Secondary text on a sign should be well designed

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Letterhead Fonts is a nice source of information as well as a supplier of awesomely sign-friendly fonts, many designed by real hand letterers. Choosing letter styles for sign work requires special considerations that are not always necessary in other media.

 

The following link is to a tutorial about how good design principles should be applied to even small, unimportant copy. It’s brief, but well done.

Designing secondary text

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This link is just for fun:

What sign makers want to say sometimes

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Think twice before stacking letters vertically

02h62732Vertically stacked letters, a common treatment a century ago, is not a preferred layout technique for sign work.

Though sometimes requested by clients, stacking letters vertically is not only awkward-looking but it compromises legibility. As explained by typographer Ellen Lupton in Thinking With Type, “Roman letters are designed to sit side by side, not on top of one another.” If it is necessary to stack letters, they should be all capitals. Lower case letters treated this way take on a precarious look that is visually unappealing. It also helps to carefully adjust the centering optically of each letter.

A simpler and more readable solution for a narrow vertical format is to rotate the entire line of text. A vertical axis is thus achieved, but the natural relationship of the letters sitting on a common baseline is preserved.

Does this mean that letters should never be stacked? No. In fact, sometimes this treatment is an easy way to achieve a retro look. But it should be used judiciously and with an awareness that it can limit readability.

 

stacked-letters-comparison02

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Ellen Lupton is a designer and educator, and the author of several books on design.    Thinking With Type by Ellen Lupton (second edition)

Why white looks bigger than black —the Irradiation Illusion

The term irradiation illusion  was coined by German scientist Hermann von Helmholtz in the 1860s to describe the visual perception in which a light area appears larger than an identically-sized dark area. The effect was observed as early as the time of Galileo, who refers to it in his observations of the sizes of planets when viewed through a telescope at different times of day. The illusion is illustrated below. The white square in the black field on the right seems larger than the black square in the white field on the left. It’s as if the white area on the right spills outward beyond the boundary of the surrounding black. At the same time, the white field on the left appears to encroach upon the black square making it shrink.

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The drawing below shows how the irradiation illusion can affect lettering. The top halves of the letters shown are clearly bolder looking than the bottom halves. This means that, on a dark background, a white letter with a heavy stroke will look even heavier, sometimes to the point that legibility is compromised. Counter spaces that are already small become even smaller. Interletter spacing shrinks. Heavy white lettering on a dark background can take on an unpleasant bloated look, and the effect is more pronounced as the viewing distance increases. The solution, simply, is to use lighter stroked letters and increase the letter spacing when the background is dark.

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This phenomenon of white letters appearing heavier is not always a bad thing. The effect can be put to use at times. It can even save an otherwise weak layout. How so?

Put the Irradiation Illusion to good use

Computer font collections tend to have a disproportionately high number of light faced letter styles. These typestyles are designed mostly for print, not for signs. Times Roman, as an example, is an inherently weak letter style on sign work. It looks fine in print, up close. After all, it was designed for newspapers held at arm’s length, paper whose porous qualities actually help thin-faced letters. Paper, especially newsprint, allows inked letters to bleed a little through capillary action (the printer’s term for this is dot gain). This effect allows the hairline strokes characteristic of many romans to achieve a little more thickness when printed. But in large sizes on signs, the thin strokes of painted or vinyl lettering remain thin lines. Add to this thinness the effect of the irradiation illusion, and the strokes become even thinner. The result is that a large sign lettered in all Times Roman has a distinctly anemic look. In printspeak, the lettering is not ‘black’ enough. It appears insubstantial, weak. The thinnest strokes eventually disappear as viewing distance increases, leaving visible only a series of meaningless vertical strokes. But if you create a reversed color scheme—putting white roman letters on a black background—the letters instantly become a little stronger.

Similarly, the legibility of some scripts can be improved by a dark background. Computer scripts are often so light faced as to be useless for sign work without some kind of ‘stroking’ to beef them up. Using a dark background can sometimes solve the problem with minimal effort.

Before computer fonts

In the days of painted signs, the expanding/shrinking illusion of irradiation was a problem easily addressed. For one thing, sign painters did not use fonts [related post:  Sign painters didn’t use fonts], so they were not burdened with picking through hundreds of unusable typestyles to find the few that worked well. Their letter styles, “alphabets,” as they called them, were all hand drawn specifically for sign work. Generally, these styles were not duplicates of typestyles that were created for print. And letterers tended to rely on medium and medium-heavy stroke weights for the bulk of their work. When a light typestyle was required, say, by an insistent client, or when an architect specified a certain typeface, it was easy to thicken the strokes slightly if needed for legibility. This could even be done on the fly during the brush lettering process. When a sign painter used script, it was most often a medium weight, sometimes heavy, infrequently light. Experienced sign painters knew that light faced lettering often produced weak-looking signs that lacked impact.

