Source Sans for the Masses

Adobe Systems are best known as the company behind Photoshop, Adobe Acrobat and InDesign. They also have been involved in the design and sale of typefaces for many years. In an unusually generous move, Adobe have released Source Sans —a very accomplished sans serif type family, for the price of absolutely nothing. Available in 6 weights, Source Sans is elegant, practical and suitable for portable devices, the web and print. A real workhorse typeface that designers will return to again and again, but useful for nondesigners who want to go beyond the usual defaults of Arial and Times.

Old School Type Specimens

A long time ago, type was embodied rather than digital. Skilled craftsmen working for large companies laboriously designed and cut letters from metal and sold them across the world. The American Typefounders Company was one such outfit, and it regularly produced an exhaustive catalogue of their wares. Not only did the catalogue include hundreds of beautifully set sample pages of their type, it featured an extensive corporate introduction extolling the modernity of their facilities and sales outlets. It really was a 'gold mine for the progressive printer', digitised beautifully by The Internet Archive.

100 Best Typefaces

It's a big call, but someone has to make it — Fontshop has listed the 100 typefaces it considers the 'best of all time'. Their ranking system includes both subjective and objective criteria, and takes into account sales figures. The top ten contain no surprises, indeed, the top twenty is pretty predictable. All the workhorse typefaces are there — Times, Helvetica, Univers, Garamond, Gill Sans, Frutiger and Franklin Gothic, so the list isn't a way of discovering new and interesting typefaces. It is more a ranking of those typefaces that have survived the vagaries of fashion and have been used over many decades (or centuries in some cases). 

Dingbats want to be Free

More than just an old-fashioned insult, dingbats are pictorial typefaces packed with symbols useful in a wide variety of design contexts. FontFont have released a sampler typeface (not the full complement of symbols, but a wide variety nonetheless) for free downloading. Erler Dingbats were first released some forty years ago and have now been updated for the digital era with new symbols. Each symbol has been designed to integrate with its fellows. In the usual way of European type, the result is slightly bloodless but eminently useable.

Anatomy of a Typeface

If you thought a stem belonged to a flower and a bowl was what you put the flower in, then visit Thinking with Type for a typographical education. The site is a well designed tour of type design, units of type measurement, classification and use, and hints on mixing typefaces, all written in plain English and elegantly illustrated. The site makes a good case for considering typography as the core of most graphic design, even on the web.



Type with soul

If precise typefaces with mathematically determined curves put together on a computer leave you a little cold, there is a tiny corner of the typosphere that is embracing a hand made alternative. The Organic Type features hand-drawn, painted, sketched, rubbed and eroded typefaces, achieving warm and charming effects impossible with standard type. Their typefaces cannot be installed via a font manager. Instead, each letter is supplied as a separate layered image file, and needs to be manually placed and kerned. Perfect for arresting and highly individual headers, and capable of heavy lifting in almost any design context. 

Beautiful Type Samples from Emigre

Digital type design pioneers Emigre have released some of their old printed type sample sheets in PDF form. The sheets are beautiful examples of graphic design in their own right and many of the spreads would make excellent posters. Several of the typefaces designed by the Emigre founders are still used, such as Mrs Eaves, Triplex, Filosofia, Template Gothic and Vista Sans. Some of the experimental typefaces have had their run, but they did help create the wide open field that is modern typography. Emigre was one of the first independent digital foundries and was responsible for the hugely influential Emigre magazine, which ran from 1984 to 2005.


Drive-by Fonts

The last couple of years have seen a quiet revolution for web designers. Once limited to the small number of typefaces that 'everyone' had installed on their machines, designers have been completely liberated from that restriction by web-served typefaces. Now it no longer matters what the user has installed -- the website renders typefaces from a remote server. If you'd like to see what your website (or someone else's) would look like using the new web font services, try this neat little demonstration from type purveyor FontFont. Instead of bland patches of Arial or Verdana, imagine your site decked out with typefaces designed for the screen.


Archer Hits Typeface Bullseye

In combining prettiness and practicality, Archer is a rare typeface. With idiosyncratic letterforms and cute little ball terminals, this friendly slab serif has been spotted all over the web and and in hundreds of publications. As with other HF&J typefaces (especially Gotham), it has been (over)used, but in the right caring hands, it still has the capacity to give shine and personality to many kinds of print and web design. 

Em and En Dashes

The typographically aware know that em dashes are preferable to hyphens in text, and en dashes are handy as range separators, but how to access them when emailing or posting to the web? Fortunately there is a handy shortcut. Instead of using -- or --- in lieu of the correct symbols, for em dashes paste &#151 in the appropriate spot in your html editor or key in alt 0151 (on the numerical keyboard) in emails. En dashes are &#150 for html or Alt 0150 for emails. Much more comprehensive discussions to be found here and here.

No Times for Us

Why we do not use Times New Roman for (virtually) anything:

  • TNR was designed for newspaper use, not modern offset print work or websites
  • Its preeminent position as a system font on all PCs arose by historical accident (installed by corporate fiat), not through its superior virtues
  • It is everywhere, like Arial. As such, it lacks a distinctive voice. Why not choose from a host of fine serif faces (Caslon, Fairfield, Garamond, Arno, Palatino, Warnock and so on) ?

