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Words From the Wise Guy: Why 2017 Needs to Be All About Type


Editor’s Note: This piece is a complement to PRINT’s Regional Design Awards issue, which hits newsstands Jan. 10, 2017.

heller2017This year’s election absurdity notwithstanding, 2016 has been an incredible year for visual culture, as were 2015, 2014 and all the years before. When we discuss design in a graphic design annual like PRINT’s RDA, every year is required to be great because it is the job of an annual to celebrate the greatness of design. This year’s RDA is no different—it contains an increasingly larger proportion of smartly executed conceptual work from all corners of the North American continent (and New York). I have come not to praise the Caesars among this auspicious design empire, but to suggest what might be improved upon or at least seriously considered.

Namely: In the mad dash to fill up hand-held screens with cascading content, the “mobile-first” mentality that has impacted a large swath of contemporary design and designers, TYPE is more important than ever—but has never been less understood.

Before the necessities of responsive design, owing to the multiplicity of digital platforms, typographic rules were easily taught and religiously followed. Since there has been an upsurge in typographic pyrotechnics, expressive type/illustration compositions and metaphoric lettering, it could be argued that basic Type I and Type II standards have become much less a factor in design education at both undergrad and graduate levels—or at least they are taught in a perfunctory manner. Therefore, unless, say, junior designers without type experience are supervised by formally educated type users, composition nuances will be lost to an entire generation. I’ve seen brilliant conceptual ideas go down in flames owing not just to poor type-spec choices, but ridiculous leading, spacing and kerning.

There are examples in PRINT’s annual where outcomes are marred by seemingly minor typographic mistakes. I call these blemishes Type Acne—when an otherwise handsome or beautiful face is made imperfect by disturbing eruptions of mishandled design.

Talk to anyone who teaches type, typeface design, typography and even lettering, and you’ll find confirmation that contradictions in typographic literacy are on the rise. Students, young designers and even some older ones (without the rigor) are great at big ideas but lack the precision to effectively translate them into print or on screen. The problem is reminiscent of the 1980s, when some designers used ITC Garamond instead of cleaner cuts of the typeface. The ITC phototype version looked smushed and fatter than the other versions, which caused a huge brouhaha among the camps on aesthetic and commercial grounds.

As it happened, I was in the ITC camp. The reason was simple: The face was being highly promoted and I was weaned on ITC faces, so I just assumed it would be a splendid version. Moreover, my typographic education was nonexistent—self-generated. Like computer type today, phototype was fairly easy and cheap, and I graduated from the use-what-you-have-and-make-it-fit school of design. It wasn’t until a year later that I realized the error of my ways. But it was too late, for the work that I produced still looked like garbage. Had someone guided me, I might have learned not just that it was the wrong typeface, but my leading and column widths were too wide, which accentuated the imperfections of the Garamond. I admit, my typographic skills never got better (that’s why I’m a writer and not a designer today). But I learned to at least discern good from bad and exquisite from mediocre.

What I discern today is that whereas in the past (and with some in the present) type was the nectar of the gods, today the focus is on making typography that looks good rather than is good. What does that mean, exactly?

A designer can now test-drive a typeface that has character and personality but doesn’t necessary function well under real road conditions. For instance, when I recently asked a student why she used a particular pair of mismatched typefaces for a poster, the answer was because it “kind of felt right on the screen.” When pressed on why the decision was really made, it turned out that the faces stood out on the type menu. Although an extreme case of poor judgment, it is also a common trope. Trying to squeeze the wrong type into a design is like strapping on shoes that are too tight—it’s painful. And when the overall design concept is fantastic, it’s more than just painful: It’s criminal.

Typographic crimes and misdemeanors can, must and will be avoided with years of intense study. There are very few natural-born typographers or typographic prodigies. Type takes teaching, learning and practice. For some neurological reasons, some people will never be great type users, but for many—perhaps most—type basics are learnable and excellence is achievable with the proper knowledge.

So, now that 2016 is recorded for future generations, next year should be considered the year of type intelligence. As Paul Rand once said, learn more about what you’re doing with type: “It will make you much happier.”


This post, by Steven Heller originally appeared in Print.

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