Good type?

pat a.'s picture

I'm now into my second year of a visual communications degree, and a particular question (although probably a very old, tired one) has been eating away at me since day one. It is:

Does anyone outside of a relatively small (tiny, even) group: typographers, type/design students, type nuts, and so on, notice or care about good, mediocre, or even bad type?

Personally, I know that two or three years ago I never noticed smart quotes, I preferred Arial to Helvetica, and if anyone suggested the idea of an aesthetically pleasing rag to me, I would've laughed at them. Thoughts?

Isaac's picture

No one notices, at least not to the point that they know they notice. Things can be taken too far and perfected to please the in-crowd, but I think readability is mostly subliminal.

Just for example, a magazine I've seen for years did a slight redesign a few months back. There was just a little more leading in the body copy, same font, same point size. I noticed it because they had also changed the headline font and some rules along the sides of the body copy. I showed it to my wife and she said she had particularly enjoyed that issue and read it more thoroughly than usual, and felt it was easier reading somehow but couldn't put her finger on it. So small things can make a difference without being highly noticeable.

Here's a short answer: obviously no one cares as evidenced by the amount of comic sans being used anywhere and everywhere.

trae's picture

I agree. Most may not care/know what it is but they certainly notice something, be it readability or gimmickry.

And they're certainly intrigued enough with fonts. You don't have to look far to find fliers, etc. crammed with 15 different, cutesy display faces. "Oooh! I like that, that and that!"

The end result may be a trainwreck but it's obvious somebody must've noticed something or else the whole thing would've been set in Times.

Either way, once you become aware of good typography, there's no going back. Bad typography is as grating to the eye as mangled grammar is to the ear.

Isaac's picture

I guess I was wrong. The amount of Comic Sans, Beesknees, etc is an indication of some sort of interest/notice, accompanied by bad taste or lack of sophistication or whatever you want to call it.

matt_c's picture

people will notice if its wrong, but won't notice (or realise) when its right. :-)

p.s. have you read the crystal goblet by beatrice warde?

hrant's picture

I think it's useful to consider the "subliminal" value of quality in type (and everything else). Just because most people can't articulate (or even realize) what they're seeing doesn't mean it has no effect. The subconscious is under-represented in formal thought and communication (naturally), but some people think it guides our lives while the consciousness is just the ripples on the surface.


matt_c's picture

good point hrant!

Nick Shinn's picture

Whether the end-user notices or cares about typography, consciously or subconsciously, is only part of the story.

As with all specialisms, there's a complex social organism involved in producing typography, and whatever contribution anyone makes to it, anywhere, effects the synergy of the whole, making for a rich and complex culture. Quality is viral.

But really, one rationalization is enough: God is in the details.

xensen's picture

> Personally, I know that two or three years ago I never noticed smart quotes, I preferred Arial to Helvetica, and if anyone suggested the idea of an aesthetically pleasing rag to me, I would've laughed at them. Thoughts?

The essence of discrimination lies in education. Although a couple of years ago straight quotes wouldn't have bothered you, you would probably find them distracting today. Similarly, a copy editor soon becomes put off by previously unnoticed "mistakes" in using "which" and "that." To Westerners Chinese painting at first all looks alike, but one comes to recognize and appreciate Northern Song landscapes. Possible examples are endless.

With the scandalous decline in education in this country (the U.S.) any sort of discrimination on any subject (with the possible exception of pro wrestling) is less and less likely. But there will still be people who notice, and care.

kris's picture

Does anyone outside of a relatively small (tiny, even) group: typographers, type/design students, type nuts, and so on, notice or care about good, mediocre, or even bad type?

Type is funny. It is one of the things that essentially have to
embody form and function in order to be. It even performs
at it's worst - most typefaces/typography can usually be
understood when employed terribly. I really think that this
quote is suitable whenever this sort of question comes up:

"The graphic signs called letters are so completely blended with the stream of written thought that their presence therein is as unperceived as the ticking of a clock in the measurement of time. Only by an effort of attention does the layman discover that they exist at all. It comes to him as a surprise that these signs should be a matter of concern to any one of the crafts of men.

But to be concerned with the shapes of letters is to work in an ancient and fundamental material. The qualities of letter forms at their best are the qualities of a classic time: order, simplicity, grace. To try to learn and repeat their excellence is to put oneself under training in the most severe school of design."

hrant's picture

Kris, you just made me realize something else - pretty important: for a text face at least there's actually something wrong with too many people noticing details... Although I'm no fan of goblet toting, a text face has to work subliminally, not say: "Hey, look at me!"


