Practical Advice on Type

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we often hear “designers” making fun of the classic typefaces. fonts (as they are mostly known as now) such as Comic Sans, Tekton, University Roman, Frankfurter, Souvenir, Bank Gothic and even good old Helvetica are the things we’ve grown to loath. thing is a just having your way with a font does not you a designer. it’s so much more than just a pretty face.

how you use type is what makes your presentation, report, brochure and even your website stand out. the “computer” is not a designer all by itself it has grown into a tool that is very good at type. but as good as it can be it’s normally setup to mimic a typewriter very, very well. and this the first thing you have to get over.

when I taught at the Academy of Art I had to make rules about fonts. I had to forbid use of certain typefaces. it was intended to make projects look better. to force the idea that you should think about type in your movie. fonts by name displayed in their face. Chicago and Geneva where on the list. these were System fonts and had no business being used in production art. the exception to this was if you were using the typeface in the context of how it would really be used. thus if you designed around the pixel blocks of Chicago it could look really good. but I also banned a lot of common fonts that you’d find in everyday use like Courier and Times. I even banned Helvetica. again the thought was to force somebody to make it look better and make them consider something else besides the safe.

in the podcast I told a story about how my friend Brad had paid a designer friend of his to teach him to use three fonts. and how it paid off. everything Brad did look like it was designed. not because he was a designer but because he followed the rules that his designer had set up for him. the problem was that it looked like Brad. you could tell that he made it as it always looked that way. my friend Paul does stuff that looks like Paul. which is no coincidence because Paul incidentally met Brad who told Paul the theory of three fonts and Paul adopted it from Brad. and it didn’t matter if it was print, video or motion graphics both made things distinct and identifiable to them.

the push back from the art students was they didn’t like my rules. that they wanted to be lazy and not have to manage fonts. they didn’t want to have to install fonts each time they use a different lab machine. I might have changed my rules to allow Helvetica at some point just because I couldn’t take the whining. but that came with rules like kerning, tracking, size and weight. and surprise, they didn’t like that either. why? the multi-media track didn’t have a class on typography and they we’re allowed to take the classes offered to the designers. it was a generally refusal to learn type because it wasn’t offered. it was really odd.

nothing says “I don’t care at all about typography than using normal quotation marks.” those two “marks” next to the Return key (that’s the Enter key for most of you) are a left over from the days of typewriters. the “proper” quote marks can can be made for you automatically or by typing Option-“ and Shift-Option-” on your Mac (you’ll need to look it up on the other platforms kids). any doing that every single time is just a pain. so if the quotes make you lose your mind turn on Smart Quotes in your favorite werp.

there are a whole bunch of other practical rules for “doing type”. all of this is covered in a book called Mac is not a Typewriter written by the non-comedian Robin Williams. the book is old, but then so is type. get a copy if you don’t have this already. after you learn what there is to learn pass it on to the next type nerd to be. if you don’t want to shell for the dead tree book here’s the rules in a nutshell. don’t worry, this stuff is from memory not from the copy/paste. it’s rules we use every day:

    1. no double space after punctuation. period.
    2. use … for … use — for — use © instead of (c) meaning use the typography don’t make it.
    3. ruler for indention and paragraph formating. 
    4. space in both vertical and horizontal
    5. alignment
    6. kern
    7. italics
    8. better “quote marks”
    9. ding bats and other stuff
    10. style sheets and presets for formatting

lots of people have asked what we’ve done to learn type. one very simple thing to do is “use one font”. just one. okay you can use it’s whole family. but that’s it. use it big and small. use it every day for everything. this will help you very much know everything that it can do. but don’t stay this way forever.

usually when people do this experiment they choose HELVETICA. nothing says 19050’s Eurostyle like this typeface. and it should. it is the face of hundreds of company logos, it’s in the entrance to the New York subway, it’s every where. what is it about helvetica that gets everyone all gooey? sometimes there is no better typeface for the job. it’s bold, daring, simple and elegant. it doesn’t have any bad habits. and it’s often described as boring. somebody even made a movie about it ironically called Helvetica the Movie. it’s doubtful that Comic Sans would have made such and an engaging and interesting movie about a typeface the way that Helvetica did. if you check it out here’s the best part: when they go to the basement the old guy proudly says, “this is where Helvetica lives…” awesome.

another way to learn type is to open Notepad or your werp. next type your initials in lowercase and UPPERCASE and change the size to 72. now change the font. and keep doing it for everything installed. make notes of what you like. it’s the same thing that you have to do with learning about the 167 movie transitions. if you don’t see every one of them you won’t know what they do.

