Ask people about bad typefaces and you’ll get opinions. Which typefaces are good, bad, evil, holy, done by monsters, published by saints. But when you look into the reasoning behind the arguments, it appears to be a complex issue in which black and white opinions are not helpful. Not all typefaces can do everything. Some typefaces are specialized and do one thing really well. Others are more generic but don’t excel in anything particular. Fortunately this is not a typography specific problem, but rather the way things work in design.
This text is a short list of criteria that can be applied to type (by graphic designers, typographers and type designers) in order to give an idea of what the good & bad discussion can be based on. It is wholly subjective and unscientific but it and based on my experience as a professional type designer. Your mileage will undoubtedly vary.
Design is the process of creating something new. But the term is also used to describe the end result, ‘a good design’. By studying the design process itself, the designer can improve on the odds of making something good. Every now and then reasonable things are made by accident. But if you have to pay the rent, it’s nice to be able to rely on your skills. So let’s look at the things that are involved in the design process as well as the aesthetics.
Type design has to deal with many restrictions and limitations which are not aesthetic in nature. It’s the designer’s job to make sure that these limitations are adequately dealt with. Some of them will be easier to solve than others: every design is a network of decisions and compromises.
It is possible to teach the basics of the discipline and introduce the tools and materials over a period of one or two years. A deeper understanding of form and the influence of the drawing tools on curves can take longer and usually follows naturally.
Where to start? Taste? that would be an endless battle with vague arguments. Let’s have a look at construction, contrast, weight, strokes, logic and consistency. Does the typeface show internal consistency? Are similar design problems solved in similar ways? (in any order). Here are the basic parameters of type design. Can you think of more? Of course!
Letters need to be similar enough to create rhythm and words. At the same time letters need to be different enough in order to distinguish them from each other. These two forces point in opposite directions and it’s up to the designer to balance them.
The shapes themselves can be wrong. Lumpy. Not fluent. A lack of ideas or guiding principles can do major damage. Do the weights and widths progress in a way which makes sense? Is the family set up in a way which makes sense? Are there any really bad characters? Or really good ones? Do things stand out? Is the character set complete? Do less common combinations (diacritics for example) work as well? How does the typeface look in a column of text?
When the typeface is built after historic models, are the sources interpreted well? Is there a point to this typeface? Are there more typefaces in this particular part of design space? Is it an improvement on any of them?
Style in the broader sense could be the art of finding common threads in seemingly unrelated things and defining groups for them. It’s all about connections and meanings when the items in the group begin to tell a story. When a typeface is bad for its style, perhaps it’s not the typeface’s fault, but something that the typeface relates to. For instance, Helvetica all by itself is a solid design without too many problems (as opposed to Rotis for instance, which is awful in all its variations). The problem with Helvetica is that it has become part of a particular style favored by large, often bureaucratic, organisations. Helvetica is not chosen for its specific typographic qualities, but out of a need to belong to a particular kind of institution, or worse, the inability to make any other kind of decision.
Any overused typeface will cause two effects. More of the same typefaces to be produced for everyone wants a piece of the new pie. Design concepts are diluted and eventually the added value of yet another (say, large sans serif typeface or another dirty typewriter) approach zero. Users of type will also start looking for other typefaces in order to distinguish their work from the rest.
Is the typeface suited for a particular language? For instance, German uses capitals in the sentence to indicate nouns, so you see them a lot in a column of text. Typefaces with relatively big or heavy caps will affect the text. The language might bring letters together in ways which were not thought of by the type designer.
The eyes have it. Readers get used to the typefaces that they read frequently. Whether they’re particularly good or not, the habit is there. Ambitious type designers can try to improve on it but the comfort zone of readers is limited and changes very slowly. A typeface for a newspaper might not be up to modern standards, but change it and readers will com plain. Newspapers are conservative typographers because they know their readers.
Different tools through the ages projected their own limitations on the typeface. Sometimes these limitations are caused by the nature of the tool itself which can’t be changed without destroying the tool. But the tools are artificial objects too and when the influence of the tool is unwanted, the craftsman has always changed and adapted the tools to make them function properly. Here is a short overview of tools that make type (not to be confused with tools to reproduce type):
Various historic introductions to writing, drawing and making type start with cutting pens from feathers. A blunt knife cuts bad pens from feathers (toolmaking tools).