Good design is rarely accidental

In sign design, legibility is dependent on the interplay of light and dark images. Letter recognition relies not only on the positive image of the letterform but also on the negative space surrounding and within it. When one or the other is overpowering, there is always a compromise of legibility. This is why medium weight letters tend to be the most legible on sign work. It doesn’t mean heavy or light faced letters should not be used at all. Rather, it means using them prudently.

Being aware of, and carefully manipulating, effects like the irradiation illusion can help a sign artist produce good layout. Effective design is not an accident.

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My inspiration for this article is an archived blog by UK designer and typographer Jon Tangerine from 2010:    jontangerine.com

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Hermann von Helmholtz

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Hermann von Helmholtz bio in brief.    from famousscientists.org

Hermann von Helmholtz bio   from Encyclopedia Britannica. His pursuits as a scientist were broad. Perhaps best known for his invention of the ophthalmoscope in 1861, still an essential diagnostic tool used in medicine today.

Hermann von Helmholtz   from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Details of his interests, philosophies, teachings and accomplishments.

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Letter embellishment—a little goes a long way

 

A decorative or embellished letter treatment, what printers may call a “display typeface,” can add a splash of personality. It can help support a design theme or help create a mood. But it can easily be overused and become visually tiring, especially if it is less legible, as is often true of display type or embellished letters. The guiding principle should be: a little goes a long way. Use such treatments sparingly.

heavy outline shade

Here, a shade/outline has been artlessly applied to all the lettering on this layout for magnetic vehicle signs, rendering them virtually unreadable. The shade color competes with the lettering for attention because of its high contrast with the background. Additionally the heaviness of the shade and the tight letter spacing allow the interletter spaces to be filled by the shade. This obliterates the letter silhouettes and seriously hurts letter recognition from any but the closest viewing distance.

Heavy-handed embellishment like this is rarely successful. Perhaps it can be made to work on a single, simple word at a very large size with adequate letter spacing or a color adjustment. But it doesn’t work in this case. And combined with the use of all upper case, which further decreases legibility, and the clumsily oversized phone number, the overall effect is clearly a fail. From only twenty feet these signs appear to be a blurred indecipherable mass. If you are guessing that this design was heavily influenced by a micromanaging customer, you are right.

Sign customers—you can’t live with them and you can’t shoot them.

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

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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”

Helvetica: The typestyle they love to hate

People who may not know much about lettering or graphic design, who may not even know the name of any other letter style, know what Helvetica is.

What has never failed to amaze me, however, is the depth of feeling this typestyle engenders. Historically, Helvetica has been popular among professional designers—as well as amateur end-users, the desktop publishing crowd. This is understandable, since Helvetica, or a clone, was packaged as part of so much software. Yet there has been a growing and vocal anti-Helvetica backlash for quite some time now. And among those who dislike it, there are some for whom the feeling is almost hatred.

And while many describe Helvetica as a neutral or boring letter style, emotions toward it are anything but neutral. Resentment is deep and passionate. One person I know made the striking comment that using it “betrays a lack of integrity.”

Am I the only one who thinks this wrath a bit odd? This is just a typeface, right?

It’s not about politics, religion or broccoli, the traditional hate-button issues. It’s only a letter style.

Before anyone accuses me of being a Helvetica lover—well, I’m not. I’ll admit, though, that this has not always been the case. I overindulged in Helvetica in the past. In my youth I used it inappropriately, wildly. I didn’t really have an excuse. It was easy to do, it was available, I didn’t have to think. But all that is behind me now. What’s done is done and I’ve moved on. I’m a more enlightened designer.

Still, the virulence of the indignation toward Helvetica leaves me a little baffled. I know it has its bad points. But how bad are they, really?

A particularly bitter commentator, Alastair Johnston of Smashing Magazine describes Helvetica letters as “square and squat and [they] don’t communicate with their neighbors.” Okay, that seems to make sense. He continues by explaining that there is more internal space in the counters than around the words, creating “ugly and standoffish silhouettes.” Well, this does sound un-neighborly.

I will admit that lines of letters with tall x-heights and open counters, like Helvetica, can give the appearance of being riddled with noticeable holes of negative space, kind of resembling Swiss cheese. Is that why Johnston describes the self-enclosed nature of the letters as “constipated-looking.” Too much cheese? He also compares using Helvetica to eating foods that are downright unhealthy, stating that when people prefer Helvetica to Arial because the latter is a bad copy, it’s like asking if there’s a difference between a Big Mac and a Whopper—and would you honestly feed either to your kids? He says “everything about Helvetica is repellent.” He calls the typestyle a “wretched mass” that signals that the “bland new world feared by Huxley, Orwell and other writers of the last century is one step nearer.”

