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: