Secondary text on a sign should be well designed


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


This link is just for fun:

What sign makers want to say sometimes

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.

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?




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”

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.

Punch cutting. These videos show how it was done.

The making of metal type by hand for printing was very involved and labor intensive. Most people understand that metal type was cast: Molten metal was poured into molds.The bottom of a mold, the matrix, held the impression of a letter, in reverse, perfectly formed. How were these molds and impressions made? They were made by punches, produced by amazingly talented and patient craftsmen called punch cutters. Punch cutters, with tiny gouges and files, sculpted raised letters in real size, in reverse, on the ends of square metal rods. Not surprisingly, the first punch cutters came from the ranks of goldsmiths.

The true artisans of the early hot metal printing industry were not the printers, but the punch cutters.

Making letter punches by hand was made virtually obsolete in the late 1800s by the invention of the Linotype and the Monotype machines. Later, photographic processes supplanted the making of hot metal type. Then computers arrived and changed everything again.Today, a “font” is no longer a collection of metal type kept in cases or drawers, but a piece of digital software loaded onto a computer hard drive.

This fascinating series of videos shows how punch cutting was done:

One of the better books on this subject, written by a modern day punchcutter:

Counterpunch: Making Type in the Sixteenth Century; Designing Typefaces Now, by Fred Smeijers (London: Hyphen Press, 1996)