The power of typography as an illustrative tool is often overlooked, but the creative use of type can result in design that breaks new ground.

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The unconventional use of typography is a risky business. The line between an outlandish design masterpiece and an indecipherable, meaningless mess is desperately thin, and any designer trying to walk it puts their reputation on the block. 
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US designer David Carson once famously urged his fellow designers to: “Never mistake legibility for communication”. He certainly practised what he preached – Carson’s 1980s rock ’n’ roll magazine Ray Gun was an essay in incomprehension. 
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He once included a feature set entirely in dingbats. Yet the goals of most commercial clients could not be further removed from Carson’s creed. Illegibility is viewed as the enemy of a winning design – with conservatism being very much the watchword. 
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Deb Hall, associate professor of communication design at Skidmore College in New York State, says commercial pressures have hindered the development of type as a design tool. “One need only look at the type in design annuals and magazines to see that a historically strong commercial bias has inhibited typographic expression,” she says. 
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Manuel Krebs, co-founder of Zurich-based design agency Norm, says that the agency system isn’t conducive to experimentation in type. “It produces a lot of average work,” he says. 
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“There are too many people involved in the process, which doesn’t lend itself to work being exciting or radical. Often the designer is pushed to the back, so that all he or she gets to choose is which typeface and what colour.” 
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The creative and commercial risks involved in experimenting with type mean most designers play it safe. But Domenic Lippa, partner at top UK design agency Lippa Pearce believes creatives should try a bit harder to push the boundaries. 
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“There are subtle issues on the question of being adventurous with type,” he says. “I don’t sit down and decide I’m going to be more challenging. It depends on the brief. 
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“I try not to make a distinction between commercial and non-commercial work. My approach is to try to find a twist. I try to find a tension in the balance between type – this may be an issue of scale, colour, or layout.” 
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Krebs, too, believes experimentation is brief-sensitive. “If you work for the music industry there’s more chance you’re going to be pushing things further, because breaking the rules and being extreme is part of the job,” he says. 
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“If you work for insurance companies you can still do interesting design but it will be solid, not radical.” But even designers working in risk-friendly fields face barriers to experimentation. 
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“You really need to have a client that trusts you,” stresses Krebs. “The people who work for us know what kind of work it is we are doing.” 
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<h2>I shot the serif</h2> 
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