Look around you – typography is everywhere. We take the pulse of the type design scene.
Design is about communication, and the written word – whether printed, hand-written or electronic – is a key part of this. Learning to work creatively and effectively with type is a crucial skill for graphic designers to master: while informed and imaginative font selection, placement and treatment can all work wonders in getting your message across, ill-considered use of type can drown out a message and damage the effectiveness of your design.
This power to either sink your design or make it sing gives typography an almost mythical status, where some typefaces are considered failsafe solutions that can be drawn on for every situation, while others are regarded as more or less untouchable.
This is why typography is more prone to shifting tastes and fickle fashions than any other facet of design – and the past year has been a case in point. Influences on type trends seem to have shifted recently.
Usually, if you ask designers about the current state of type, the picture is top-down: cult figures like David Carson, Jonathan Barnbrook and so on are held to be the biggest and most influential movers and shakers.
However, this time round, there seems to have been a change in perception of what is the biggest influence on type trends. Designers told Digital Arts that their key influences were the bottom-up variety – namely, design students.
“You tend to notice things that crop up a lot, which more often than not come from some profiled activity that gets hijacked by students then exhausted, like the recent vector aesthetic,” notes Trevor Johnson, creative director of Manchester design agency CreativeLynx, www.creativelynx.co.uk.
Johnson believes that in this way, niche and cult influences feed into the mainstream with each new wave of students. “With each shifting generation the previous urban street cultures then become mainstream – like the Banksy stencil thing.”
If there’s one man who knows more about design students than most it’s Phil Bains, professor of typography at St Martin’s College of Art and Design. He throws some light onto Johnson’s observations.
“Students today are very clued up on what’s going on around them, because they’re able to pick up influences from all over the world that when I was at college would take five years to filter through.”
To illustrate the point, Bains cites the 1980s work of US-based CAD design pioneer April Greiman: “Greiman’s influence took a long time to reach Britain, because the only way it could was through magazines like Creative Review.”
He says much of students’ interest in type today is sparked by music and fashion. “It’s a kind of recycling of interest. They seem to be interested in things that I find difficult to like – a lot of 1970s stuff seems to be popular again, stuff like Souvenir and that ITC American stuff.”
Johnson has helped package Manchester’s cultural activity for more than 30 years, covering everything from promotional design for the city’s legendary Haçienda nightclub to brand consultancy for Manchester United FC.
He’s seen types trends come and go, and believes students wield influence by dint of numbers rather than any prowess with typography. “The abundance of easily accessible alphabets can be confusing to younger designers, who lack an understanding of the fundamentals.”
But regardless of student-driven fads, he says some things will never change: “The necessity for versatile, good-looking stalwarts won’t really change, whether slab or sans serifs, and that’s why, for instance, Lubalin and Avant Garde have been popular again over the past few years.”
Back to basics
Naturally, there are many key influences aside from design students. Bains has noticed a surge of interest in hand-drawn type in advertising design, something he says that can be traced back to Jeff Fisher’s 1993 cover design for Louis de Bernière’s hit novel Captain Corelli’s Mandolin.
“For quite a while there was a real interest in hand-made type in book cover design, with pencil and pen replacing type, and there’s been a bit of a revival in this area. It now seems to have spilled over into mainstream design, in areas such as advertising. I believe it’s a reaction against the quality that you can get from the Mac now.
“Ten years ago we weren’t talking about quality, but rather, superficiality of finish. Now – particularly when it comes to type – it’s all about quality, particularly so since computer-to-plate.”
What about type trends online? It’s tricky, says US Web designer and author Jason Beaird. “Typography on the Web is a touchy issue for designers. For body text we’re limited to the small set of typefaces the majority of visitors have installed,” says Beaird, author of The Principles of Beautiful Web Design.
But he adds: “Over the past two to three years, though, the Web design community has come to the realization that there’s more to good typography than typefaces, and there’s been a lot of interest in vertical rhythm and grids.” Beaird says this can be credited to two Web designers – Mark Boulton, www.markboulton.co.uk and Khoi Vinh, subtraction.com, from the UK and US respectively.
“Grids of horizontal and vertical lines have been used to organize typographic content since the Middle Ages and have been a cornerstone of print design since the 1930s,” says Beaird. “On the Web, the use of grids has been fairly primitive but took off after Vinh and Boulton teamed up in 2007 to give presentations on the subject. Their work has directly inspired a growing number of recent Web site designs.”
