Unlearned Typography


Allan Haley in Archive on January 18, 2010

If you think about it, the craft of typography is little more than the combination of three simple things: attention to detail, common sense and visual acuity. Sure, there are typographic rules and guidelines, but they are, for the most part, just based on what is sensible and pleasing to the eye. Learning to identify the parts of a character may increase a designer’s business vocabulary, and knowing the lineage of modern Garamond designs may aid in the choosing of a good modern revival of the face, but the real key to typographic success is basically just “sweating the details” and a simple coordination of mind and eye.

Take, for instance, the typographic rule of avoiding all cap headlines. It’s one of the first typographic rules on an educator’s hit lists. It’s also one of the first rules professional graphic designers break. The tenet about not setting all capitals, however, is really based on little more than simple logic. Capital letters take up more space than lowercase letters—up to 30% more space. Headlines, subheads and pull-quotes are about setting brief blocks of copy in a relatively small space. It’s only common sense to use the most space-efficient letters: lowercase. Sure, there’s all that stuff about how “word shapes” (made from ascending, descending and x-height lowercase letters) help us to read faster and that all capitals only create rectangles as visual identifiers, but just the fact that the little letters can pack more information than capitals into a given piece of design real estate, ought to be enough reason to rely on them.

Oh, it helps to know when to use an em-dash instead of an en-dash or that “smart quotes” are preferable to foot and inch marks, but so much of what it takes to create good typography is just paying attention to the type.

Points, picas, line spacing, and kerning are only the mechanics. Software applications are just tools. It takes common sense and a careful eye to create communication that is inviting, makes an impact, focuses attention, organizes information and creates a mood – ultimately giving life and personality to the printed word.

Allan Haley
Allan Haley is Director of Words & Letters at Monotype Imaging. Here he is responsible for strategic planning and creative implementation of just about everything related to typeface designs.

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