of layout but because it usually shows the typeface with the intended spacing and sizing that the type designer had in mind — maybe not completely accurate but it serves as a starting point. If nothing else, I sometimes go through Jon Coltz's Daidala and its nicely-set type examples, just for the heck of it (1, 2, 3). But this is besides the point maybe.

> type choice is 75% of the task.

i tend to disagree...

Maybe 75% is too much as a quantity, but it is an important step. Which raises the question, how does one go about selecting typefaces?

I tend to spend 10-15 minutes going through my fonts in Suitcase and see what grabs my attention, usually I have a specific "thing" in mind and go straight for, I dunno, condensed sans-serifs. From there I activate (condensed versions of ) Trade Gothic, Akzidez, Univers, Interstate, Futura, Gill, etc and make my way into Illustrator, Quark, InDesign and just start setting some type. Then it is more a process of elimination and seeing what I want from the typeface. Sometimes I'll want the quirkiness of Interstate, others the sobriety of Akzidenz — so it is also knowing and understanding the reaction that each typeface effects.

Man, I feel like choosing me some type right about now.

On Mar.18.2004 at 01:11 PM
Tan’s comment is:

>Good typography is like pornography

Sam, this reminds me of a quote I once read from Kurt Weiderman where he compares typography to sex. Too subtle and too little detracts as much as too rough and too strong. Or something like that...

I've always said that typography can't really be taught, but it can be learned. Everyone has their list of dos and don'ts, but following one set of rule or another won't ensure good typography either. There's a "Zen" aspect to typography that you either get or you don't. It has objectivity like a craft, but is mainly subjective like an art.

I think good typography is most like good music. Making good music is more than a mechanical action or just following a sheet of notes. It's technical and mathematic, but also visceral and communicatively expressive. And you get better only through practice, practice, practice. And like music, typography can be judged and valued from the micro (typesetting) to the macro (concept/communications). It's all valid.

On Mar.18.2004 at 01:24 PM
Brady’s comment is:

> ...type choice is 75% of the task.


Good typography can be achieved regardless of typeface. This does not mean that Curlz and Cheltenham are interchangeable, just as Mrs. Eaves and Bodoni cannot be substitutions for one another with a simple point and click. Yet, with an astute eye and diligent amendment to leading letter spacing and character count, a good typographer can work with a number of typefaces in a given situation.

"A designer should use only these five typefaces: Bodoni, Helvetica, Times Roman, Century, and Futura." -- Massimo Vignelli

Seems limiting, but --legend or not -- there is a point to be had. His (supposed) comment was originally a reaction to the proliferation of "bad" typefaces. In this discussion we can draw another point from this statement. A (good) designer should be able to design as well with such few typefaces as he/she would with an overstuffed quiver.

Therefore, to relegate the actual work of designing with type to only 25% of the overall task is quite a miscalculation.

On Mar.18.2004 at 01:43 PM
pk’s comment is:

i have a better question that "what is good typography:"

what is it with designers that they continually need to attempt definition of completely subjective terms?


On Mar.18.2004 at 01:43 PM
Jason’s comment is:

To paraphrase Claude Garamond ( R.I.P. )

good typography is about the details.

On Mar.18.2004 at 01:49 PM
Greg’s comment is:

what is it with designers that they continually need to attempt definition of completely subjective terms?

Ahhh.....the eternal mystery. Perhaps we should also ask what makes good tomato soup.

I like mine with a little salt and pepper, maybe if I'm feeling spicy then I'll add some garlic instead.

Topical? No. Delicious? Hmmm...that's subjective. Most say yes.

On Mar.18.2004 at 02:08 PM
jesse’s comment is:

pk is grumpy

On Mar.18.2004 at 02:23 PM
Sam’s comment is:

Brady, my point was simply that good typeseting "can be achieved regardless of typeface." Now I am the one being pedantic and maybe we don't need a distinction between typesetting and typography. I'll see your "yeesh" and raise you a "whatever."

On Mar.18.2004 at 02:24 PM
M Kingsley’s comment is:

Which raises the question, how does one go about selecting typefaces?

Magic and superstition -- just like color choice.

On Mar.18.2004 at 02:24 PM
Paul’s comment is:

Switch out “typography” with “photography”.

For some reason it's easier for me to see the truly subjective nature of the question when I do this. I could come up with lots of answers for why good photography needs a broad tonal range, intentional focus, correct exposure, etc.; all craft related characterisitcs and only a small part of what I mean when I think about what makes photography good. Likewise, good typesetting is easy to define, as previously pointed out, but what makes typography good or bad? I know it's subjective, sure, but what, typographically speaking, makes you go "Ahh, that's some good shit!"

On Mar.18.2004 at 02:30 PM
marian’s comment is:

While deferring to Sam's original, excellent point, I have to say that to me good typography goes hand in hand with good writing.

Like the rules of editing, there is consistency required. And there is proper usage. Many have mentioned "smart quotes." Puhleeze, people, quotation marks are quotation marks -- those other things, the straight up-and-down ones that come out of idiot programs like Word, are inch symbols. There is the apostrophe, and then there's the prime (which is used for "feet" or "minutes"). Granted, this is the first sign of (IMHO) an idiot who is both typographically and literally illiterate.

The em-dash, the en-dash, the hyphen.

I have a little rule, have I said it before?

The em-dash is for keeping things apart

The hyphen is for keeping things together

The en-dash is to express a range (from this, to that)

I've had knock-down drag out fights with so-called editors over this.

I am personally opposed to all-caps, but:


figure out how/if you'll be using small caps and do it throughout. I was taught to always add a little letterspacing to small caps.

using small caps? use old style figs.



I sometimes get myself in typographic traps around this issue.

I hate to have both old style figs and aligning figs in the same document. It happens sometimes for various reasons, but I don't like it.

Similarly, centred, flush left, right, rag, justified.

Figure out what the fuck you're doing and do it consistently.

For me the #1 rule is having a plan and following it down to every last letter and paragraph and heading and footnote.

When I'm proofing other people's work those are the things I'm looking for. Do they actually know what they're doing or are they just puting some small caps here, lowercase there (AM/PM, am/pm? a.m./p.m.), italic where they feel like?

I proof for writing and typography at the same time. They need each other.

On Mar.18.2004 at 02:45 PM
marian’s comment is:

this is the first sign

meaning ... the incorrect usage of apostrophes and quotation marks.

On Mar.18.2004 at 02:47 PM
Sam’s comment is:

Semi-related quasi-dumb typography story:

Last year I was asked by another firm (pretty young guys) to do some packaging explorations. So I took in some work to show them and the design director asked me how I got the type to be so small on something and I almost said, "Well there's just this little button down in the Quark toolbar where you can change the type size..."

On Mar.18.2004 at 03:55 PM
jcg’s comment is:

cannot resist posting any longer...first, i just want to say, i'm a student and after finding Speak Up about a year ago i've come to rely on this site as a resource to further my education. and now the questions:

i don't know the RULES - do the exist in written form somewhere? or are they just passed down by word of mouth in critiques?

how did all of you develop an eye for type? what do you look at for inspiration?

how do you decide which faces will be too distracting and which one(s) will work nicely for a given text? Armin mentioned having a concept and then running some type tests. is this common or is selection decided by personal preference (i.e. do you like to always set body text in a specific serifed face?)

once you have your type family selected, do you go through a number of separate tests for title treatment? should titles and body text be set in the same face, a different one, or some combination of the two?

is there an objective way of making decision or is everything subjective?

more resources???

On Mar.18.2004 at 04:02 PM
jesse’s comment is:


A good start would be picking up a copy of Bringhurst's The Elements of Typographic Style.

Read it. All of it.

Another good start is asking questions!

On Mar.18.2004 at 04:10 PM
marian’s comment is:

are they just passed down by word of mouth

This made me laugh. I had this Masonic vision of the designer cult. We whisper our rules in secluded corridors to others with the secret handshake.

jcg, I am kidding. If you reread the comments you'll find some books mentioned, but you know what they say "How do you get to Carnegie Hall? -- Practice, man, Practice."

I learned from getting it wrong for 5 years (+ 5 years further getting it right) in the book trade. I think this is one thing it's safe to say you can't do intuitively. It requires knowledge and craft.

As for the bigger picture of understanding type and selecting it appropriately, I still haven't got that down.

On Mar.18.2004 at 04:13 PM
debbie millman’s comment is:

Last year I was asked by another firm to do some packaging explorations. So I took in some work to show them and the design director asked me how I got the type to be so small on something and I almost said, "Well there's just this little button down in the Quark toolbar where you can change the type size..."

Goodness gracious, Sam...I hope that wasn't Sterling.

; )

On Mar.18.2004 at 04:25 PM
Sam’s comment is:

Nope! They're out of business now. His next question was "What's your favorite software?" To which my answer should have been, "The elevator."

On Mar.18.2004 at 04:40 PM
graham’s comment is:


start with the things you like (books/cds/posters/poetry/musical scores etc etc). lose yourself in them. see the whole thing and the smallest detail at the same time: feel and think at the same time. perhaps copy those things; perhaps copy those things in your own words and pictures. remake them; let the things you can't do or don't understand help you to discover your own way of doing and understanding them. copy the copy and keep on until understanding is no longer a concern. then look at the things you've made. what do you like about them? perhaps discard everything you like about them and leave yourself only with the things that make you uncomfortable, the things you don't want-use those things and see where they take you.

at the same time as you do this, you could be hand rendering the text from the front page of each days newspaper in 7 on 9pt baskerville roman; maybe justified across four columns on an a3 sheet of paper. do it again and again until you can fit all the text within the columns without rivers.

have a look at books by jan tschichold, joseph muller brockmann and herbert spencer. find the book on anthony froshaug by robin kinross (modern typography by the same author too).

also, as you do these things, look at your writing (the notes, stories, thoughts, dreams) in your sketchbook. look at how your hand writes when you're on a bus, sitting still, tired. use your writing as material for typesetting-perhaps on a berthold, perhaps hot metal, perhaps mac.

these might be ways to start thinking.

On Mar.18.2004 at 04:41 PM
jcg’s comment is:


i've read part of Bringhurst's book. will finish it. however, do you guys actually use the stuff on shaping the page (chapter 8)...golden ratios, etc.?


interesting that you say to copy the things that i enjoy. i recently went to a paula scher lecture at MCAD where she said essentially the same thing. by copying what you like and failing, a personal way of working (i think she said a personal style) is born .

On Mar.18.2004 at 05:10 PM
graham’s comment is:

some other things to look at:

illuminated manuscripts

chinese/japanese calligraphy


renaissance geometry (also alchemical drawings)

facsimilies of notebooks by kepler. copernicus or tycho brahe

apollinaire, mallarme

ake hodell

henrik werkman

On Mar.18.2004 at 05:13 PM
debbie millman’s comment is:

other work to look at for typographic inspiration (imho):

cy twombly

philip guston

benjamin franklin perkins

the notebooks of leonardo da vinci (esp. the reverse writing)

nam june paik

and the master:

anything, anything at all by lawrence weiner

On Mar.18.2004 at 05:31 PM
Sam’s comment is:

jcg, some other good books:

Anatomy of a Typeface and Printing Types, Alexander Lawson

Letters of Credit, Walter Tracy

the Morison and Tschichold books reissued by Hartley & Marks

The Manual of Linotype Typography (1923)

the Photo-Lettering catalogue (1960-71)

Encyclopedia of Typefaces, Berry Johnson & Jaspert

Mostly it's just looking at these books, and books like them, as much as possible, in addition to looking at everything else. One of the real pleasures of typography for me is that it's a steeping process that takes time--it's not something you get under your belt before you're officially a designer. Student for life and all that. I think it's also good to expect (and allow) your tastes to change. If anything, it's usually amusing to remember what you used to think was so cool (Rotis Serif, in my case).

On Mar.18.2004 at 06:52 PM
david e.’s comment is:

typography is the heart and soul of graphic design, and it amazes me how many people who call themselves senior designers don't have a good grasp of it.

i was lucky enough to start out my career at an ad agency with VERY high standards for typograpy, and it was there that i first gained a real appreciation for the art of typography. if i hadn't work under some very talented creative directors i wouldn't have learned what i know.

i agree with tan that typography is similar to playing music — only to me, typography is much harder to learn. If you hit a bad note on the guitar, you know it. If your hitting the right notes and it just doesn't sound musical, you know that too. But most good typography is invisable to someone without a trained eye. the untrained eye sees the letterforms, but not the typography —and anyone with a computer has access to the same letterforms (typefaces) as the best designers in the world use. that's why no one understands what we do.

