Why type matters

Fonts grow on trees and everyone with a computer is a designer, right? Which means they all know about type, of course.

Well, not quite. Typography is a language, with its own grammar and syntax. And as with any language, fluency comes with in-depth study and regular practice, making communication as fluid and efficient as possible. And as communications channels both proliferate and converge, command of the language is a vital component in creating the most functional and efficient vehicles for communication. Type matters – read on and find out why.

[If you've read this far, I should probably point out that this was originally written in 2003, as a promotional exercise for my then-employer, MetaDesign (hence the 'we' and 'our' references). Some of the material is dated or seems rudimentary now, but most of the examples and arguments are still relevant, so I've resurrected the article and, with a light nip and tuck, it lives again.]

Desktop software does not produce quality typesetting

Skilled users do. Garbage in, garbage out goes the adage. And in the case of desktop publishing, most users simply do not know any better. Default spacing—both around the letters and between the lines—is usually far from optimal, and, since there are few limitations and algorithmic processes determine everything, uncomfortable line lengths and questionable hyphenation (or lack of it) are often the norm.

By ‘quality typesetting’ we’re really talking about comfortably readable text, where successful communication relies not only on a careful blend of good writing and appropriate hierarchy, but also the shape and structure of the words – the typography, that is. We read by assimilating word shapes, not by piecing together individual letters, and the space around the letters is therefore particularly important: it helps bind the letters together – too much or too little and words aren’t properly formed.

Often those (professionals) who think they ‘get’ typography actually don’t. And even those who’ve worked in renowned studios or been formally educated in typography (which is increasingly rare) sometimes founder. For instance, when a leading consumer computer magazine in the UK launched a redesign in 2001, the designers trumpeted their attention to the typography and carefully considered type selections. However, their generous grid structures and lack of hyphenation resulted in some very awkward layouts that were uncomfortable to read and made poor use of the already limited space.

In addition to this lack of knowledge, many digital fonts are or were poorly produced. ‘Are’ because the creators have insufficient knowledge (somewhat akin to the typesetting issues above, type design is largely a plug-n-play desktop affair); ‘were’ because many early desktop typefaces used inappropriate source material that yielded less than ideal font data. Historically, physical fonts existed in multiple sizes, subtly adjusted to appear the same in each instance (small sizes were, for example, noticeably heftier than their larger siblings); a single digital font, however, scales to fit as required. Times New Roman, for instance, a default font in almost every desktop system in the world, was initially digitized from a large master, resulting in weak and slightly cramped output at text sizes.

The result of all this? Workable output that looks okay, but simply doesn’t match the quality of previous technologies. Perhaps this is good enough, and perhaps this lower standard is the new standard. But there is still a place for those who can recognise the type of issues mentioned here and who know how to address them appropriately. When we recently reviewed a large corporation’s typography, for example, we found significant improvements possible in readability simply through adjusting certain preferences in the typesetting software (typically, a desktop layout or word processing application). Since controlling such details over a large user base would be extremely difficult, the decision was made to produce custom typefaces that addressed these issues and also provided something more unique than a simple off-the-shelf solution.

Type is technology: upgrade or suffer

Prior to the advent of desktop publishing systems, only the most deep-pocketed of organisations could afford custom type solutions. Development was restricted to certain large manufacturers with their proprietary systems and formats; vendors such as marketing and communications agencies would then be tied to that manufacturer’s infrastructure.

The creation of custom faces for AT&T’s telephone directories in the mid-1970s, for example, involved a designer mapping hundreds of black dots (by hand) to describe each character – for subsequent transfer by technicians to the manufacturer’s output system. By contrast, a similar project in Holland some 20 years later involved two designers producing near-final type and layouts using equipment available at most computer superstores; a cost effective and immediate result.

The type-making process was democratized by the introduction of desktop applications for typeface creation and graphic design during the 1980s. A single format—Adobe’s PostScript—levelled the playing field for those making and using digital fonts on high and low resolution printers, and this was joined in 1991 by Apple’s TrueType. With Microsoft’s subsequent careful nurturing, it has come to set the standard for screen display (while continuing to allow high resolution output if required).

In 1997, a new format called OpenType was announced. A collaboration between Adobe and Microsoft, OpenType is a wrapper for either PostScript or TrueType font data that incorporates greater levels of intelligence. Fonts support many more languages (by referencing Unicode specifications), and can include thousands of alternative characters in order to do this (65,000 as opposed to the 256 limit of PostScript). Theoretically, then, a single OpenType font file could contain characters to support Western, Greek, Cyrillic, Eastern and Central European scripts, variants such as small capitals and alternate numeral styles, and any number of dingbats or optional glyphs. Added to this, the format is cross platform, meaning this single file could replace the dozens that previous formats would have required. For multinational organisations with operations spread across Europe, this will obviously benefit overstretched system administrators.

Demonstrations of OpenType fonts usually focus on the formal advantages that the format offers: contextual glyph substitution is the easiest to grasp. In a typical scenario, typing the phrase In 64BC, Caeser commanded the field would see the ae in Caeser automatically replaced by a single æ dipthong, the fi in field substituted with a proper fi ligature, and the BC rendered in small capitals. Other replacements could happen too (a decorative initial capital C, perhaps, or mid-height numerals), had the preferences been set to do so. But perhaps the most important aspect of this example, is the minimal workflow impact. Where previously these substitutions would be made manually (and required alternate fonts), OpenType-savvy applications retain the integrity of the original text string; that is to say, the form and content are separated. In today’s multi-channel, mixed platform environments, this means content can be redeployed with none of the intervention required with previous font formats.

Compliant applications and operating systems are (of course) required to fully exploit OpenType, and it has still yet to fully impact the desktop. Adobe has spearheaded the push, ensuring their programs make the most of the format, and Windows XP and Mac OS X fully support OpenType (older systems will accept it under certain circumstances). As with any developing technology, there are of course bugs and incompatibilities—and production of the fonts is far from easy—but OpenType offers much to those willing to adopt early.

We will always need more typefaces

Do the means justify the ends – do we really need more typefaces? With tens of thousands already available, it’s a valid question, and if quantity was the main criterion, then the answer would probably be no. However, that’s a simplistic view, because there may be legitimate functional needs that require the creation of new typefaces. The previous case of our client with poor settings is just one example.

Each new technology brings new sets of associated problems, and in the typographic environment this often results in new typefaces. Times was originally designed as a custom typeface for The Times newspaper of London; subsequent changes in printing methods have seen several major reworkings of the face to maintain legibility, changes which remain virtually unnoticeable to all but specialist observers.

And from the low resolution of your monitor to the high speed (as it were) of highway signage, there are countless other areas that have benefited from specialist typographic consideration too. Indeed, as (information) technologies continue to evolve—handheld devices are starting to gain higher resolution screens and electronic ink formats are approaching maturity—there will continue to be similar needs.

Custom type is pricey – but priceless

Though a custom design may begin with functional requirements in mind (the Meta typeface, for instance, began life specifically for use on German post office forms), the result is ultimately both proprietary to the client and free of subsequent licensing and distribution issues. It is, quite literally, the face of the company, and for a corporation to be able to own the look of the very words it prints is a powerful position indeed. This association can be replicated across whole product ranges, providing unity and building brand equity – all without a corporate name, logo, or tagline in sight.

For example, London’s mass transit system—the ‘Tube’ and the buses—has had a custom typeface in place since 1916. This wasn’t produced with functional requirements in mind, but rather as an attempt to make a consistent customer experience, long before the notion of branded environments had even been thought of. To this day, (a revised version of) the same typeface appears on signs, maps, uniforms, and all points in between, providing validation for every piece of information that the customer sees.

Typefaces created for specific applications can also live out a meaningful life elsewhere. Whether they’ve outlived their usefulness (Times) or the usage scenario changes (Meta was passed over by management), opportunities abound for enriching the typographic landscape through ongoing retail sales. The Frutiger typeface, for instance, was originally commissioned in 1968 for signage at Roissy Airport in Paris (now Charles De Gaulle). It’s simple clarity and clean, approachable forms have subsequently made it a highly successful text face in its own right; it even formed the typographic underpinning to our design system for the Berlin public transportation system in the early nineties.

Considered typography can save more than money

At MetaDesign, we have often described our process as ‘design from the word up’; considering how the micro can impact the macro, so to speak. Typography isn’t just about visual impact and immediacy of communication though; it can have significantly broader impact. And in terms of typography, this can sometimes have directly quantifiable results.

For example, when AT&T introduced custom typefaces for US phone books in 1978, the space-conscious designs meant roughly 20 extra entries per page. Multiplied over hundreds of pages and thousands of directories, this resulted in significant savings. (And as an aside, it’s worth noting that the previous design had to be over-inked to get sufficient density on the printed page. This not only degraded legibility, but also added to production costs and time as the presses had to be stopped and cleaned more often.)

Similarly, when London phone books were redesigned in the late 1980s, a systematized approach (space-saving type, considered information design, and new page structures) meant only three directories for the entire London area instead of the previous four. Along with the obvious savings in paper and ink, economies were made in gluing and binding, transportation and storage, all of which saved £2.4 million almost immediately and more than offset the development costs.

And lastly, 1993 proposals for new Dutch directories projected a 25% reduction in production, distribution, and (ultimately) recycling costs, simply through a more rigorous page structure and space-saving typeface designs. A more conservative final design in 1994 saw 12% savings instead, still significant nonetheless.

And so, in conclusion…

As these examples have hopefully demonstrated, type is about both function and differentiation. Sure, it may be easier to use ‘what came with the computer’, but that’s exactly why every PowerPoint presentation you’ve ever seen looks identical. Command of typographic language brings practicality and personality to the most basic level of communications, and it should not be overlooked.

One comment about “Why type matters”

  1. Bravo! Wonderful article!

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