A broad nibbed pen makes different marks on paper than a flexible steel nib or a sign painter’s brush. Regardless of skill and experience, choosing a tool is already a choice for shape, i.e. a design decision. Not choosing a tool is a choice as well.
Digital tools made some things in type design easier but they also introduced new difficulties. It was easier to see how a shape performs in different sizes, but along came math, splines, control points, tricky, springy stuff. So, drawing type on screen is some thing you have to learn: you have to get a feeling for the relationship between the form and the position of the points that control the curve.
Then there is the influence of the tool itself. Things that are easy to do in a program will get done more often, things that are difficult to do will get done less, regardless of whether they’re important or not. The things that software can and can’t do are determined by things like marketing, engineering skills, budgets and resources. Things that are important in design are determined by the problem and the solutions that the designer is cooking up. That means that at some point the designer is going to need functionality in the software that wasn’t provided by the developers.
Rather than waiting for someone else to come to the rescue, it can be better to develop your own software. Even with limited programming skills it’s possible to get small scripts and programs to do your bidding and solve problems. See RoboFog, RoboFab, TTX, FontTools, FontLab and FontForge.
Some ideas are too complicated to be executed with normal tools. Does that mean the idea is invalid? Perhaps it just means that the programmer didn’t think of your idea before you did. But that’s more or less what designers are paid for to do, so expect your tools to be good but sometimes not good enough. Creating a tool to execute the idea means innovation. Compromising the idea to the tool leads to stagnation.
In interpolation the designer really feels the limitations of the system. An interpolated typeface will usually have two, four, or eight masters. The interpolated weights are influenced by controlling the masters. When the masters are too different, the interpolated weights will look bad. So in order to make the interpolation work, the masters need to be similar, which by definition they shouldn’t be. The compromise means that the extremes aren’t so extreme after all. That doesn’t make them automatically bad, but typefaces like these risk becoming bland. Solution: more complex interpolation systems which include more masters.
The immediate effect of writing tools is that there is a less time left to do type design. Sometimes this is seen as a negative thing. On the other hand, it turns out that a fair amount of time in unassisted, manual (but digital) type design is spent trying to fix things that were not done well by the default tools. Even if writing a script takes as long as doing something repetitive by hand, it is a more rewarding process. Time has an influence on the overall quality of the typeface. Perhaps the designer should have spent more time on the basic design, and less on expanding the family over a range of weights or styles. Or maybe it just took too long to get done and the fad has passed.
Then, even when all fonts are properly licensed, sourced, versioned, prepared, and tweaked, there is the moment when the anxious designer is about to begin specifying a line of text in a specific typeface, on some sort of medium. This is the moment all type designers learned to fear – all sorts of things can go wrong and perfectly reasonable type can go bad. There are almost no limitations to people’s talents to find new ways to screw up:
Type and technology belong together. Type is not a purely aesthetical exercise. Neither is it a purely technical problem. The technology brings the type to life but at the same time imposes its (arbitrary) limitations to the typeface. At some point in history it was the quality of the material that the type was made of such as various alloys and different kinds of wood. More recently it was the mechanics of the typesetting machine that imposed limits to spacing and the size of the character set or the shape of the letters. These days it’s software and bits. The designer of the typeface needs to be aware of the limitations of the technology chosen to produce the type, and either avoid them, or better yet, turn them into assets.
Technical limits have always been a challenge to type design. Some typefaces solve them better than others. They all have one thing in common: all limitations will eventually be solved, become irrelevant or be replaced with some other limitation.
Limited spacing units: 48, 100, 1000, 2048, integers. The number of letters on a casting matrix. The need to have identical set width for roman, bold, and italic variants of characters in a single (Linotype). The requirement for a hacksaw when kerning.
Some of the problems with type from imagesetters are related to operating the machines. Maximum of 4 fonts and 2 sizes in one text (for instance Linocomp). Single character master for all sizes (most photosetters, and most current digital systems too). Stop imagesetter to change discs (Compugraphic) or lenses. Total blind typesetting in one single typeface with a very dodgy spacing system (Berthold DiaType) Or how about the various distortions caused by fast rotating negatives, flash bulbs, and curved mirrors.
The one byte, 8 bit, or rule of 256. “Surely no one will need more than 256 characters in a font?” Or need more than 256 fonts in a system? or more than 256 colors in a document? 8 bit is a favorite limit for programmers. The resolution of a screen (72 dpi). The resolution of a laser printer (300 dpi, Apple Laserwriter) 1000 kerning pairs (early applications). Truetype font families have to conform to Regular, Italic, Bold and Bold Italic weights. The 31 character limitation for the menu name of a font. Glyph substitution is only allowed to reduce the number of glyphs in a string (OpenType). Unicode support in Quark Xpres. Integer coordinates in Postscript and Truetype font formats (ok, the specification says it could be done, but none of the tools support it). The required presence of all letters on a codepage even though they might not be needed. Several quite different TrueType rasterizers in a single operating system.
Fonts and the operating system Fonts are a very basic resource in modern operating systems. Fonts are needed at every level of operation, not just in the layout and illustration applications, but also at the deepest, almost subconcious stuff that computers do. Every part of the operating system needs reliable access to fonts, so if access is hindered in any way, or something is just a tiny bit different from what is expected, it’s possible that bad things happen.
Bad fonts For instance it is possible to construct a Truetype font in such a way that when it is installed it will crash the rasteriser. Quite often this will take the rest of the system down as well. This can be a nightmare to solve when the user has lots of fonts installed. The faulty font is bad but once removed the system quite often works again.
Even with monster processors and gigahertz computing, operating system developers still quote that it is too costly (they mean that it will take too much computing power) to monitor the functioning of fonts. A logical solution would be to ‘sandbox’ the rasteriser, to separate it from the rest of the operating system so if it crashes it won’t affect the rest. Sandboxing is a normal procedure to make code safer. For instance Java works that way. But folks who build operating systems don’t usually listen to folks who build fonts, sadly.
Font management applications (like ATM DeLuxe, Suitcase etc.) sometimes offer font doctoring services, an attempt to locate problematic fonts and help users. Unfortunately the definition of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ are muddy. They assume all fonts are built to the same standard. Non-standard fonts are marked as ‘bad’ even though they are probably fully functional. Other critical problems go unnoticed. Fingers are pointed, frustrated customers calling the wrong people.
Ambiguities in the original Postscript Type 1 font specification (‘The Black Book’) caused different font generating applications to build slightly different Type 1 fonts. This came back to haunt Adobe when they started developing Adobe’s Type Manager (ATM) as the rasteriser had to treat some fonts different from others, despite all of them being for matted as Type 1. The fonts weren’t bad as such as they did conform to the standard. But the standard itself was ambiguous and the software needed to solve the mess.
The stage where the typeface is ordered to perform has a huge influence on its shape. Type engineered for a particular venue, press, screen, size, or paper, will probably look bad when taken out of context. Quite often designers use this effect on purpose to emphasise some stylistic quality. A poster with Bell Gothic in 6000 point can look good even though it was intended for 7 point phone books. Or think of Emigré’s early bitmap fonts.
In some cases type goes bad because they were picked for the wrong job. Nothing wrong with the font itself, it’s just an awkward choice.
For instance, a typeface (or a category of typefaces) that has become a symbol. Fraktur type has become the standard typeface of anything to do with the Germany during the Second World War. Just have a look at the Discovery Channel when it’s ‘Hitler week’. The actual typographic choices of the period are not really considered even though a lot has been written about them. Sometimes even calligraphic typefaces of English origin are used as Fraktur faces.
Type applied in the wrong historic context. Some folks collect typographic anachronisms in films and television. Mistakes usually happen in period movies where headlines, street and shop signs are set in typefaces which weren’t available at the time. Not that very many people would notice or indeed care, but it is nice to see when it is done right. Hey! Movie people! Get it right! Hire a type designer!
This is about some of the legal aspects of bad type. The area of licenses, contracts and piracy, nasty stuff that gets people in court for all sorts of reasons.
For the graphic designer: have you bought all the fonts you use? Honestly! Do you know where all the fonts on your computer come from? These issues are not made any easier with applications that dump dozens of fonts during installation. It’s difficult to keep track of the origin of all fonts that are available in the design studio. However, you know it when you’re calling someone else for a copy of a font.
Unfortunately a pirated font doesn’t look any different from a legal version. But to the designer choosing the pirated font, it should make a difference. Caring about the source of all media, images, objects, materials, and data in a design project is a sign of a professional. Respect for intellectual property rights is what makes the design industry possible and designers themselves have to be aware of their responsibilities (‘do unto others…’). So, an advertising campaign using a typeface which neither the agency nor the client paid for is bad for business. Not only is there a big chance that the type publisher will discover it and charge a premium for straightening things out, the agency stands a fair chance of losing the account when the client is faced with legal issues. The practical nature of fonts make it so that frequently users of fonts (in any part of the design food chain) assume privileges that they don’t actually have. Often one says: ‘I need to have this font because I have to work with it.’. Taken by itself, this could be a valid statement since it expresses the high value of the typeface to the user. But it usually implies that the fonts will be used illegally because for some reason the user is incapable of converting the ‘have to use’ to ‘want to license’. Which is odd because when it rains and you really need a car, you wouldn’t consider stealing one to get home.
For the type designer: did you think of all the details in the typeface or did they come from somewhere else? Do you know? Do you care? What do you do?
For large corporate style projects, it can be useful to create special customised versions of existing typefaces. As long as the originals are credited and properly licensed this is not a problem. However sometimes a typeface is just modified a tiny bit and sold as something new under a new name. Remember to request documents of provenance.
A golden rule in all rights management should be that in case of any doubt of what has been agreed upon, the author of the work should be granted the benefit. No rights are assumed unless both parties agree. No rights can be taken without the designer’s permission. No sale without a signed contract!
Bad publishers But even within the type industry itself, there are still some companies around that sell typefaces without binding contracts with the designers of these typefaces. In some painful cases when designers complain, or even attempt to discuss the problems, they get drawn into expensive legal proceedings which serve no other purpose than to abuse the legal process and cause major financial and professional damage. Thankfully these publishers are exceptions to the norm and most business is conducted legally and ethically.
18,000 fonts on a CD bought for €2 can not be legal.
Grafting one set of metrics on another typeface. Years ago now, Microsoft commissioned Monotype to create a set of alternate fonts which matched the widths of the original LaserWriter fonts. The widths of Arial used to match those of Helvetica. Arial did not improve much in the process.
Right out of school, all fresh designers are kitted out with all of the school’s software and fonts. Of course they will buy the software, cool laptops, phones and fonts, ‘when they’ve started to make some money’, which, let’s be honest, can takes ages. Design schools should make a bigger effort to teach students about the economics of a design practice. How to bill and how to make a budget for investing in tools, machines and software.
How silly some of these concerns will seem in a couple of years. Hinting! Embedding! Technology will continue to be a solution as well as a problem. Faster computers will be built and remain almost affordable. New methods of reproduction of text will continue to challenge typefaces to evolve. The distinction between paper and screen might become irrelevant in some cases. However, type tools will remain buggy.
Type designers will, every now and then, prove their value to society by drawing a decent piece of type. Piracy will increase in quantity and speed, but graphic designers and typographers will continue to spend money on fonts.
This isn’t to establish standard criteria for type design, typography or technology, but to offer you some arguments to make up your own mind. Prove me wrong.
You will still find contradictory opinions for any typeface and great differences in opinion between typographers, designers and normal people. There is no golden rule to type design and typography. There are just millions of small, localised would-be rules, curiosity and experience to help you. It’s a mess, but it doesn’t change much once you know the way.
Typography and type design involve a lot of common sense and practice. As a result there will be lots of nonsense and clumsy work around, which will make it easy to stand out. Look at the shapes. Pay attention to what you’re doing. Take care when putting together text, type, content and medium. It doesn’t take a lot of time and it’s not complicated but the effects will be visible and appreciated.