This is strong commentary, even without the political innuendo.

Armin Vit, another detractor, wrote an article entitled, “Why I Hate Helvetica,” wherein he likens the letter style to obsolete 1960’s technology, like rotary-dial telephones. He marvels that, “like cockroaches, Helvetica seems to be poised to survive time and space, no matter what,” and then concludes, “no business, service or product deserves Helvetica in the 21st century any more than anyone deserves to sit in a dentist chair in the 1960s.” Having sat in a dentist’s chair in the 1960s, I feel his pain.

My initial reaction to all the Helvetica deprecation is that surely it’s tongue-in-cheek. However, these people are serious. Some are respected voices in the field of typography. And since among the many thousands of letter styles there are plenty that are worse, why does Helvetica provoke such intense ire?

Why is Helvetica Disliked?

Something that you hear over and over about Helvetica is that it is overused or misused.

And it’s hard to argue with these indictments.

But rarely are there specific comments about the actual design of Helvetica letters. Most criticisms are subjective and rather general.

For example, one person said that the capital R is “criminal,” but the crime is not explained. Do they not like the curved leg? It’s unique, that’s for sure, though I’m not sure that makes it a crime. Helvetica has been described as bland and antiseptically clean. But what if a clean look is what you are trying to achieve? Detractors also seem to agree that it is not highly legible, especially in body text. But compared to what? Helvetica is certainly more legible than the extreme thick-and-thins of Tiffany with its funky serifs. I will agree that a book page filled with small Helvetica is definitely an eyestrain to read. But the Lufthansa logo seems easy to read on the side of an airplane. So whether it is or isn’t legible depends to a great extent on context.

It is difficult for me to see past the fact that much of Helvetica dissing is based on personal opinion rather than on valid design aesthetics. Certainly the letter style is overused, and by no small margin. It has been used inappropriately, as many letter styles are. There is no letter style that fits every situation, no matter how neutral it is. New York designer Paul Lombardi said, “there’s no such thing as the ‘perfect typeface.’ There are, however, perfect typefaces for the task (and often more than one)… It’s design that should be criticized, not the typeface.”

Font choice faults lie with the individual designer or designers, or a (gasp) micromanaging client.

The same principle applies to many things. That is, the principle that context is what determines appropriateness. It is true of color selection, for example. I knew a sign painter once who didn’t like green. With a smile, he would say it was ugly, and he never used it unless requested. But he admitted this was just a personal quirk. Because there really are no ugly colors, only inappropriate ones. This is true of letter styles as well.

One blog poster at Smashing Magazine commented insightfully: “No font, no design technique, no design style should be off-limits or out-of-bounds, and there is an appropriate usage for everything. . . [Helvetica] is just one of many tools. The trick is, knowing when to use it.”

Yes, Helvetica is simply one of many tools in a very bloated tool bag. Each is appropriate for a particular application. Is it lazy or a cop-out to use one letter style as a go-to font? Perhaps. But could jumping on the Helvetica hate wagon also be a cop-out?

In his blog, I Love Typography, John Beardly speculates that “perhaps a lot of the present day ill will towards Helvetica stems from the bandwagon or me-too mentality—it’s kind of cool to be ‘in on the joke,’ and like the conspiracy loons who revel in their knowledge of clandestine secrets, they take smug solace in their shared vituperative consternation.”

Is he saying that Helvetica’s detractors are just font snobs? But even font snobs have their place, don’t they? Like wine snobs, and these days, craft beer snobs, they serve a purpose. I don’t know that much about good wine/food pairings. I appreciate suggestions from wine experts. And the wonderful vocabularies the wine and beer people have developed can really help you dissect a flavor or an aroma. They help me understand what I like, and why I like it.

In the end, though, I will make my own choice. I am, after all, the designer (or beer taster). I may not be the best, but I will do my best. I make it a point to try to design what is appropriate for the job and the client. I work to avoid using a font or design technique just because it’s one of my personal favorites. Or because it’s used by the cool kids. And I don’t avoid a font just because it’s uncool.

So, do I believe that design is unimportant? No, of course not. As designers, we should be the best we can be. And branding programs are serious business. But a typestyle decision is just part of the whole mix, and it may not have the dire consequences that some believe. I wonder if the real fear some of us have who design for a living is that our role could become trivialized.

Because at the end of the design workday, if my font choices have been less than perfect, the world will not end.