The Art of Typography

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Excellent examples of typography as art can generally be found to collect themselves in one of two different groups. One of these groups is driven by the need for the typographic treatment to be first and foremost unique, of strong personality and visually attention grabbing. We primarily find examples of this in advertisements, posters and logos . A second grouping contains typographic treatments where the primary objective is readability. Books are by far the single most predominant example where this is the case. In this group, visual dynamics are secondary and personality is subdued by comparison with the examples found in the first group. For the purposes of this ramble, I am referring to typographic art where classic readability is the main goal.

The art of handling and presenting text is not unlike the art of anything else. It’s degree of quality is greatly influenced by the attention which subtlety and nuance are addressed. For example, the shading in a pencil drawing is more dramatic when the artist has refined all the many degrees of darkness that are possible between the darkest dark and the lightest light. A meal is typically more appetizing when the chef has used just the right amount and combination of spices to bring out the flavor. A speech is delivered more effectively when the speaker has taken the time to choose her words with extra care and delivers it with equal attention to the speed, pauses and inflection of voice. Typography reaches the level of art when this kind of attention is paid to the mechanics as well as the countless separate choices that must be made as the typographic layout/composition is visually developed.

This is different from, but certainly influenced by the need for learning the craft, the how-to of software programs, rules of typography and matching medium to message. The main difference I am referring to here is about nuance in the application of those mechanics. It is learned first primarily by seeing  the effects of other designer’s use of typography with this kind of approach—a light hand, so to speak.

This observational skill is essential in all the arts but especially difficult when talking about typography. The main problem is that there is a huge proliferation of bad typography out there. So, just looking at printed or published material will not necessarily be helpful. You have to “look with intent”. Actively look for the differences that occur when leading is slightly opened up, or small caps are used, or how two typefaces are mixed. Look at the effects of emphases, similarity grouping and visual hierarchy. It is the holistic, comprehensive sum of the effect that all of these variables (and more) have on the end result. Simply, using the correct dashes alone will not do it. However, not using the correct dashes will certainly mark the work as that of a novice. Using correct dashes that are properly kerned begins the process of making typographic art.