A designer must also be an editor

looking for gold

“The design process is one of sifting through the less important to find the essential.”—Alex W. White in The Elements of Graphic Design (2002).

What White describes is editing.

Editing a layout for a sign usually means simplifying. It is visual surgery. A removal process. It rarely means adding elements to a composition.

At the beginning of the design process, in consultation with the client, there should be an editing out of all unnecessary and needlessly repetitious elements. The goal is conciseness and clarity. Further editing helps establish a hierarchy of importance. One element must be chosen—a word, a phrase, a graphic—to dominate the layout. This becomes the viewer’s entry point into the composition. This dominant element should be emphasized decisively. Nothing should be allowed to compete with it. Nothing else should be allowed to have equal billing. In the short time that most people spend looking at a sign (in moving traffic, about a second and a half at most), it should be possible for a viewer to recognize and understand this one dominant element.

Unfortunately, the sign world today abounds with overfilled sign design that is simply too much work to read. What is the reaction of most viewers when confronted with busy, crowded sign work?

Well, picture this: If you were served a drink filled to the very coffee05top, what would be your reaction? Would your inclination be to thank your server for trying to give you your money’s worth? Or rather, would you view the overfilled cup as a problem created by someone thoughtless? If a sign appears to be bulging with copy, if the message looks like it will be a chore to read, most readers will not make the effort required to slog through it. They will simply ignore it.

Furthermore, editing a design is more than just eliminating unnecessary verbiage. It means making a layout look organized by injecting white space to create groupings of related elements and to separate elements that are unrelated. Visual dividers and margins make the parts of a layout look accessible and manageable.  Adequate space creates a kind of visual breathing room. It makes a layout look comfortable on a given substrate rather than giving the impression that the message needs the next size larger sign. And if you are not going to increase the size of a sign to gain necessary white space, where is the space to come from to create margins and dividers? Obviously, the elements in the composition must be downsized.  And this is one of the real challenges for a novice sign maker who wishes to improve in layout ability: to progress beyond the viewpoint that negative space is to be feared as ‘wasted space,’ and that everything must be as big as possible. Far from being a waste, white space is the glue that holds everything together. Negative space is every bit as important as the positive. What would an individual letter, say, the letter ‘S,’ look like without the negative space surrounding it and within it? The answer is that it would not look like anything, because it wouldn’t exist.

For the beginning designer, learning to see negative space as a design element, and learning to manipulate it to enhance the positive, is one of the most significant strides he or she can make.

If we are accustomed to ‘filling up all the space,’ it may take real effort to force ourselves to edit crowded-looking design. It can be painful, just like surgery. It means learning a new way to think and see. But it gets easier the more we do it. And the end result is not just sign work that has more eye appeal, but signs that are more readable and that can be scanned and assimilated more quickly.  Generous use of white space can transform mediocre, easily ignored designs into compelling and effective reader magnets.



Glossary of Terms

This blog entry begins a new category on this blog site that will gradually be added to, though it will be by no means exhaustive.

The sign world has long had a collection of trade terms that are not well known outside the industry. And I have even met sign makers, some having been in business for years, who are not familiar with terms that were once commonplace among sign artists (for example, pounce pattern). And, as the sign business continues to move away from hand lettering and to blend with the printing trade and its related field of typography, terminology is often misunderstood by sign makers not familiar with print jargon. The terms logo and font are two examples of terms commonly misunderstood, or used imprecisely, both inside and outside the sign industry.

At the same time, language is not static. It is a living, breathing animal that is constantly changing. Definitions will continue to evolve.


Metal printing press letters
Historically, fonts were collections of metal type that were stored in divided drawers or cases. A single font would have included an assortment of letters, punctuation and numbers in a single point size, although larger print shops may have owned multiple fonts of the same size to increase production. Modern-day fonts are software programs loaded onto computers. Font software is protected by copyright law in the US.

FONT  [n.]   Brit. FOUNT   a complete assortment of type of one style and size.

Origin: probably from Middle French fonte, the act of founding or casting, from Vulgar Latin fundita, fem. of funditas, a verbal noun, the past participle of Latin fundere, to found, pour or cast.

A font, or collection of type, was originally made of metal by the process of casting, or founding. The metal was commonly an alloy of lead, tin and antimony. Fonts were stored in print shops in compartmentalized drawers or cases. Type compositors stood in front of the font assortments, selecting type from either the ‘upper case’ (capital letters) or the ‘lower case’ (noncapital letters). Though printing is still accomplished using metal type, the vast majority of printing is now composed with digital type. Fonts are now pieces of software, programs really, that are loaded onto computers to drive printers and other output devices to produce lettering in a particular typeface. An analogy to music can help explain the difference between a typeface and a font: If a typeface is like a song, a font is like an mp3 file. The song is what you hear, but the file is what produces it. Similarly, a typestyle is what you see, while a font is the digital tool that produces it. In practice, the word font is often used without much precision, sometimes interchangeably with the word typeface. As the digital age continues, and the original meaning of the word font fades, the distinction between typeface and font may disappear altogether.—see related post, Sign painters didn’t use fonts

In the US, a font (the software) is protected by copyright, whereas a typestyle (the design) is not. Both the US Congress and the US Copyright Office have made it clear that the design of letters cannot be protected. However, the name of a font may receive trademark protection. —see related post, Is a typestyle protected by copyright?