The Art of Type

“Learn the rules first, then break them”

Those are some wise words from my typography prof at OCAD U.

I’m three weeks into my intro to typography course and so far I’ve really enjoyed it. I’m learning a lot and I am developing a much deeper appreciation for the communicative power of type. My understanding of type is a design system that has been created and developed over the span of years, decades and millenia for the purposes of conveying meaning and messages in some sort of organized manner. Type is also something I’ve always taken for granted having grown up with word processing programs and having the luxury of selecting from a vast list of typefaces at the single click of a mouse, from the Swiss-born “Helvetica” to the corporate standard, “Times New Roman”, to the seemingly nonsensical “Wingdings”.

On day one of class, we began learning about the contrasts of type. In no particular order (and extremely simplified here) are seven contrasts we learned about:

1. Size – Scale of type

2. Weight – Thickness of the letter forms

3. Form – Caps/lower case/italics

4. Structure – Typefaces (e.g., Helvetica, Arial, Futura)

5. Colour – Color of the type

6. Direction – Orientation of the type

7. Texture – Leading and spacing

For my first class assignment, my job was to demonstrate one of each of these rules, while keeping everything else constant. This was a much harder task for my classmates and I to complete because of our natural inclinations to creatively play with several elements at once. However, as I quoted my prof above, we were reminded to learn the rules first in order to break them. As a result, this assignment turned out to be a real test in using type alone to convey emotion and meaning.

And so, I practiced and came up with my final seven examples (above) using one of the more versatile typefaces, Helvetica. After a couple of class critiques, I hope the contrast behind each example is quite clear. The order goes: Color, texture, direction, size, weight, form & structure. The quote is from Col. Stefan J. Banach, a man who has brought design thinking to military strategy.

From this assignment though, one thing I have been reflecting on is the notion of “rules” in typography.

Having rules doesn’t necessarily seem to imply there is a “right or wrong” way of doing things, but more that there are principles behind the practice of design that have “worked” over centuries and are instructive to theory and practice. And importantly, these are rules that can be broken, and always are.

In health promotion, we don’t have “rules” per se…there are some guiding and unifying principles, but to me, it’s not as standard or clear. I would describe the rules of type I’ve learned about as “modifiers”, if you will — they are ways to shape the very essence of the design you’re working with through its literal and figurative meaning in order to better communicate with an audience. I found these rules rather instructive and thought about how these elements could be applied to the work I do as a community health promoter. My thinking: Perhaps there are elements which help create a unique aesthetic for each and every health promotion initiative we plan, create, and carry out. Here’s one way of looking at it (and for the purposes of this example, I use “program” to describe a general “design program” we may create for health promotion — an intervention, strategy, process, policy, engagement, etc.):

1. Size – The scale and reach of the program

2. Weight – The impact of the programming on participants and the greater community

3. Form – The activities that comprise the contents of the program

4. Structure – The type of program it is, be it an outreach program, educational workshops, etc.

5. Colour – The visibility of and levels of diversity represented in the program

6. Direction – The anticipated process and outcomes of the program, and the values and beliefs guiding it

7. Texture – The feel and visceral experience of the program as experienced by all involved and affected by the program

When framed this way, I actually find these design principles to be quite a helpful way of communicating a health promotion aesthetic that may not always be immediately visible or understandable in the work we do. In designing future health promotion initiatives, I will have to track my process and see if these principles fit or if there are any others to add to the mix…A good design challenge for myself moving forward.

And before I end off this post, I just wanted to include this gem that my prof showed us at the end of our first class to remind us not to take our typefaces too seriously: A video from College Humor called Type Conference

2 thoughts on “The Art of Type

  1. This is certainly a very interesting post, you know. Since I am not a designer of any kind and I pursue a aesthetics for my literature, although I am en Engineer, I have been always wondering what is the rational behind fonts and backgrounds. On my blog, I’ve changed the proportions trying to come across the best way to make a plausible reader be comfortable while reading it, now I wonder after your step-by-step exposition, how to chose the font according to the purpose of the message taking account the background around the font?

    All the best from Colombia!


    1. Hi Felipe,

      Thanks so much for sharing your reflections on the post!

      To me, typefaces help add personality to any text-based document a person is developing. I think that the contrasts of type are really helpful to keep in mind when communicating a message, but that it’s also important not to feel too overwhelmed by the many many choices one can make when it comes to type. Depending on what I’m working on, my choice font tends to be Helvetica — I find that this is a very readable typeface and has a more personable but professional feel to it. I also think that in my field (public health) all too often font isn’t a common consideration when creating word documents, and so the standard font tends to be Times New Roman. For that reason, I also like Helvetica because the conscious choice of using this font makes me feel like what I am producing is a bit more unique.

      Generally, my personal take on type is to choose something I’m comfortable with, can be read with ease, and conveys a professional but friendly tone. If I have titles or special text I want to highlight, I will often make an active decision to create a contrast with the words (bolding, italics, etc.).

      Hope that helps answer your question & thanks again!

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