seek and thou shalt find

see the archives for a complete list
of past blog entries

What is typography today?

posted on
Mar 30, 2010 @ 12:40

Most people think Typography is about designing and selecting fonts. This is true as far as architecture is about designing or selecting furniture. In reality neither is a purpose but a means to an end.

That end with architecture is (hopefully) accommodating its inhabitants, for typography it is accommodating the human mind, making the reader read, the viewer watch (not only look), drawing and keeping the attention.

Typography historically used to be somewhat confined to type, although the selection of paper and even some aspects of bookbinding were still things one had to think about when designing for any printed matter. Ever since phototypesetting, digital publishing and even more the occurrence of the World Wide Web this confinement has completely been lifted.

We don’t regard Newtonian Physics as outdated, just because they were written long ago. They are true, because they were formed observing nature and drawing the right conclusions from that observation. Some of the rules were adjusted over the centuries, but the very foundation is still considered correct
But even historically typography has always been more than putting text on paper. It is the study of how we read, how the human mind and eyes process information, how we recognise things, how the brain augments information. For that matter it is more of a science than an art. And because of that even many conceivably ancient rules stand up to this day, because they weren’t formed based on tastes or artistic styles of the time, but on the facts of human cognition1.

What is the shaping factor of design?

What do we design for? What is actually the one factor that makes designs work, makes them good design? It’s the people using it with ease. When the end-user can use the designed product effortlessly, the goal of design has been achieved. This is a universal principle and limited neither to print nor digital media nor two-dimensional design in general.

When we design furniture we design it for the humans using it. We need to shape a chair after the human body. When we design print products, we design it for the humans reading them. The science that helps us making sure that people can and will read those publications is typography. It’s the craft of making visual communication readable, legible and comprehensible. If it’s done well it will go even farther and make communication pleasant. Typography makes content palatable for the human brain.

The human is the deciding factor of how and what we design. Design must have this as the ultimate goal, and the principles used to achieve that goal (usability, cognitive sciences, typography) are independent of any tool we use. Tools need to be shaped to fit their purpose (they, too are designed objects). Using those tools the designs we create need to be shaped to fit their purpose.

Typography is essentially: accommodating the human mind, human cognition and perception, it is brain ergonomics if you will.

The tools of typography

They are basically divided into microtypography and macrotypography. As the names suggest, microtypography is dealing with the minutiae of type and layout, such as selecting the fonts themselves, the kerning (spacing between letters), spacing (between words) and correct orthography.

Macrotypograpy looks at the big picture of communication such as line length, margins, line height (leading), balance of text and images, how to use white space, font sizing/weighting and the layout as such. That’s the classic description which again confines typography to text and some layout issues, but I would even go further.

Tschichold’s book also unfortunately forced people to falsely believe that sans serif fonts were the be-all and end-all to typefaces, but Tschichold corrected his mistake in later years
Jan Tschichold’s “Neue Typographie” was a translation of Bauhaus principles into typography2. The so-called “Swiss Typographic Style” is basically teaching Tschichold’s book. The new technology of the time paired with the new way of thinking freed typographers from the sole restriction to handling type only. Many typographers got involved in logotype design, signage and visual communication in general, which further deepened the studies of human recognition for that purpose.

Welcome to the 21st century

Typography in the age of the Web—an inherently interactive medium—must be more than that. Is has to be about how we interact with the web site/web page. The interaction with a print product was very limited, so that wasn’t necessarily a central requirement (if the paper was too thin e.g., turning pages was more difficult), but if a typographer wants to make the product of his work readable, or even pleasant he needs to take things like usability and user experience into account.

When a designer gets into motion design he/she needs to start thinking about time. About how things change over time, how the elements move and change appearance or colour, about transitions and timing of cuts. If we move from print media into Web and interactive media we have to start thinking about time as well. In regard to Websites part of this temporal aspect is usability and user experience. How does the reader spend his time, how does he/she interact with the Web site over time?

My belief is that user experience and usability should be part of any typographic education, because they are natural continuations of what typography has been all about anyway. And if typography is brain ergonomics, then time must be another element taken in to consideration.


from monologue to dialogue

  • April 23, 2010 @ 05:43

    I enjoyed your thoughts and agree with your points. However, I was hoping that you would give some concrete examples or case studies. I felt like when I finished reading that there was a carrot dangling in front of me that I barely saw was orange.

    What are some examples of “good typography” on the Web today that incorporates the idea of good usability and user experience?

  • April 23, 2010 @ 06:30

    I thought you are going to show examples but i like the way you pen typography into some sort of a concept.

  • April 23, 2010 @ 07:29

    It just arrange our way to catch user attention at first, isn’t it?

  • April 23, 2010 @ 08:30

    Thanks for the input. I was considering adding a few examples, but then I thought there are so many Web sites with articles like “50 good examples of Web typography” with a bunch of screenshots and no content otherwise, that I wanted to go the other way.

    I wanted to talk about the principles, the general instead of the all too concrete. For a concrete Article you might like my newest entry about Japanese typography. If you read German, that is ;-)

  • April 23, 2010 @ 15:10

    This is a great read! I like how you say “…it is more of a science than an art.“It is something that must be remembered. :)

  • November 22, 2010 @ 12:45

    This is a very insightful article. I really like the appeal that typography can give off and really want to start working with it more. Thanks for sharing.