These were the first lines of an email I received earlier this week. For those of you who don’t know it, the abbreviation “Sra.” refers to “señora” which is the Spanish word for “Mrs.” I confess, the title sounds worse in Spanish than it does in English. My friend was being partly funny and partly serious when he sent me this email with an image he called his attempt to do typography. My friend had read my post two weeks ago titled “Well chosen words deserve well chosen letters….” Hype for Hope… and somehow it inspired him. His enthusiasm was contagious and I wished my students were that eager. I found it interesting that it moved him to go to the computer to type something up and send it to me. I admit I was conflicted about how to answer the email. Should I say “nice job” even though it was not up to par with regards to design standards or proper use or misuse of design principles? Should I say “well, it is ok but you can do better” even though he has no design education or background? Should I say “nice try” indicating that there was somehow a glimpse of understanding about size differences, placement, and meaning? But if I did say “nice try” should I offer explanations?” I agonized over this for a bit before I finally decided to simply say “nice try.”
Should I say “nice job” even though it was not up to par to design standards or proper use or misuse of design principles? Should I say “well, it is ok but you can do better” even though he has no design education or background?”
I chose to say “nice try” and leave it to him to interpret it. Maybe it was cowardly of me… maybe I should have said something more, offer some mini critique, indicate where the spacing was off, suggest another font…. No… I chose to say “nice try.” It was a good and polite way of saying ” I appreciate your efforts and good intentions… but there are years of learning and re-learning, rules, principles, theory, and practice embedded into what we designers do…” without all those words. Or was it? My friend, whom I have to credit with an incredible sense of humor simply replied a “That bad, huh?” with a smiley face. And then asked me what was the next thing he needed to learn.
Now, that made me pause even more… Where to start? What to tell to an eager young friend who would like to be able, as he puts it, to express himself visually? How to give a shortcut lesson to teach the basics of typography? Is there such a thing as “shortcut typography lessons?” During the ’90s, author Robin Williams wrote a series of books for non-designers where one could find easy to follow instructions to do pretty much any type treatment. The books are very good. I have several of them. They do help designer and non designer alike to figure things out, such as, how to mathematically work with justification so that one does not get rivers… or how to use em and en dashes (which I am guilty of forgetting), and many others.
….how does one learn typography indeed?
Is there such a thing as “shortcut typography lessons?”
But the typography my friend was trying to do was much more than typesetting an article. He was trying to communicate a feeling, a belief, an emotion… He was trying to use typography to convey meaning… and how do you shortcut teach that, or answer the question of how do I do the next one? So those questions kept me thinking about how does one learn typography indeed? What is the process that makes us be “good” at typography? What sort of things do we need to understand about typography that makes a designer able to create meaningful typographic design pieces? How do we know what words or letters to manipulate to convey meaning? Are there a series of steps, rules, procedures, or recipes to follow? Or is there a quick and easy formula? Or perhaps because we all have access to computers and a diverse collection of fonts we can just mix and match and voila´? I wish it was that easy….
Let’s consider typography’s most basic element: the letter.
I strongly believe that to do typography one has to learn to look at typography. But what exactly does one look at? Like any other discipline typography has elements, rules, variables, and principles. Through the manipulation of these we learn to look and do. Let’s consider typography’s most basic element: the letter. Letters are, for the most part based on geometric shapes: triangle, square, and circle. Sounds too simple? Consider this example from the book Typographic Design: Form and Communication, 3rd Edition by Rob Carter:
Rob Carter states the following:
Since the time of of the ancient Greeks, capital letterforms have consisted of simple geometric forms based on the square, circle, and triangle. The basic shape of each capital letter can be extracted from [the above structure.]”
While it is true that the basic letterform can be created based on the above structure, an alphabet based purely on it, will lack proper proportional and spatial nuances for legibility and readability. However, one can still appreciate the “basis” of each letterform to be geometric shapes. Letters that are composed of straight and diagonal lines can be considered to be based on a square or a rectangle. Take a look at this example:
You can see how some of them, like the M and the W for instance are almost creating a square shape. Other letters such as the E, H, and F for instance would take 2 smaller squares together creating more of a rectangular form. Some of these letters though are based on a triangle shape. Consider this example:
Even letters based on a square like the M and the W, one can see how the triangle is the basis of their form. Same is true for the letters A, V, N, Y, X, K, and 4. Now let’s consider other set of letters. The letters based on a circle.
These are what I call “sexy letters.” They curve, they move, the bend, they connect, they have a sensuality to them. It is no surprise that almost every student of typography is at one time or another enamored with the “S” for a while. I mean, there is a challenge to that letter. It feels as if we were watching a contortionist move their bodies in the space and how I still want to be able to capture that sensuality on paper!
Because even if letters are loosely based on geometric shapes, understanding geometry and how geometry exists in nature is a good place to start with the studies of typography. Our universe is composed of geometric lines and shapes. A circle exists in space and we can see it in the sun, the moon, a flower, etc. A square is often formed by bent branches between trees and simply by connecting four lines at 4 points. Kimberly Elam, head of the Department of Graphic Design and Interactive Communication at Ringling School of Art and Design states the following in her book The Geometry of Design:
….excellent conceptual ideas suffer during the process of realization, in large part because the designer did not understand the visual principles of geometric composition. These principles include an understanding of classic proportioning systems such as the golden section and root rectangles, as well as ratios and proportion, interrelationships of form, and regulating lines.”
Letters are to the typographer what a structure is to the architect. Letters are architecture. They are small creations that interact with full and “empty” spaces. Designers do not call empty the spaces between letters, we call them counter spaces, or negative space. The way a letter is designed within the parameters of its geometry, it what gives the letter personality and a voice. The treatment of a letter, the line quality, its height, its line thickness or thinness, its width and others determine what are the letters in a designed alphabet best suited for. Consider for example the letter “g.”
Every single one of these “g’s” are exactly the same point size (57 pts). Yet because of their proportions, width, height, thick and thin lines, counter space dimension, and others, they all look different point sizes. And this only one of the beauties of typography. As you look at each one of these “g’s” try to think about what sort of personality they invoke. Is one of them serious, giddy, silly, playful, etc? What sort of response do they evoke?
to do typography one has to learn to look at typography.
In conclusion, to do typography, one must look at typography. Its form, spaces, thick and thin lines, width, height, etc. One needs to observe the letter as one is observing a painting, a landscape, a musical staff, a beautiful architecture, etc. One must train the eye too to look at the letter’s geometry, its shape, how does it deviate from its shape or how does it conform itself to it. The curves, the straight lines, the diagonals, all of it tell a story. What is that story? And this is my dear friend, the next step in your exploration.