Give Me Your Hand (writing)

'Handwritten' typefaces are a popular area of computer-based typography. The too-perfect edges and shapes created by layout and design packages often seem to need humanising, softening, a touch of variety and irregularity. The OpenType format has enabled the emergence of a new generation of typefaces with hundreds or even thousands of alternate characters, ligatures and other typographic goodies. For example, Liza Pro inserts a variety of different ligatures and alternate characters as the user types, giving text a warm and idiosyncratic feel. If you'd like to go a step further and personalise a document with your very own inimitable handwriting, allows users to print out a special form, then pen an instance of each letter of the alphabet, numbers and other special characters. When scanned in and uploaded, Font Capture uses the sheet to automatically digitise your handwriting and save the result as a typeface. If you like what you see (and the results can be somewhat erratic), the typeface can then be installed.
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Type Radio

Europe is the mecca of print design. In countries like Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden, Italy and France, typography and the practice of design is a topic for serious discussion. And serious discussion is what you will get with Type Radio. Their motto conveys something of the air of endearing earnestness that surrounds them: "Type is speech on paper. Typeradio is speech on type." With over 400 episodes available for downloading through Itunes, or directly through their site, a great deal of information awaits potential listeners. The members of the Dutch based collective spend a lot of time attending design conferences and talking to established and emerging designers, so their show is an excellent way of tapping into the design Zeitgeist.
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Build it, and they will kern

fontstructYou've visited all the type vendors and searched in vain. There's nothing that quite matches up with the search image in your head. 'I could do a better job myself!' you cry. Fortunately for you. Fontshop has recently added an interesting functionality to their website: a typeface constructor. The FontStruct site equips you with an array of basic font shapes that can be moved arround lego-like on an underlying grid to form letters. Although the basic shapes are simple, when used in concert, the results are quite sophisticated. A gallery shows the variety of effects achieved by contributors.  Once you have put together your masterpiece (and that might just be an uppercase set of letters, or an extended character set), your typeface can be saved as a truetype font and used out in the 'real' world. Over 160,000 people have signed up with FontStruct and 7,000 typefaces have been saved for public use. At the very least, the site is a worthy educational tool for those interested in typefaces, and reinforces the notion of an underlying grid over which the letterforms are arranged/organised.  Oh, and it is completely free.
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The Colour of Type

type set well
At the simplest level, readability is about not getting between the reader and the content. According to Robert Bringhurst, "Typography with anything to say ... aspires to a kind of statuesque transparency."  While magazine and advertising design is often about display typefaces, novelty and high impact, book design is much more self-effacing. Book designers aim for an intelligent understanding of the content they are typesetting, and type selection that aids that content. There are a few rough rules of thumb for creating readable text. Serifed typefaces are generally easier to read than unserifed faces. Ornate, fussy typefaces should be reserved for headings/display type only. Generous interline spacing (120% of type height is often cited as an ideal) makes type easier to read, but only up to a point. 'Rivers' of white space running vertically through a poorly set body of text make it harder to read. Judicious hyphenation gives text a more even 'tone', but excessive hyphenation is distracting. Line lengths of approximately 10-15 words are ideal. A type size of between 10 and 12 points will work for most readers, ranging up to 16pts for those with some vision impairment. Narrow margins leave no space for a reader's hands, and  paper thickness and colour also play a role in enhancing readability, not to mention lighting conditions. On monitors, screen contrast and brightness, refresh rates, type size and distance from the screen are factors. Once the key factors are satisfied, fine-tuning readability is sometimes more a matter of aesthetics than any strict metric. Some typefaces just 'feel' better with a certain kind of content, and it is difficult to spell out the exact reason. Taste is a notoriously difficult concept to explain. Professional level typesetting packages such as Quark or InDesign are much better at setting blocks of text than word processing packages. That said, observing the basic rules of readability will always yield a better result, whatever the package. Every word processing program gives its users some access to type controls, both at a character and a paragraph level. The typesetting program InDesign calculates the placement of words and hyphenation on a whole of paragraph basis, attempting to create an even type 'tone'. The apparently simple act of reading is anything but. Letters are human constructions with a complex and conditional history. They are not necessarily optimal, and are subject to continuous reinvention, for aesthetic as well as functional purposes. Changes in printing technology and the advent of computers and the Internet have all precipitated waves of type innovation. Type designers spend a great deal of time designing letter forms, harmonising those forms through a whole family of weights and styles, then setting every possible combination of kerning pairs, ligatures, special characters and letters from other alphabets. All through this exacting process they exercise their informed judgement, and their knowledge of related and historical typefaces, and current developments in the field. It is very far from being a science, as precise as their measurements might be. There are so many variables in setting type for readability that there are probably infinite variations that will both satisfy the basic demands of readability and those of proportions and aesthetics. There will never be a utopian 'perfect' typeface, as one could always posit an improvement, or a circumstance might arise that demands a different approach. Summary of Points to consider:
  • type size
  • type colour
  • type clarity and contrast
  • the ratio of the x-height to the overall letter height
  • letterspacing
  • kerning
  • line length
  • average word length
  • frequency of hyphenation
  • justified or set ragged left
  • number of and space between columns
  • leading (interline spacing)
  • paper colour and thickness
  • margins
  • paper dimensions
Paying some attention to at least some of these parameters is bound to make a body of text much more readable. Bucking the tyranny of Arial, Times New Roman, document templates and unnecessary layout embellishment can be a rewarding path to take. At a much more complex level, readability collides with psychology and neuro-anatomy. Scientists are interested in the way we read, whether a letter at a time, in clusters of letters, words, whole sentences or skimming whole paragraphs or pages. They look at culturally specific aspects of reading, and universal issues of cognition and meaning. Those apparently quotidian pages of text are moments away from being consumed and comprehended by the biggest mystery of all: consciousness. They are a way of one mind accessing the contents of another mind. That's one of the reasons that type design and typesetting is so endlessly interesting.
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