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)

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.

Prescient words from 1895.

I was browsing a digitized version of a trade journal for printers and allied trades called The Inland and American Printer and Lithographer, published in Chicago over 120 years ago, and I ran across a striking forecast. It appeared in the August, 1895, issue and was part of a contributed piece by a Mr. R. Coupland Harding.

Here’s what he wrote: “William Morris has predicted that typography will cease to exist during the next century, and he may be right in his forecast. I see it threatened by the camera, the etching fluid, and by the (at present) harmless and inoffensive ‘typewriter,’ in the keyboard of which lies the germ of something much greater in the future.”

Coupland Harding, if he were alive today, would be amazed to see the changes that have occurred in the printing industry because of the ‘harmless and inoffensive’ keyboard since he wrote those words. William Morris (designer, typographer, poet, writer, printer, artist, who died the year after the above article was written) would probably share Harding’s amazement to see how events have unfolded in the following 100 years as exploding technology made its impact on printing, as well as graphic art and design. Already, in the closing years of that century, patent applications were flooding the US Patent Office with designs and inventions for mechanized typesetting. The successful surviving technologies, Monotype and Linotype, were already found in bigger print shops, putting out of work many compositors, hand typesetters and the like. These metal monsters, controlled by a keyboard, would quickly dominate the world of typesetting and then die a slow death, eclipsed for a short while by photo typesetting processes, and then be gone forever by the end of the B.C. Era (Before Computers). Of course, the keyboard never died. It just morphed with the industry.

A similar deathfate has been experienced by a trade related to printing. Sign painting— hand lettering—though still kept alive by a few, has all but disappeared, also as a result of the ‘harmless’ keyboard. The keyboard is immortal. It is a changling. It will never die.

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R. Coupland Harding

Intrigued by his letter written to the Inland Printer, I found that Coupland Harding was an influential typographer and critic of his day. The son of a printer, he lived in New Zealand. Here is a link to some biographical information:

Short Biography of R. Coupland Harding

 

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William Morris

William Morris (1834–1896) was well known in the design world during his lifetime. He was known for his work in textiles, and he was a mover and shaker in the Arts & Crafts movement. A poet and novelist as well, he contributed to the fantasy genre in its infancy. The Victoria & Albert Museum in London has an extensive collection of his wallpaper and tile designs.

William_Morris_age_53

 

What is a logo? What is it not?

The term logo is commonly misunderstood outside the graphic arts world.

At times we have had clients ask us to put a “logo” on a sign and then they provide us with an image they obtained from a clipart service. Once, someone asked me to “find a house logo” on the internet to put on some sign work. Both these requests illustrate how the word logo is commonly misunderstood by the general public. The misconception is that a logo is any graphic image or any piece of artwork.

 

What really is a logo?

Here is a clear and accurate definition of logo: a specially designed mark or emblem used by organizations to aid in promoting instant recognition. It may be composed of letters only or a graphic symbol, or a combination of both. It may embody a trade name or a trademark or both.

The word logo is actually an abbreviation of logotype. A logotype, in the days of printing with metal type, was a single word cast as one piece of type. A logotype was similar to a ligature, except that a ligature was only two or three letters joined in one casting rather than an entire word. In a ligature, the letters themselves are joined, too. Ligatures were created as a way of solving an awkward or unsightly spacing problem between a letter pair. In a logotype, letters may or may not have been joined, but they were cast all together as one large piece of metal type.

Row of ligatures in vintage wood type
Row of ligatures in vintage wood type. Ligatures were a way of modifying unsightly spaces between letters by joining the letters and rendering them on one block or slug of type.

 

By extension, logotype eventually came to mean more than just a casting of an entire word, but referred to any uniquely arranged set of letters. In common usage today, a logo is a specially designed word or symbol, or combination of word and symbol, that officially represents a company or organization, or that represents goods or services of  an organization. Legally, the name of a company is known as its trade name, and a logo may embody a trade name. If a logo or a name identifies a product or service of a company it may function as a trademark or service mark. If a trade name identifies goods or services of a company in addition to being the company name, it may serve as both trade name and trademark. For example, Sony is the name of an electronics company. On letterheads and business cards the Sony name functions as a trade name. But when it is used on consumer goods, such as televisions, it is a trademark.

