Some of the greatest, most influential methods of delivery go, more often than not, entirely unnoticed. This is no truer than in the design industry. Designers from all walks of life, on the whole, use such methods on a daily basis to achieve a result: to persuade and influence a user into making a decision. We also employ these techniques to aid or guide a user through a particular process, be it digital or print.
Typography: the art of arranging type is one such effort. We expect what we’re reading to be legible, but most of all we expect it to be readable. People tend to use these terms interchangeably, but they really are entirely different matters. The result of combining the two should be simple: to create beautiful typography that serves a purpose.
Legibility refers to the ease with which a reader can distinguish between individual letterforms. A designer will take into account elements such as negative space, letter contrast and the x-height (the height of a singular lower case ‘x’) and make his decision accordingly.
Readability is equally as important, and refers to the ease with which a user is able to scan a block of copy. Many factors can influence readability, including point size, kerning (the space between a pair of letters) and leading. Another crucial aspect of readability is line length. On average, a line of text should be around 10 words in length, or 50-60 characters. This figure varies depending on which chunk of research you happen to read, but the point is, it’s all about rhythm. Too long and a reader will lose focus. Too short, and there goes the flow.
Simply put, does it do the job?
Font choice is another key factor when delivering type. Make the wrong choice, and readers will find your message confusing; not too dissimilar to showing up to a funeral in a clown costume. ‘Font’ and ‘typeface’ are often used interchangeably, and for this you could be forgiven. The distinction can seem somewhat esoteric. Essentially, it’s all derived from the days of analogue printing, at which time printers would hold a collection of every combination of weights, shapes and sizes of a particular typeface – Helvetica for example. Collectively, this was known as the typeface, and ’12pt Helvetica Bold’ was the font. Nowadays, ‘font’ commonly refers to the digital file served up for download to your PC.
History lesson over, and semantics aside, choosing the ‘right’ typeface for a project can prove challenging. Not just because good design is subjective, but also because over the years, many have attempted to categorise typefaces that often refuse to be pigeonholed, all in an effort to make this decision easier. As designers, we need to ensure a typeface is contextually relevant, and that we’ve taken care of all the aesthetics that will be immediately apparent, as well as those that aren’t. For example, have we accurately paired header and body fonts, or optimised copy for mobile devices, if designing for digital.
For the interested few, a more detailed explanation on type categorisation can be found here.
We’re all trying to sell something, whether it’s a product, a service or even ourselves. And like most selling techniques, there are recommendations based on research and research based upon recommendations, but it all comes down to user experience. Do your decisions serve your overall goal? Do they make a difference? Are you using orange copy on a red background? These are important questions you should be asking yourself for every design decision you make.
Which brings me on to my last topic, colour. I hope to talk about Colour Theory in another article, but simply put “He who knows how to appreciate colour relationships, the influence of one colour on another, their contrasts and dissonances, is promised an infinitely diverse imagery.” Okay, busted, this isn’t my quote but Sonia Delaunay nailed it; anyone with even a basic understanding of spectral colour and the connotations associated with these colours will stand a much better chance of evoking the appropriate response from a user. Determine what you want from your reader from the very beginning and take the steps necessary to achieve that goal.
For a more extensive read on the topics covered in this article, take a look a Smashing Magazine’s ‘How to choose a typeface’.