Friday, June 4, 2010

Design Guy, Episode 40, Talking About Type: Let Your Voice Be Heard!

Talking About Type: Let Your Voice Be Heard!

Design Guy here, welcome to the show. This is the program that explores timeless principles of design and explains them simply.
And before we begin, I'd like to announce my sponsor for the coming episodes. Yes, I have a sponsor. And that's Mark Batty Publisher. Mark Batty is an independent publisher dedicated to making distinctive books on the visual art of communicating. Affordable, well designed, thoughtfully created, and produced to last, MBP books are artful products that readers want to hold onto forever.
A great example of their books, and one that ties in with this episode is the title, "Dot-Font - Talking About Fonts by John D. Berry. You may know Mr. Berry from his dot-font columns at, which is a site I've enjoyed for many years. Berry, who is both an editor and a designer, himself, talks critically and entertainingly about type designers, font technology, and how lettering and type are ubiquitous in our culture. I've got a copy in my hand right now - It's a beautiful, perfect bound edition, just filled with great visual examples. Again, that's Dot-Font - Talking about Fonts. You can pick it up at or, of course, at Amazon.
Well, we're talking about Type. Typography. And we kicked off the discussion last time with a refresher on the importance of Type as that central and defining element in graphic design. It's what distinguishes it from other arts because everything we do traces to a definite message. A typographic one.
And type is our primary artwork. Those letterforms are the clip art, so to speak, that we reach for above all else. And that's because these characters, these visual symbols, with which we encode our communications are evocative all by themselves. Designers often skip the other visuals, like photos and illustration, altogether, because Type, all by itself, has the power to produce images and emotions, even sound in the human mind.
R. Hunter Middleton, said:
"Typography is the voice of the printed page. But typography is meaningless until seen by the human eye, translated into sound by the human brain, heard by the human ear, comprehended as thought, and stored as memory." (unquote).
In the book, Environmental Interpretation, contributor Richard Dahn writes:
"In approaching typographic choices, it's helpful to keep in mind that typography has a "visual voice" that is dependent on the typeface chosen, its sizes and organization within (your) format, and the nature of the message. Emphatic messages such as EXTREME DANGER, KEEP OUT would demand the use of a heavy bold sans serif type, while a quote by Aldo Leopold might look better in a Roman serif set with generous line spacing. The visual impact on a sign can welcome the viewer to read and reinforce the meaning and sense of the message, or it can speak in such a dull and confused voice that the viewer will totally ignore the sign, or worse, misinterpret what is being said." (unquote)
And I'm going to keep rolling with one more quotation...
In Alex White's, The Elements of Graphic Design, he begins a chapter titled, "Listening to Type" with a word from El Lissitzky.
Lissitzky says, (quote) "Typographic arrangement should achieve for the reader what voice tone conveys for the listener." (unquote)
White furthers this by saying, "What do we mean by "listening to type"? Imagine listening to a book recorded on tape. The reader's voice changes with the story, helping the listener hear the various characters and emotion. A story told on paper should do the same thing. The "characters" that typographers work with are...headlines, subheads, captions, text, and so forth. These typographic characters are our players and must be matched for both individual clarity and overall unity."
(end of quotation)
Now, a few episodes back, I did what felt like kind of an offbeat, standalone episode called "All the World's a Stage for Designers" - but it plays perfectly to this point. And to quickly summarize some of that episode, all our elements, type included, are not just static things. They're not inert. You know, we tend to think of them that way sometimes. Like we've just got this pile. Just a pile of images and type and color and other stuff. But, like White said, these are our players, they're like actors on the stage. And the point is, is that each one is charged with personality and with power, and as they combine into this ensemble, if you will, we find that they're all very active, and that they all act upon each other. They all have a voice, and as a unified whole, they've got a collective voice that takes on an overall character.
So, this is a big picture thing to keep in mind always when you approach every project as a designer. You want to remind yourself that, in a way, you're speaking to someone with a voice. It's a different modality, a different medium through which we're speaking, it expresses itself first visually as we target the eye, and then the mind. But a voice is heard, nonetheless. We're just doing it through a special medium.
And on the receiving end, our audience infers a tone. Hopefully, it's a clear and consistent one because there are many factors at play in even the simpler compositions. And that's where studying up on the typographic rules and techniques comes in. We want to strive to be clear. We don't want to muddle the message. We don't want the equivalent of static or noise in our transmissions, if you will.
You know, even in our simplest text messages, we're intuitively sensitive to this. Email etiquette has warned us for years about sending people messages in all capital letters. They'll feel like we're shouting at them, just because we hit the CAPS LOCK key before we started typing. I know I re-read important emails before sending them, just to ensure there's no unintended tone of voice. Maybe you've had that experience - somebody thought you were angry based on an email you sent. And if the simplest examples of mere text are expressive, how much moreso our designed things?
When we put on our typographer's hat, and rev up all our machinery, and proceed to exploit all the tools, and settings, and make decisions about typefaces (each one a unique personality), how much more do we have control of that voice, down to the tiniest nuances, just as you would alter the pitch or modulation of your own speaking voice in the course of a delicate conversation.
But, finally, and before this all start to sound cautionary (which is not my intent) let me encourage you to embrace your work as a means of finding your voice. Of letting it be heard. Design is a means of your self-expression. Yes, we've got to maintain the integrity of someone's message, we don't handle it in a self-serving way, we're ultimately objectivists. But your unique stamp will be on your work because YOU are the first medium through which the message passes. And your clients will come to perceive your voice, that style, that authentic expression that IS your work, that is YOU. And they'll want more...of YOU.
So, again, do build your typographic messages with care. Learn the craft rules so that the voice of those elements are clear. But, in so doing, let your own voice be heard.
Well, that's it for today. Thanks for listening. Let me remind you that the transcript and the site where this podcast feed originates is found at Music is by Thanks again. Hope to have you back next time.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Design Guy, Episode 39, Talking About Type: An Introductory Word

Design Guy, Episode 39, Talking About Type: An Introductory Word

Design Guy here, welcome to the show. This is the program that explores timeless principles of design and explains them simply.

Today, we turn our attention to Type. That grand subject of design, of graphic design in particular. And we'll seek to just approach the topic. This topic is the Everest of Graphic Design, and from a Graphic Design perspective, this is where a show like this one really begins.

And that's because Typography is the heart and soul of graphic design. It's the bedrock. It's what makes graphic design what it is, and what separates it from other disciplines and arts.

In an early episode, we set down the distinction between graphic design and the fine arts in order to make this very point. And it bears repeating, because often we're not clear on the difference. The lines between the visual arts seem kind of blurry, we might think the difference is one of mere format or of the techniques and tools employed to create the work. And while there's some truth to this, the ultimate distinction has to do with the role and purpose of type in graphic design. A difference in our objectives in using type.

And what is that goal? Well, the goal is simply to communicate somebody's message. And while we might do it in an artful way, maybe an oblique or a slightly ambiguous way (perhaps to stimulate interest and attention and thought), ultimately, however, the message we're communicating is objective. There is a specific piece of communication intended, and, unlike the fine arts, where we're allowed to play in subjective spaces if we wish to, where beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and where meaning or message (if there's any intended) may be inferred in a purely personal way, that is not the case with graphic design.

Graphic Design is a form of art that is linked to an objective typographic message. And that's with the intent of communicating something very definite, and of your audience receiving it as it was intended. And if we think about it, it just can't be otherwise. When Apple runs ads about the iPhone, you can be certain that they'll consider those ads to have failed if somehow you thought they meant for you to buy an Android phone, instead. When the state park posts a sign that says that they're closed at dark, or that you need to curb your dog, that's not open to the whim of your own private interpretation. The intent and the meaning are objective. This is not a realm where you can conclude that 1 +1 = 3, just because it turns you on to think so. So, our success as graphic designers is that we convey a definite message. And our principle means of achieving that goal is to encode the message in type, to craft our communications with all those letterforms that are the stuff of word and thought and meaning.

Okay, so that's my preamble, and a bit of a repetition of points made before, so we'll move on and conclude for today with a couple of thoughts.

My goal in the coming episodes is simply to offer some help with type. And I hope I can do that. Clearly there are limitations to an audio format. So, we'll play to the strengths of it, and leave the heavy lifting to the excellent resources I can recommend in my show notes - books and webpages and such. (1)

To try to convey, say, the anatomy of type - ascenders and bowls and shoulders and stems - would waste your time in this medium - it's much more effective for you to look it up elsewhere. Instead, we'll talk "about" type. We'll take it from the big picture. How to think about it. How to approach it. How to better use it.

And, finally on a personal note (and I try not to make personal notes because the show is not about me), this episode comes after a very busy and disruptive year of change that forced a hiatus from the podcast. It was John Lennon who said, "Life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans." - and that kind of accounts for the gap. We can design our own lives only so far. But I'm at a place now where I think I can resume the project in a more regular way.

Along those lines, let me offer you some encouragement. If you're an artist or designer - ALL your experiences, all of life's excursions and detours, and exposures to various things, even those times of just burn out that take you away from your work for a time - all these things roll into the mix - they're all shaping influences that shape you and, ultimately, your work. I believe, for the better. And the best thing to do - is to just roll with it.

But we'll leave it there for today. To those of you who've stayed subscribed, glad to have you back. And if you're new to the podcast, I do hope you'll find some help here. Thanks for listening. And, until next time, this is Design Guy.


1. Some Excellent Books on Type: