Jan 26

Typography, a communication tool

Posted by Packaging Sense in Typography | Uncategorized

Once I heard that typography was a “beautiful group of letters and not a group of beautiful letters”. If you look into the Oxford dictionary to know what “beautiful” means, you’ll find “pleasing to the mind as well as to the eye”. In my opinion, “pleasing to the mind” is identical to what communication should do, i.e. reach people’s mind. Does today’s typography do this? Well, only partly, as we have never had so many ‘amateur typographers’ as anybody can type on a keyboard today, knowing next to nothing of how to put letters together for easy reading!

This is particularly obvious on package design, whereas the typography in books, newspapers and weeklies is dealt with by professionals.  It’s not me to teach typography, although I had the chance to work for two years as a typographer, using, at that time, a composing stick.

The letters we use in the Western world originate from the Greek and Roman empires. If you go further back in time, you will learn that the alphabet was invented by the Phoenicians. What has Gutenberg to do with this? He was the first (if it wasn’t already the Chinese) to produce individual cast letters which, put together, made up words that were printed in special forms and then separated, i.e. de-assembled and assembled anew, composing new words, etc. This meant mechanical handling and the beginning of book printing.

It was a bit later in the 16th Century that many type faces were cut. As those who developped the typefaces were highly skilled craftsmen with full understanding of how our eyes capture words and sentences, these typefaces are still among us. Hundreds of books have been written on this subject.

I obviously have my favourite typefaces which include mainly the serifs such as Bodoni, Bembo, Indigo Antiqua (by my schoolfriend Johan Ström from the Graphic Institute in Stockholm), Times of course, as well as the sans serifs like Gill, Helvetica and Optima.

During my Nestlé years I produced a small handbook with the title “Truths in design and typography” which explained, in a layman way, the basics of good legibility using colour, contrast, typeface and layout. I explained that positive text (i.e. black on white) is more legible than negative text (white on black). I explained what David Ogilvy told some 50 years ago that “five times as many people read the headlines as body copy”.

I explained that, unless the text is very big, lower case lettering is more legible than capital letters. I explained that the most legible length of a line is what you have in newspapers, i.e. between 4-7cm. It means that less than 20 characters or more than 60 are harder to read, unless you read a book where there are no disturbing elements around!

Never use a typeface which is so full of style or ‘character’ that it is difficult to read. Books and newspapers always utilise the most legible type, but there are other typefaces which, as well as being easily read, can reinforce whatever characteristic you wish to emphasise for the product – elegance, creamininess, high quality, childlike, simplicity, exotic, etc.

Great typography is to achieve the best balance between

  • size of letters
  • contrast against background
  • distance between lines
  • width of columns
  • choice of typeface

Lower case lettering is, as said above, easier to read as the eye needs a rugged line to follow a text as shown with the word “Information”.

There are many ways to highlight a word or a sentence as for instance

  • underlining
  • italic typeface
  • bold typeface
  • using “quotation marks”

However, before you choose a typeface, a layout, etc. the talented “copy-designer” (see article on this subject)

  • keeps the sentences short;
  • uses simple words over complex ones;
  • chooses familiar words;
  • selects carefully the verbs as they add action;
  • uses terms that the reader can picture;
  • writes to express, not to impress;
  • uses ‘loaded’ words, i.e. words that lead to action;
  • re-writes the copy several times to reduce the number of words;
  • asks a third person to cross-check the logic, the meaning and the spelling.

I’d like to add to the above some general rules regarding layout:

  • Large shapes appear closer than small ones.
  • You do not need to see a complete logotype or illustration as the reader automatically fills in the missing part.
  • Converging lines suggest distance and often give a more three-dimensional effect.
  • Dark colours appear closer than light ones.
  • Drop shadows added to typography create the appearance of volume.
  • Shapes that overlap other shapes appear in the foreground. However, too much overlapping and enlargements reduce the quality of perception.
  • Black letters on a yellow background give highest readability on distance viewing (see road signs), whereas black letters on white, as mentioned earlier, are the best for close-up reading.
  • In using calligraphy or script you can be very expressive, creative and pictorial.

Being a passionate calligrapher, I obviously favour to use the abovementioned typefaces, but mix them with a more personalised typography, i.e. calligraphy. As my professional career has been in the food and drink business, I have come to believe that there is more ‘taste’ in calligraphy. Just compare the way “Menu” is shown below:

When Nestlé inaugurated a Research Center in Singen, Germany, I was given the job to express the Nestlé company slogan on the wall. Here it is:

Hopefully, these advice will help the designer or brand manager to use typography in a more professional way to make interesting texts highly legible!

For those who wish to learn more, there is an excellent book, “Type Matters” by Jim Williams (Merrell Publishers, London).

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