A logo may be very simple, such as the 3M logo,

3M_ok

or elaborate like the Anheuser-Busch logo.

Anheuser-Busch

It is of note that the 3M logo is type only, devoid of any design treatment other than the fact that the letters kiss. And it is composed of one of the most ubiquitous of letterstyles: Helvetica. By many logo design standards, it would be considered a fail. Yet the 3M brand has been highly regarded for many years, proof that a logo is not what constitutes a brand. Further, while a logo is important, its design may not be as important as some (designers) would have you believe. Logo design, along with other trade dress is not unimportant or trivial. But successful branding involves far more than the design of a logo. Indeed, a brand may develop a reputation of high esteem quite apart from any graphics design associated with it. In contrast, another brand may acquire a bad reputation in spite of excellent design work in its advertising and trade dress.

Some logos are not composed of type at all, but are abstract. The Nike swoosh and the McDonald’s arches carry little meaning intrinsically, but have acquired meaning with time and can easily stand alone and convey meaning without words. The McDonald’s arches are so distinctive that, sitting atop a highway sign, they can be recognized from distances long before lettering is legible. The triangle shape that is part of the Bass ale logo is one of the simplest as well as one of the oldest logomarks in existence.

Bass_Ale

Can a photograph be the basis for a logo? Well, the Michael Jordan “jump man” silhouette, a logo created for Nike, is based on a posed photograph. Other logos incorporate photos also, though it’s not a common treatment.

Nike’s Michael Jordan logo is based on a posed photo of the athlete executing a ballet move.
Nike’s Michael Jordan logo is based on a posed photo of the athlete executing a ballet move.

 

What a logo is not.

Can a clipart image be a logo?  Generally, no.

paint man clipart
A clipart provider typically prohibits the use of its images, such as this one from Adobe Stock, in logos, trademarks and branding.

 

Remember that a logo represents a company or its products or services. It serves to aid in identifying a company, making it recognizable apart from others. By definition it should be unique. A graphic image that is sold by a clipart supplier is legally available to anyone and cannot function as a unique identifier. For example, if a number of house painting companies all use the same stock image of a man with a paint brush on their signs and printed literature, the image fails to identify any one company. Rather, using the same image can give the appearance that the companies are related in some way, perhaps even all part of the same company. Does this not defeat the purpose of a having a logo? Further, none of these companies could legally own their logo if it contains clipart that they don’t own. What good is a logo if you cannot own it and protect it? Clipart companies do not normally sell complete ownership of their images. They are merely licensing them to users, usually for limited use. A company’s logo should be a design that belongs to the company, not a design that is just rented. If a company tries to exercise ownership of a design that incorporates clipart, it is a violation of many clipart agreements. Many clipart providers, in fact, specifically forbid the use of their images as part of a logo design or branding scheme.

Here is a link to iStock Photo’s license agreement forbidding use of its images in logo designs:

http://www.istockphoto.com/legal/license-agreement

A logo design that incorporates clipart would probably not be granted trademark registration in the US. It is not protectable as intellectual property.

Can a logo design use an image that is in the public domain? Well, how could such a design function as a unique identifier if it’s available to everyone? And again, how could it be protected? How could it receive trademark protection if it cannot be owned?

 

Does it really matter how we use the word logo?

Is using terminology correctly really so important? After all, the word logo is not really a legal term in the world of intellectual property. And its meaning has changed over the years. So what’s the big deal?

Think about this: as designers and makers of signs, we are actually in the business of communication. Good sign work involves effective communication, and should impart information clearly, and ideally, in a minimum amount of time. Signs that do not clearly communicate serve only to create problems, and in the end, waste a client’s money.

Clear communication is not just important for the messages on signs. It is necessary for business in general, at all levels and in every aspect. Using incorrect terminology in the sign and design world may not be life-threatening or create health risks like it does in some fields (healthcare, for example), but it can have detrimental effects in many areas leading to: lost productivity, duplication of effort, poor quality, increased costs, wasted time, client dissatisfaction, liability issues.

Communication between sign designer, sign builder and sign buyer should be free of confusion and clearly understood. The sign/design game has a unique vocabulary of terms that are often misunderstood by those outside the business. The continued success of the industry depends, at least in part, on clear communication among all the players.

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

straight_round

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.