I have to some rules about type that I’d like to pass on to the class:

    don’t use fonts designed for screen display for print. these include names like Geneva, Monaco, Chicago. while they look unique they weren’t made to be used in a book. but worse is they will “date” your material. just look at the INXS album. yeah, there’s Chicago on that spine.

    don’t use type that everyone else uses. there are thousands of fonts ready to be your day to day. automatically picking Times or Courier is just being lazy.

    Kern your letter pairs. the other thing that screams I don’t care about typography is not kerned type.

    really big type looks cool but does it have to be so big?

    mind your negative and white space.

    don’t forget to speel check your work.

other Links:
Non-Designer’s Design Book, The (3rd Edition)

the 10 20 30 rule

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11 Replies

  • I just bought a used copy of “The PC is not a typewriter” for $0.99 + $3.99 for shipping so it’s not that expensive. I’ll have to get the other book later. I’ve already spent way too much money this month.

    Is there a way to know if a font is a screen font without Googleing 100’s of font names?

    • screen fonts have gone the way of the dodo. there isn’t much danger in “accidently using something” what will render badly as it got larger. which was the problem back in the day. anytime there was jaggy type it meant that you used a bitmap only typeface. the problem of today is that the new screen fonts are those of the web. it’s fonts like Arial and New Time Roman that you have to watch out for to avoid looking generic looking. hatred of Arial isn’t so much because it’s a cheap copy of Helvetica but that it is the root of boring design. which is why most “designers” will avoid it.

      one good rule to follow is one that goes back to the origins of Mac. any font that was named after a city was a bit mapped only font. you could make the size larger than 36 point to see it start to pixel out. today doing a get info on a font will tell you the details as to it’s type: ttf, type 1, type 3, opentype, mutlimaster or clear type.

      a very quick way to know what “screen fonts” are to avoid is to look inside all three /Library/Fonts folders. while this isn’t a total rule of thumb it will give you a good idea of what the “system” is using to draw UI elements.

  • You guys seemed to single out XP for not having Helvetica when even Windows 7 doesn’t have it either.

    My new favorite fonts are the Segoe fonts that Microsoft includes in Windows Vista and 7.

  • true that. sorry about leaving that fact out. historically the lack of Helvetica on Windows Anything has been a problem from web development to Word docs to PowerPoint to PDFs. especially when working with clients who don’t have any of the fonts installed that we work with everyday. at some point you just give up and do design with the known fonts on XP.

    Segoe looks very nice. although I would consider this to be in that “gray area” of “use this at your own peril” due to the fact that Microsoft describes it as “a corporate branding identity font.” when you do commercial work it’s required to read the license agreement for the typeface. sometimes you simply cannot use something because of that doc. I’m not saying “don’t use it” just be mindful of what you use it for.

  • Would that be in the license agreement for Windows? I thought all the fonts that come with the OS (and Office too for that matter) are licensed for use in anything.

  • there’s a EULA for this font specifically for the version of TT and Postscript that I found as a download (provided to vendors working with MS). here’s the line.

    1. GRANT OF LICENSE. Provided that you comply with all terms and conditions of this EULA, Microsoft grants you a personal, nonexclusive, non-transferable, royalty-free license to install and use the Software solely for the purpose of creating materials requested by Microsoft and in accordance with the specification(s) provide to you by Microsoft. By way of example only, such materials may include printed material (such as advertising, packaging, promotional material, and manuals), form material (such as templates and style sheets), online graphic material (such as bitmapped text, bitmapped logos and Macromedia Flash animations), and broadcast material (such as television advertising).

  • After looking at the Windows EULA the only thing it says about fonts is

    Font Components. While the software is running, you may use its fonts to display and print content. You may only
    · embed fonts in content as permitted by the embedding restrictions in the fonts; and
    · temporarily download them to a printer or other output device to print content.

    So I’m going to assume that I can use all the fonts that come with Windows on anything I do.

  • nice. as long as you checked and are happy with what you found you’re good to go. it’s never a good idea to “just use” a font that you find on the internet without reading the readme.txt or EULA. sometimes the guy that made and released his creation has specific ideas about how he wants to share.

  • Just got my “The PC is not a Typewriter” from Amazon for $0.99 +$3.00 S/H and it’s really great. It’s only 92 pages but just flipping through it looks really good. Thanks for the recommendation.

  • Anyone read Slideology besides Craig? It had a couple of negative reviews onA mazon that gave me pause. I bought an ipad for customer presentations, it would be nice to have a good book on keynote and the like. This no double space after periods will be a hard habit to break, especially when using an ipad or iPod touch. The double space automatically adds the period, which is really nice.
    I really liked the show, I have been pretty cluless about fonts and such until recently.
    I must say I like copperplate on a few of my slides.

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