Developing a Right Feeling for Designing with Type
Thanks to Marco Dini for the Italian translation of this article.
Few things put as much combined fear and excitement into the heart of a designer than the prospect of a project requiring a new typeface. It’s exciting to be tackling something new. Yet the complexity of getting the right type for the design can be downright terrifying.
When talking with designers, it seems the fear often comes from their perception that working with type is complex. Type has a rich history that goes back centuries. At the same time, today’s designers have more choices, control, and flexibility than ever. With all that comes the worry that they’ll screw it up and everyone will notice.
Experienced designers seem to handle type intuitively. They know how to choose a great typeface for their latest design. They understand how to adjust the spacing to get the right balance and flow. They can compose a page to give it a distinct feel without distracting the user from taking in the words.
Yet, when you’re first designing with type, it can seem daunting. Unfortunately, the advice from experienced designers often isn’t helpful. “You’ll know you’ve got it when it feels right,” is a common mantra, which doesn’t really give guidance or direction to those just starting out.
The Role of Feeling in Creativity
When experienced designers tell you to trust your feelings, they aren’t being jerks. They are technically correct. What separates a pleasant design from an unpleasant design can’t be reduced to series of rules. It’s a feeling.
For example, when I recently asked type expert Tim Brown about rules for spacing characters, he said he thought there aren’t any rules. Instead, he told me “You have to marry this appropriate spacing feeling that you get from the typeface with the context of your project, the needs of the text that you’re setting like what sort of content is it, and also, the contexts that you care about that your work will be reviewed in.” He uses feeling to refine his design for the right type spacing.
There are lots of creative activities that are refined using feel as the guide. Master chefs combine ingredients, not in exact amounts, but because they have a feel for what will taste great together. Seasoned musicians can play the right notes at the right time for the right length, because they know what will sound right.
Interestingly, anyone can develop these feelings. It takes study and practice because it’s a learned skill. The experienced designers we talked to didn’t always know how to design with type. But how do you learn it?
Taking a Gestalt View of Designing with Type
When designing with type, the designer is manipulating dozens of attributes. They have to choose the typeface, decide on the spacing, figure out which weights they’ll use, pick the line width, and much, much more.
Each of the attributes, by itself, doesn’t have a right or wrong state. There is no type size, for example, that’s always wrong or always right, when you look at type size by itself.
It’s when type size is combined with other attributes that suddenly the type might seem too small or too big in the design. And we can make the type size attribute work again by adjusting the other attributes and leaving type size alone. Sometimes, when we’re focusing on a specific attribute, like type size, the best way to make it feel right is to tweak other attributes.
This effect is what Gestalt theorists call field theory. The field is the holistic view of the world, or in this case, the full design. In Gestalt theory, you get to the best outcomes by adjusting all the attributes in the field and not worrying about a single one.
This is why experienced designers are always talking about how the type feels on the page. It’s not that they want to seem mysterious. It’s that they are talking about the entire field—the holistic view of the design.
(Design history trivia: Rudolf Arnheim presented some basic Gestalt principles for design in the 1950s, which you’ll often see quoted as the entirety of Gestalt theory’s gift to design. Field theory, not often talked about by designer educators, predates that to the 1920s and explains this notion of designing for a holistic view. My recommendation: don’t limit yourself to Arnheim’s basic principles. There’s a lot more value here than just that.)
Three Magnifications of Working with Type
To think about type design holistically requires thinking on multiple levels. My conversations with Tim Brown led me to think of type design as working on three different magnifications.
If we zoom in to the highest magnification level, we’re working directly with the typeface. At this level, the attributes to play with are the form of the letters and words. We figure out the right typeface for the job, the individual weights, and the specific characters to use. We focus on the character kerning (the distance between each letter) and details like ligatures, discretionary ligatures, and small caps.
If we pull back the zoom to the medium magnification level, we’re now working with text blocks. In this level, we’re controlling the attributes around how the block of text looks, like the character size, line length, and line spacing. We’re looking at the balance between black and white space.
Zooming all the way out to the lowest magnification level, we’re now taking in the entire page composition. These attributes include hierarchy and contrast. We’re manipulating how the different text blocks interplay, using structures such as headings, body text, captions, and callouts. Our focus is on how people move through the text blocks and still achieve the purpose of the composition.
To develop our sense of the right feeling, we need to understand how we can manipulate the various attributes on each level. While we have to understand how each attribute works by itself, we need to learn how they also work together. We can see how changing one of the typeface-level attributes, say the typeface weight, affects not only the way the typeface feels, but also how the text blocks and composition change.
The sheer volume of attributes at each level, and the effects they have on the overall design, is what makes designing with type so intimidating. But we can learn how to make decisions that get us to delightful designs quickly.
Training our Feelings
To become great at designing with type, we have to train our feelings. This isn’t a conceptually difficult process, but it does take commitment and a decent amount of work.
The first step in designing for type is to study the subject. We start with reading everything we can find on the subject.
There are three books I really like on this subject right now. Ellen Lupton’s Thinking with Type is a beautiful book that introduces all the attributes in a lovely way. Robert Bringhurst’s The Elements of Typographic Style talks in depth on the interactions and interplay between the attributes, to make pleasant designs. Finally, Tim Brown introduced me to Stephen Coles’ The Anatomy of Type: A Graphic Guide to 100 Typefaces. This is a beautiful book that dives deep into what makes one typeface different from another.
Devouring these three books is a great start. But you’ll still need to see type in the real world.
Deconstruct Great (and not so Great) Designs
The second step is deconstructing the type you see in designs around you. What did the designer do? How do the attributes play with each other?
Tools like the WhatFont Chrome Extension help you look at the font on any web page. Using other tools, you can identify the CSS attributes that have been applied to the type.
Over time, you can see what designers have done and form your own opinion of what works and what doesn’t. Collect the examples of designs you like in a swipe file, and keep notes on the attributes that went into them.
But don’t stop there. Take the CSS and fonts and build your own pages to mimic what those designers have done. Then start mucking about with the attributes to see how the feel changes when you make small (and large) changes.
The trick is to explore what each attribute really does. Not just what the textbooks say it does, but how it plays with the design when you tweak it. Bouncing between a pleasant design and an unpleasant design, by slowing adjusting the variables can give you a real sense of how feel works.
Tim Brown has built a little playground for this. At the TypeKit Practice site, you can learn and play with type designs in a variety of lessons. (It’s great and it’s free!)
Immerse Yourself In Type Design Projects
The third step is to find every opportunity to immerse yourself in type design assignments. Get as many projects as you can. Nothing gets you fluent in a topic better than having to work with it almost every day.
Use the opportunity to explore. Give yourself extra time to come up with multiple variations on the design. Sit back and try to decide which ones you like better.
Ask others to read the text and tell you which was easier to read. Ask them what mood the design evokes. Ask them to try to tell you what they think is different about the designs.
Use their input to see if your impressions of the different variations match theirs. Over time, you’ll start to predict the answers you’ll get when you ask. Once you can do that, you’ll know you’re getting that feeling about what makes a good design.
Jan Tschichold, the great typographer, once said, “There are no born masters of typography.” Designing with type can be scary, but the fear dissipates when we have the confidence that comes from really learning the subject well. There are great resources out there for us to use. The best designers take the time to learn it.
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