Someone who was interested in pursuing a career in design once said to me "i guess the hard part is just learning to use the software. the rest is just having an eye for it, right?" I said "you can learn to use the software in a few months. 'just having an eye for it' is what's going to take you 10 years."

On Mar.19.2004 at 12:20 PM
Hrant’s comment is:

Good typography? Maybe it's easiest to show by example:



Actually, I don't know enough about the usage of type to say anything highly useful overall, but I would point out the following:

1) Think about what the user needs. Don't repeat strict rules like mantras, and certainly don't worry about what you see in design annuals.

2) Like Rick said: know your type like your blood type. Although layout is usually more important than the type choice itself (assuming you don't choose something ridiculous), one key thing is to know what various fonts are good at. This isn't done enough. People have favorite fonts (like Mrs Eaves), and they think they can use them for anything. One way you can know what fonts are good at is by trial and error, and this is probably the usual way. A better way is to understand functionality (like smaller sizes need larger x-heights) and work up from that. Much harder, but less headless-chicken (you know, the kind they serve at that Shakers).


On Mar.20.2004 at 07:36 PM
carl m.’s comment is:

First off, i would like to thank all of you for taking interest in my question. I am only starting my graphic design education and am constantly taking in all of these characteristics of design and what is and is not “good”. I am going to try and interpret what has been said so far in a few lines, and if i am missing the general point of view please let me know:

1. fist part of good typography has to do with analyzing the situation, i.e. what is being read, who is reading it, why it is being read, etc.

2. choice of typeface according to the above questions (and any other ones that come up)

3.following attention to details and guidelines that have been set in realtion to good design.

A couple more questions for anyone who wants to answer:

1.since people throughout the world read printed material differently and over time certain guidelines for text have changed, does ´┐Żattention to details’ still seem as important or could it be considered more subjective?

2.pretending that none of you are designers and have never taken a class on typography, does your definition of “good typography” change and, if so, how?

On Mar.20.2004 at 09:45 PM
JonSel’s comment is:

2.pretending that none of you are designers and have never taken a class on typography, does your definition of “good typography” change and, if so, how?

Interesting perspective. To the lay person, good typography is probably that which conveys the appropriate feeling or mood to the piece being looked at. Nothing more or less. They may not know what specific typographic forces are at work, but they don't need to. If someone in the target audience says, "Hey, I can't read this," then it is probably bad typography.

Think of it like engineering. When you look at a house, you don't know if it is engineered soundly, but you make an assumption that the engineer responsible knew what they were doing. And when you find, say, a cracked wall, then you question the worth of the entire house. In theory, someone looking at design should just expect the designer to understand the fundamentals necessary to carry out their concept.

On Mar.20.2004 at 10:59 PM
carl m.’s comment is:

That is a good point.

On Mar.20.2004 at 11:22 PM
davek’s comment is:

This is a pretty good book for working with type (on a computer):

Making Digital Type Look Good by Bob Gordon, Graham Davis

On Mar.21.2004 at 10:54 AM
Dani’s comment is:

Just wanting to add fresh thought to the debate:

I read a recent comment which read 'Today's computer technology has produced complicated trendy typography and fussy mannerist design created to look up to date rather than communicate'

(K.friedman professor of strategic design Oslo.)

Looking at the work of recent designers and students does this statement bear any truth? Surely looking 'up to date' is very much part of communicating?

On Jul.21.2004 at 04:30 PM
Armin’s comment is:

We are definitely past the heavy typornamentation´┐Ż of the '90s when the ability to "play" with the computer messed with designers' heads. Not that there was anything wrong with that. All the postmodern work was cool and everything but it certainly got in the way of communication.

Today we are at the other extreme, where "fussy mannerisms" are seldom seen. Clean type is the norm of the '00s.

On Jul.21.2004 at 07:45 PM
JonSel’s comment is:

it certainly got in the way of communication.

Not to fire this ol' debate up too much, but it's all about context and audience. Used in the right time and place, deconstructed typography communicates very well indeed. Note that "communicate" does not necessarily mean "readable".

On Jul.21.2004 at 09:43 PM
victor’s comment is:

i hear background music when i get the typography just right, and the words start blurring and the page starts moving really slow and my brain starts vibrating.

On Apr.15.2008 at 09:22 AM