19 August 2009

Typography and graphic design

By Christine Horn

(Published in ‘Campus & Beyond’, a weekly column written by Swinburne academics in the Borneo Post newspaper)

Typography – “the design, or selection, of letterforms to be organized into words and sentences…” – Encyclopedia Britannica

What is typography? Try saying the word to your friends; they might think that you are calling them names. Nevertheless, typography is one of the main tools of communication for a graphic designer, and many design projects start by him or her flicking through their font collection searching for the perfect typo for the job.

The history of type goes back to the 15th century, when the invention of the printing press by Johannes Gutenberg made a new kind of letterforms necessary. Moveable type printing had been invented in China decades before, using mostly woodblock print. The large number of characters in the Chinese writing system, however, made the process less efficient.

Unlike in handwriting, letters in a printing press are arranged individually, even though the first sets of lead type used for printing strongly resemble calligraphic handwriting. Typography still uses many terms from the era of the Gutenberg printing press: the term ‘leading’, for example, refers to the space between two lines, where a piece of lead would be inserted between two rows of type.

The individual elements of a typeface are called glyphs. Apart from letters and numbers, °+*# <,! and § and other symbols belong to a complete typeface, which can contain hundreds of glyphs — the Greek or Arabic alphabet, accented letters of different languages, mathematical operators and many more. It can also include different cuts of fonts, such as ‘Bold’, ‘Italics’, ‘Condensed’ and ‘Light’. Containing different cuts it is the mark of a good font created by a thorough designer, as are a large number of glyphs.
So what is the difference between the different typefaces? If you use a word editor to write documents, you are probably familiar with the choice of fonts available on a PC running Windows. One of your default fonts will be ‘Times New Roman’. Many newspapers are set in this typeface. ‘Times New Roman’, ‘Book Antiqua’ and ‘Palatino Linotype’ are called ‘Serif’ fonts. They have decorative little extensions on some letters, such as ‘T’ or ‘N’.

‘Arial’, ‘Tahoma’ or ‘Verdana’ are ‘Sans Serif’ fonts, which started emerging in the beginning of the 20th century with the rise of modernism. Like modernist artists and architects, modernist typographers rejected ornament and tried to reduce each letter to its basic functional form. Apart from these two distinctions, there are numerous other font categories – handwritten fonts, scripted fonts and dingbats, where each letter is replaced by a little image or icon.

Good typography shows in little ways. Did the designer take the time to use ligatures? These are special glyphs combining two letters to make the spacing between them look balanced, as in the letter combination fi and fl. Did they remember that a line length between 52 to 78 characters, including spaces, is optimal for the human eye to read? Applying typographic principles increases legibility, and helps text follow its content as closely as possible.

Many people will notice typography only if it’s not doing its job correctly, if, for example the writing is too small to read or if the typeface spoils the layout or does not fit in with the text. Here are some rules of thumb: Try not to use more than two or three different typefaces in one layout, and select an extravagant font for the headline, but never for the body text – it will make it difficult to read. In any case, try to be sensitive to the context of the body of text you are working with. Your choice of typo needs to emphasize the content.

What really makes typography fascinating is the relationship between the appearance of a word and its meaning. Finding the right typo and a good arrangement for a text are a fine and subtle art. Writing, typography is solidified meaning, it is the physical appearance of language. When we read a word, we understand its meaning, but we also take in the way the word looks and even its historical connotations. An example: National socialists in Hitler’s Germany extensively used traditional German typefaces called ‘Fraktur’ for their propaganda material. Today, you will not find this type of letterform used anywhere in Europe, and if you do, you can easily guess the context. Interestingly, in other countries that have experienced the impact of the Third Reich less, young designers use these typefaces to create a kind of grungy style without any political implications.

Typography in the local context means that information needs to be presented not only in different languages but also in different alphabets. Old shop signage around Kuching is often displayed in the Latin alphabet, Chinese logograms and Arabic script. It’s a unique situation where everything is jumbled up. In November, an exhibition at the Sarawak Museum in Kuching will focus on typography in the city. The exhibition is a collaboration of Swinburne University of Technology, the Goethe Institute in Kuala Lumpur, and the only museum worldwide dedicated entirely to the letterform, the ‘Buchstabenmuseum’ in Berlin, Germany.

The School of Computing and Design at Swinburne Sarawak will organise a typo workshop day which will is open to anyone interested in design and type. You can find out more about how layouts work, what different styles of type are used for and how, and learn how to make your own font (for more information and to register, check out www.thewordsaroundus.wordpress.com, or email to chorn@swinburne.edu.my).

Christine Horn is a lecturer with the School of Computing and Design at Swinburne University of Technology Sarawak Campus. She can be contacted at chorn@swinburne.edu.my.