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