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Narrowing the Field: How To Bring Great Type Into Focus

on Friday 3rd of May 2013

Not everyone finds choosing type easy. In fact, it can be downright tough at times. Today, Robbie Manson (designer and all around good bloke) shares what works for him.

In John Carpenter’s 1988 science-fiction-weirdo-horror flick They Live, Nada—a drifter played by the inimitable “Rowdy” Roddy Piper—finds an unassuming box of sunglasses in an abandoned church. But looking through the sunglasses opens Nada’s eyes to a different kind of world: one where the human population is, in fact, being controlled by aliens, and the previously prosaic billboards around him are revealed to contain hidden commands of subservience and conformity.

When I began pursuing an interest in typography a number of years ago, it felt a little like I’d put Nada’s sunglasses on. My perspective changed, and I began to find typographic treasures among the most unremarkable of objects.

Still from John Carpenter's 1988 film 'They Live'

Suddenly the world looks very different
They Live, © 1988 Universal Studios

Finding the right typefaces for your projects can be tough, especially if you’re new to the field, but asking the right questions and opening your eyes to the type around you will help instill confidence in your choices. Here’s my approach.

Decide what you’re looking for, and what you’re not

Choosing type is an exercise in understanding your subject and interpreting its meaning in a visual form. To paraphrase Robert Bringhurst: typography exists to honor the subject. Arriving at an appropriate choice depends on balancing how a typeface feels with how it functions.

How it feels

What am I trying to reveal about the text or subject with my choice of typeface? Conversely, do I want to deliberately juxtapose meaning and visual form in order to achieve a particular effect? If I’m setting type for an article, I’ll read that article to understand its angle and the intentions of its author. If I’m looking for a typeface on which to base a logotype, I might start by discovering the principles that the individual or organisation holds itself to and use them as a basis for my choice.

If this project were a person, how would I describe them?

I’ll also note down a few adjectives to represent the characteristics my typeface should embody: for example charmingforthrightedgy. Often I’ll write a small user story-style description to illustrate how the adjectives are individually balanced.

Personifying seemingly abstract letterforms might feel strange at first, and you can’t guarantee that a typeface you perceive as charming, resolute or shrewd will be perceived the same way by others. But I find it to be a valuable exercise that triggers deeper thought about the validity of my creative direction and forces me to consider why I’m opting for a particular feel at all. Those adjectives become my guide – a small map to orientate me on my search – and force me to think twice before reaching for an old favorite or my latest shiny, new find. (Check out my other post to see how this helped me recently.)

Still from John Carpenter's 1988 film 'They Live'

Dig that alien typography
They Live, © 1988 Universal Studios

How it functions

A typeface that aligns well with a project’s values is useless if it can’t perform its intended function. So, what practical applications must the typeface fulfill, and in which contexts will it be used? Is this for longform content in a book or on a website, or headings on a poster? Does it need to support multiple languages, have OpenType features, old-style numerals or other advanced features that only a large character set can provide? Is it available in enough formats to cover the different media in which it’ll eventually be used?

If I’m setting a five letter logotype and the typeface will never be used again, I might be able to get away with a smaller character set or relatively poor kerning because I can work manually with the characters with such little text. But I’m not going to set a book in a face that hasn’t already proven it can excel in demanding conditions.

Consider classification

Should I look for a serif, sans serif, slab serif, script, ornamented, blackletter or calligraphic typeface? How will choosing one over another influence the interpretation of the subject, or the experience of reading the piece? How is the utility of the typeface affected by the characteristics of its classification?

When it comes to sub-classes, I tend not to limit my options by being too strict unless what I’m setting is very specifically linked to the period that particular sub-class first appeared. Typedia has a helpful list of classifications and sub-classifications.

Analyse anatomy

If you haven’t already, print out a type anatomy diagram and stick it on your wall.

Type anatomy poster

Ligature, Loop & Stem’s type anatomy print, at home in our FreeAgent digs.

Knowing the anatomy of letterforms lets you ask how properties like stroke contrast, axis angle, x-height, aperture size, ascender and descender length, terminal size and calligraphic origin all affect the feel of a typeface. Knowing what affects the feel makes it easier to pinpoint why a particular face isn’t working.

Mechanical features and historical period are typically both important areas for consideration, too. For instance,will you want or need fractions, proportional numbers, discretionary ligatures or language support, and does the typeface offer these? Or, can the period from which the typeface originates – or takes influence from – be used to enhance meaning, or juxtapose it?

Become a collector

If you don’t already have a scrapbook of design inspiration, start one now. Keeping a diverse collection of type examples prevents reactionary choices and gives you a broader palette to base your decisions on. It’s not important that you know why or when you’ll use a particular typeface — only whether it resonates with you. If it does, grab it and tag it.

Robbie's type collection

A peek at my personal type collection.

I’ve collected a lot of type examples over the years: handpainted shopfront lettering, old vehicle livery, rusty medicine tins, mid-century jazz record sleeves, B-movie title lettering, vintage car chromeography, street signage and even a few web fonts (crazy, right?). Immersing yourself in a broad range of type provides insight into how faces function in a range of contexts and how those contexts affect how they feel.

Of course, none of this is to say that there aren’t great places to find type online. It’s never been easier to dive so vertically into a particular style, classification or application. It’s incredible just how many genuine goldmines there are for browsing, filtering and creating lists to help narrow the field quicker. Here are a few I recommend:

Don’t just see it. Set it.

It’s easy to get caught up in the technical aspects of typography. But the truth is that choosing type is never a wholly rational, calculating exercise. Theory and principles are invaluable foundations, but becoming truly good depends on developing good instincts through practice.

If I want to figure out roughly how a typeface feels in short form, I find setting the word ‘hamburgevans’ a quick measure. These twelve letterforms can be repurposed to form the remainder of the alphabet and are often the first a type designer will create when beginning a new face.

For a quick test of a typeface's letterforms, try 'hamburgevans'

Print outs help me evaluate my options and start the elimination process.

I usually print out my options and stick them on the wall to critique and whittle them down to the best two or three. Then I repeat the process, sometimes converting the fonts into vectors if I want to modify specific features before coming to a final decision.
Typography is subjective. It walks a fine line between art and science, and it’s up to you whether you follow or ignore best practices. There are never rules, only guidelines. Hopefully I’ve encouraged you to examine the nature of your projects a little differently, in order to help bring the right type into sharper focus.

For an example of how this approach plays out on an actual design project, mosey on over to my other post – Show & Tell: A Practical Look at Choosing Type.

A big thank you to our guest author Robbie Manson for writing today’s post. For more from him, check out his work and other articles, talks and tweets.

Guest authors are paid for their contribution, and all opinions are their own. If you’d like to write for the Typecast blog, get in touch with shelly dot wilson at typecast dot com

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