The baby brother of online design – mobile device design – is a channel that rarely figures when it comes to examining prevailing type tastes. Long may this continue, argues Johnson. “The styling of type is about the appropriateness of the look to the message in its context. Some system fonts have been created for the sole purpose of versatility, and are designed to be competent across a broad range of communication channels.
"I have no problem with typefaces such as Arial and Georgia, for instance, because of the environment in which they are most often viewed. Legibility and navigation are paramount, and the best designs of messages are often the ones that work so well they go unnoticed.”
A less welcome trend, says Bains, is in the oft-neglected realm of signage. “The heritage lobby has affected signage for the worse,” complains Bains, co-author of Signs: Lettering in the Environment.
“You get those cast-iron heritage-style finger posts, on which the lettering is generally too small and badly spaced. It ticks boxes for councils and environmentalists but none as far as the sign is concerned.”
There are many rules governing the use of type, but Johnson dismisses them. “There are no rules of type as far as I’m concerned – as long as a message is communicated, anything goes.”
Instead, he says the focus should be about “weighing up the importance of the message in the design,” and therefore “the level of crafting of the type required”. He concludes: “As graphic designers, our job is to create and manage perception; the styling of type is about the appropriateness of the look to the message in its context.”
KINGPIN SKATEBOARDING EUROPA
Illustration and typography have been bedfellows since medieval times, when monks used ornate imagery and drop caps to startling effect. Art director Matt Ward www.linguistine.com is resurrecting this centuries-old tradition in the most contemporary way imaginable – by styling a skateboarding magazine.
Ward has a BA and MA in illustration, and increasingly concentrated on type-based work as his studies progressed. This has given him the background to create one of the most distinctive newsstand magazines anywhere.
Ward, a keen skateboarder, came up with the idea for Kingpin Skateboarding Europa magazine five years ago, and began as the title’s designer. Today, the publication carries hand-drawn feature headers that are each unique composite illustrations.
Ward explains his creative process: “I do loads of hand-drawn stuff for each issue, and it’s quite time consuming. I try to work the illustration into the type. I use three or four different fonts and cut them up or tear them up, then draw or paint over them. I use a pencil, quite a bit of tracing, and we have a colour copier. I find you can get a bit more out of serif typefaces because you can extend the serifs when you’re drawing, and this gives it a different flavour.
“When I’m done I’ll put tape over it all and scan it in. He continues: “I try to get the whole magazine laid out first, with photos and copy, and only then do I start putting the headlines in. This means I can spend two days working up headlines.”
The only section to feature Ward’s hand-drawn heads is interviews. Others, such as news and products, are set using fonts from the Century typeface. “I try to have balance in each magazine,” he says. “If it was all hand done then it might look a bit messy.”
Ward also promotes consistency by referencing Century in other ways. “I base a lot of the hand-drawn type on Century and one or two other fonts because they’re the sort of fonts that don’t date too much. I’ve found on other magazines we were using contemporary fonts that always seemed to age quite badly.”
But Ward admits he has “a real problem with repetition”, which means he likes to mix things up. “I steal from old books that use old typefaces and throw in odd words made of block type, and might use a bit of black letter from time to time, as it’s a bit edgy and is great when you trace round it."
The downside to Ward’s approach to typography is the onerous demands it makes of his time and creativity. “It’s really difficult if I’m not feeling creative, because I’ve still got to get the magazine done, and I’m now committed to that look.”
It wasn’t always like this for Ward. When he began on the magazine he admits he was “really into white space and clean design, but the editor had a real problem with that”. Ward was forced to conjure a design that would please both parties – so began using paint to create backgrounds instead of solid colours.
This fed into his approach today. “Everyone seems to love the magazine,” he says. “There’s some good skateboard magazines but their approach is all photography and white space. My approach gives us a unique voice.”
Not one to stand still, Ward is currently contemplating an ‘antidesign’ issue – “something that uses stuff like Comic Sans and looks like it was done in Word”. His logic? “It would stop people in their tracks a bit and I think it could be quite interesting. It would be a shock tactic.”
Web designer Jason Beaird is author of the The Principles of Beautiful Web Design, and there are few people who appreciate the rules, laws and technologies governing the use of type online.
