Is a typestyle protected by copyright?

No, it isn’t. At least, not in the United States. On the other hand, a font IS protected by copyright.

Does this seem confusing? If so, it’s because so many people use the term “font” to refer to a “typestyle” or “typeface.” The two terms are really not interchangeable.

A typeface, or typestyle, is a set of letters, including numbers, punctuation and assorted glyphs, that all share similar design characteristics. They may have similar shapes, strokes, serifs and other details. In printed form, they all look to be part of the same family due to their design. In the United States, a letterstyle  does not qualify for copyright registration.

So what is a font? Though many people use the word ‘font’ as a synonym for letterstyle, it is really what is used to produce letters in a form that can be viewed. A font is a piece of software, a program really, that allows a computer to command a printer (or router, or laser engraver, or embroidery machine) to produce the letters in physical form. Originally, a font was a set of metal type pieces in a particular size and typestyle for loading onto a printing press. To create a complete font of type was labor-intensive and expensive. Nowadays, a font is generally composed of unique digital code. This code is protected by copyright, and it cannot be copied without permission from the copyright owner.

Additionally, font names can be protected by trademark law, just like brand names. This is why you can buy a font (actually, a license to use the font) for your computer for printing letters that look exactly like Helvetica, but they are called something else. Someone owns the Helvetica font, the name and the underlying software, and that’s not the license you bought. You bought a license to use a differently programmed piece of software with a different name. But what you print looks just like Helvetica letters, because the Helvetica font owners don’t own what the letters look like, the design.

Of course, this is US law. The laws on fonts and typestyles may  and does vary in other countries.

Helvetica       Helvetica

Helvetica   Swiss

Optical illusions in letter construction


When I first watched a sign painter hand lettering, I was spellbound by his ability to shape beautifully consistent letter forms with a quill, his name for a lettering brush. He didn’t draw the letters first, other than some quick marks for placement. I also noticed that he made the round letters, like the ‘S’ and the ‘O,’ slightly taller than the straight letters. The round letters protruded above and below the lines. Thinking these were mistakes at first, I soon saw he was making the letters bigger intentionally. When I asked him why, he said it was “so they would all look the same height.”

So began my introduction to the many optical illusions involved in lettering. Since then I have learned that there is even a typographical name for the degree to which a round letter extends beyond the lines—it’s called “overshoot.” And I have learned there are many other optical illusions at work in typography, so that frequently things need to be drawn differently to make them look the same.

When round letters are placed next to straight letters of the exact same height, the round letters will always look shorter. Why is this? It seems to be because less of the round letter reaches it tallest point. The rest of the letter falls rapidly away from this high point, so that most of the letter actually is shorter, leading our brain to perceive the round letter as shorter overall. The exact mathematical height of a letter is not as important as how tall it appears. When I was an apprentice, I was told, “It doesn’t matter what the yardstick says. If it looks right, it is right.” In the words of noted typographer Tobias Frere-Jones, “we read with our eyes, not with rulers, so the eye should win every time.” Consequently, round letters must be made slightly taller to compensate for the optical illusion.

How much is the overshoot of round letters? While 1-3 percent of the height is common, the overshoot varies with the letterstyle (and with type designer). Letters with wider, more gradual curves will show less overshoot than letters with narrower, tighter curves. A letterstyle like Eurostile, for example, with its squarish letters, has little overshoot. In fact, from a distance it’s hard to tell the caps apart from each other—they all resemble soft squares. On a sign, Eurostile, especially the upper case, is not the best choice, and must be used carefully to avoid illegibility.

overshoot comparison01


For a well-articulated explanation of overshoot, with illustrations, see Frere-Jones’ post:

Tobias Frere-Jones on “overshoot”

Book Review: Signs, Streets and Storefronts by Martin Treu

Signs Streets and Storefronts

Signs, Streets and Storefronts. A History of Architecture and Graphics along America’s Commercial Corridors. Martin Treu (John Hopkins University Press, 2012)

This a history book. But a very focused one.

Signs, Streets and Storefronts uniquely fills a niche in the world of architecture and graphic design history, and will probably stand alone in this role for many years to come.

The evolution of American culture as reflected by its signs, and in particular, by the look of its urban commercial districts, is a fascinating study. Even if you are not so much interested in architecture, you will find this book to be an insightful record of the sign industry in America from its earliest beginnings in the 1700s. Martin Treu is an architect and environmental graphic designer, and his research is painstaking and exhaustive. The pictures alone kept me spellbound for hours (I am a sign designer).

It is captivating to see, through Treu’s eyes, how the design of signs and commercial buildings has transformed through history, reflecting the social thinking of successive generations of architects, advertisers, preservationists  and governmental authorities. The changes brought about in the sign industry by advancing technology, electricity in particular, is a story all its own. This history of signs and storefronts is rich with photographs and well documented.

Published in 2012, if this book is not already on the shelves of many architects I will be surprised. I expect it to become essential reading as a design history.

For a much better and more comprehensive review of this book, see Ann Weiser’s in The Architect’s Newspaper:

Ann Weiser review

Also,  see Amy Korte’s review in Chicago Architecture:

Amy Korte review



Bad designers. Why we may not realize we’re not very good.

When asked, most sign designers describe themselves as better-than-average graphic artists. The tendency for a person to believe that he or she is better than average is known as the “above-average effect,” and is common in many fields of work, not just design. And it is illogical. Math tells us that it is highly improbable that the majority of us are above average. Almost certainly, a significant number of us who think we are above average are actually below average. We just don’t know it.

What accounts for this? A study from Cornell University a few years ago (Unskilled and Unaware of It, Justin Kruger and David Dunning, 1999) revealed that, in many areas, the skills that make a person competent are the same skills needed to evaluate competence, both in one’s self and in others. This study suggested further that the persons least competent may not only not know it, but are the ones most likely to overestimate their ability.

The essential first step in problem solving is acknowledging the problem. So what hope is there for incompetent designers who don’t believe there is a problem?


Why does poor sign design predominate?


When, out of curiosity, I took some graphic design courses at a small community college, I learned that graphic design was not being taught, at least not at this school. The course work did not include information on what constitutes good or effective layout. Even the most basic of design principles was not covered. Could poor schooling be a partial explanation for why poor design predominates in the sign industry today?

So, what were they teaching in the design courses at this college, if not design?

The graphic design courses in this school teach students to use design software, nothing more. Rather than teaching design, they are teaching the use of the tools to produce design—primarily Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop. The use of the tools is important, of course. But rather than labeling these courses Graphic Design I, II and III, would it not have been better to call them, Adobe I, II and III? At the time, I joked to someone that this was like being told you were going to receive electrician’s training and then being taught to use screw drivers. An unfair comparison?

Surely my experience with college graphic design courses is not representative of all graphics arts training, and is the exception rather than the rule. Perhaps size matters, since the school was a small college. But if my experience is a common scenario—that graphic design training is only about learning software manipulation—it helps explain why so many sign designers today lack skills needed for producing effective sign work. Poor training could be playing a big role in the dumbing down of sign design.