Typography: Often invisible, always essential

How do you know when typography is doing its job? When it allows you to focus on the message, rather than the presentation of that message. Skillful typography doesn’t call attention to itself or get in the way. It enhances legibility and showcases content.

In both digital and print media, skillful typography is essential for strong marketing. Typography should “induce a state of energetic repose, which is the ideal condition for reading,” says Robert Bringhurst in The Elements of Typographic Style.

When reading is not ideal, typography may be the culprit. We’ve all visited websites that require too much work to read or look amateurish because of unsophisticated type.

We’ve all picked up a capabilities brochure only to put it down because it’s just not inviting. We’ve all seen brand identities that, despite the stature of the organization, lack polish and prestige.

So what is it, exactly, that skillful typography brings to communication?

Order

Although you may not be the person who designs your communications, having an understanding of typographic order can help you be a knowledgeable decision maker.

Without order, readability suffers. Order results in continuity, a clear hierarchy, and an uninterrupted message flow, all of which benefit the reader. The key to establishing typographic order is working within a grid.

“Grids underlie every typographic system,” says Ellen Lupton in Thinking with Type. A grid dictates appropriate placement of text and images — whether on a web page, a magazine article, a promotional brochure, or a tradeshow booth. Like the frame of a house, a grid provides the basic structure within which you can adjust various graphic elements.

Elements such as type size, weight, and placement also help establish order. Headlines are, of course, designed in a larger type size or heavier weight to capture attention — to say, “Start here.” Cues like these help readers more easily scan a page and extract relevant information.

Purpose

Typography reveals the character of the communication and the personality of the brand. Is it whimsical or learned? Is it stylish or more traditional? It also reveals the category of the communication: exposition, narration, description, persuasion.

Think about the purpose of your communication. Is it a poster for a store window that shouts, “One-Day Sale!” or an invitation to an elegant black-tie event? Typeface, type size, letter spacing, sans serif or serif must all be considered based on your content and the mode of delivery.

In The Elements of Type, Bringhurst says, “Typography is to literature as musical performance is to composition.” In other words, you wouldn’t use a tuba to play a composition about hummingbirds, nor would you typically use a blocky, sans serif typeface for a wedding announcement.

Who are you, who are your audiences, and what is the purpose of your communication? Answering these questions should inform your choice of typography.

Clarity

Typography has a profound effect on the clarity of your message — in digital and print mediums. “Typography exists to honor content,” says Bringhurst.

If you’ve taken the time to create high-quality content, make sure the typography brings focus and clarity to that message. One simple way is to make purposeful choices about uppercase vs. lowercase type. IT’S GENERALLY ACCEPTED THAT UPPERCASE TYPE IS HARDER TO READ THAN LOWERCASE TYPE. THE UNIFORMITY OF UPPERCASE LETTERS, ESPECIALLY IN BLOCKS OF TEXT, PREVENTS READERS FROM PROCESSING THE WORDS QUICKLY.

You should also pay close attention to line length and whether the text is set ragged right or justified. With ragged-right text, you want what Bringhurst calls “an orderly ripple,” which gives the text edge the appearance of “a neatly pinched piecrust.”

Justified text, which is more often used on formal print pieces, requires a sophisticated understanding of proportion. Given the necessary stretching or compression required in justified text, Bringhurst cautions that inappropriate line lengths can result in “white acne or pig bristles, a rash of erratic and splotchy word spaces or an epidemic of hyphenation.” Best to avoid these.

Imagination

Good typography is not only practical and functional. It should also be creative and imaginative. Great designers know it’s sometimes okay to break the rules — to use type to make a big impression or bold statement.

Consider, for example, the psychedelic rock posters and album covers of the 1960s. With their vivid, fluorescent colors and free-form hand lettering, these distinctive works were a unique product of their times — an accurate reflection of the people, places, and attitudes that typified the decade.

Also consider the famous typographic sequence that begins each of the popular films in the Star Wars series. The slanted type, scrolling backwards into space, is at once futuristic and nostalgic, modern and old-fashioned. Again, it’s perfect for the purpose at hand.

Of course, psychedelic lettering or futuristic fonts may not be appropriate for your company’s brand. But it’s important to remember that typography is about more than just the rules. Going beyond the boundaries can sometimes be a very effective way of expressing the unique personality of your organization.