Beaird says the dos and don’ts of typography in print and online are similar, but that there are distinct and common ‘type crimes’ for each discipline.
“On the Web, the things that tend to get overlooked are details like avoiding justified text in tight quarters [because this demands constant hyphenation], preventing widowed words at the ends of paragraphs and the use of proper HTML-encoded punctuation.”
“The creation of the individual pages of an AJAX-driven application is often left up to programmers with little or no design background.”
In order to stay ahead of the game, designers now need to learn more about front-end programming and programmers need to understand basic graphic design principles.
But he says the biggest problem for online designers is accepting the fact that design decisions will not look the same to all people. “We do our best to make a site look the same across all browsers and devices, but some inconsistency is inevitable. Unlike with print design, we have to consider what our work will look like to all people. It keeps things interesting, but sometimes makes me want to pull my hair out.”
Type online: grid-based layout
When it comes to laying out copy online, Web designers have never enjoyed the same flexiblity as those working in print, because the two mediums are governed by utterly different sets of typographical rules – until now, that is.
A design revolution is afoot, one that challenges this received wisdom by basing Web design on the principles of design for print. It means we are now beginning to see Web sites that feature text ranged across proportional widths, and image placement that ushers the eye through content that’s marooned in white space – something formerly that was the preserve of glossy fashion and art magazines.
The person responsible for this revolution is Khoi Vinh, design director of the New York Times Web site. A year ago, Vinh began thinking about defining his approach to Web design – with the typographic grid as his primary layout tool.
Khoi’s contention is that what has been good enough for print designers for more than 100 years should be good enough for contemporary Web designers.
“Design in the digital world demands giving up control, but traditional graphic design has always been motivated by control. Grids are a design tool intended to enable control,” explains Khoi.
“The grid is the most vivid manifestation of the will to order in graphic design,” he continues. “The golden section is the groundwork for a grid. There is a strong overlap between what motivated grid usage nearly a century ago and what motivates grid usage today.”
Khoi says that grids not only “derive beauty from the innate qualities of the browser” but have the added benefit of championing standardization.
Khoi has set the Web design world ablaze with discussions of how to best deploy the typographical grid, and much of this debate is based on real-world designs crafted by a burgeoning mass of grid evangelists.
Typical of the debate he’s kick-started are the entries and responses on Khoi’s own blog tinyurl.com/295vj2.
The story of how Khoi first launched into the subject of online grids goes back to the Future of Web Apps conference in London in February 2007, where he presented a grids workshop.
Khoi wanted to conceive a way to visually represent the problem-solving processes he goes through when designing new interfaces with grid layouts, and hit upon the idea of a hypothetical redesign of an existing Web site – “an approach that allowed me to tackle a set of real-world design problems that would be familiar to lots of users”.
Khoi’s design for his fictional Yeeaahh site is based on “a well-known search engine” (Khoi prefers not to be explicit about which, for legal reasons – but there’s no cigar for guessing). He chose this site “because it has an ideal blend of information design problems: robust navigation, multiple content types, consumer branding, a mix of editorial and marketing contents”, and set about reconstituting its content into a new, grid-based layout.
Khoi explains: “The idea wasn’t so much to improve upon the originals, as it was to use the redesigns as a vehicle for illustrating the various methods and principles I use in grid layouts.”
But Khoi is quick is dismiss grids as some kind of Web design panacea. “Grid-based layout is not a replacement for educated guesswork, best practices research, instinctual creativity and testing, testing and more testing. “
April Grieman was among the first graphic designers to embrace computer design, and she’s widely credited with championing the New Wave aesthetic in the US.
“In a way, the headers are composite illustrations, and I treat the magazine as my portfolio of work, and try and push the style as much as I can,” says Matt Ward. “I even get the odd illustrator sending work in, saying how much they like it.”
The current interest in hand-drawn lettering is reflected in the books like Hand Job: A Catalog of Type, by Michael Perry, which collects work from 50 of today’s most talented typographers who draw by hand. Below: Jason Beaird’s The Principles of Beautiful Web Design.
Trevor Johnson’s work for Manchester-based creative consultancy CreativeLynx includes these logo designs.
Templated CSS grids based on Khoi Vinh’s typographical grids are available for download (www.blueprintcss.org), and are gaining in popularity among Web designers.
Illustration Craig Ward