Thomas Phinney's picture

Great quote, Kris. I'm stealing from it for my next couple of temporary taglines....


kentlew's picture

Interestingly, if you continue the WAD essay quoted by Kris, you'll find he goes on to say:

"By a remarkable paradox the one person who should not be called upon to perceive the fine qualities of the shapes of letters is the person who reads them. The person who reads printing should not be conscious that the page he reads is made up of letters. If any single character presents itself to his attention as a single character, the process of reading is disturbed.

"The kind of letter to which a reader is accustomed is the best kind of letter for the reader. But this fact must not be allowed to limit the effort of the designer toward better design. If the reader is used to bad design, he must be led to accustom himself to better design. It is at this point that the printer enters the equation.[*] However little attention the reader needs to pay to the design of letters, it is obviously most necessary that the person who makes printing should be able to criticise and assess the qualities of letter forms."

* Keep in mind that when this was written (1919), there wasn't yet a clearly distinct profession of "graphic designer" separate from the printer/compositor. In fact, it wasn't until a few years later that Dwiggins coined the term "graphic design".

-- K.

gerald_giampa's picture

Beatrice Warde,

There is the long, thin stem that obviates fingerprints on the bowl. Why? Because no cloud must come between your eyes and the fiery hearth of the liquid. Are not the margins on book pages similarly meant to obviate the necessity of fingering the type-pages?

Isaac's picture

Regardless of the use of the stem on a glass, it's old advice. No disrespect to Ms. Warde (I don't know anything about her), but somehow it seems that setting type or laying out a page according to rules / ideals from a century ago seems sort of stuck.

hrant's picture

Oh, she was wrong back then too.


rs_donsata's picture

What was she wrong on? Isn

hrant's picture

I don't think so, because the Crystal Goblet theory says that a text font can't express anything, while my view is that it expresses a lot, albeit mostly in the subconscious and not the consciousness. If you take the Crystal Goblet logic to its terminus, you have to conclude that we only need new text fonts to address [emergent] technical problems.


hrant's picture

Well, I guess in turn I could be misinterpreting Warde; but from what I gather the "must not" comes from the "cannot": the supposition is that a text font that tries to be expressive is no longer a text font. In the superficial, conscious meaning of "expressive" I might actually agree, but I can't be so dismissive of the receptiveness of the subconscious to visual stimuli. For example, I believe the shapes of the serifs in Charter versus Times make a difference in the mood they convey, but certainly Warde and company would consider both text faces. In truth, to me Times is actually less of a text face! But Warde (and maybe even Morison) could never see that.

Then there's the issue of whether a human being can totally avoid expressing himself - in whatever small way. Sure, formalizing the expression and making it explicit leads away from Craft and towards Art, but when the creator and the consumer of something are both human, how can expression not be an ingredient?


rs_donsata's picture

Well surely I agree that self expression can

cjg's picture

Pat, to add something to Kris and Hrant's earlier replies, I think not only does the average bear not notice the typography in a logo or product, but will deny that it's responsible for that good/bad change. I think you'll sooner get "No, the colour is slightly different" or "The type is the same, they're just using nicer paper" than "Yeah, they really messed up by leading this solid."

kris's picture

Crystal Goblet. I always understood this meaning that for clear communication when setting type, make sure that it is relevant to the intrinsic inner logic of the 'text'. I never understood it as meaning "plain = good", I just thought she was warning against making it stupid, like setting a verse of poetry in Sand. It is impossible to not not communicate, and I find that I agree with Hrant about the subtle mood that any type will convey, even if it is supposedly for "text". Maybe I misunderstood Mrs Warde!


pat a.'s picture

> It is impossible to not not communicate

I was scrolling down this page with these exact words bouncing around im my head. I only read Crystal Goblet just now, despite lecturers continually going on about it (the general idea of the text, although valid, always seemed sort of pompous to me). Coming from more of a fine arts than a technical background, I always feel a bit disappointed and cheated when people describe designers as just a conduit for others' information. Personally I think it's impossible for me to design something without some form of creative self-expression.

And I suppose since no-one ever really thinks about type, it's hard for someone out of the typographic loop to credit or blame type for a good or bad design.

hischier's picture

How analogous to this discussion is the choice of typeface etc in the opening titles of a film?

Miss Tiffany's picture

Don't forget Beatrice Warde's Crystal Goblet. I think it can apply to book typography and media-driven typography. We are partner's in communicating our client's message. The form the message takes should be invisible, or at least only subconsciously appealing and understood to the viewer/market, for that is all that matters (in the end).

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