The language of typography is vast, but there is a foundation. Adapted from Robert Bringhurst's Elements of Typographic Style, the following are good tenets to achieve strong typography:
• Typography exists to honour content.
• Letters have a life and dignity of their own.
• There is a style beyond style.
We'll discuss these things and use a case study (The Tourist, by Andre Bagoo) to help illustrate them.
Typography exists to honour content.
Andre Bagoo's poem, The Tourist, arrived by email in this format:
Once, in that
Foreign country, I
Was suddenly ill.
The crowds took me.
Hands whispered, hissing
A mountain of salt
Made by all of them—
This band of the year.
Women and men wet
With sweat and rain, fake
Tattoos all over flesh.
Stains. Trousers cut short,
Feathers, beads, confetti—
All mixed up with pitch oil
And dirt and the smell of Sea
Lots. Thousands of them
Marching to the irresistible surface
Of the Savannah, a green space
Compelling all to face
The other side of the Earth.
O the black cowls we wore
With their old, gold chains
And chicken wire masks!
The stage a dangerous surface
Of orange and black smoke
A place where gravity became
Unreliable, and lovers said:
Such as I am, you will be.
Such as you are, I was.
The coffins we carried in that crowd.
They have become six new coffins
In this small yard, with ribbons
And doilies all over their bodies.
Three white candles bring
Silence: the wind is not certain.
What to make of this now?
On the pavement, old
Glitter still shines.
The brief was open to my interpretation. And the goal here was simple, to shine a spotlight on Andre Bagoo's outstanding poem, The Tourist. My notes on The Tourist, after reading it:
There's a fresh voice here. Read it out loud, under your breath. Go ahead, feel the rhythm breathe the rhyme. Each sentence folds into the next. It's a march, it's a plea. It's a night river — both light and dark. It's staccato, simple; it's syncopated, complex. It's a heartbeat that any human can understand; an arrhythmia, many of us don't quite understand...a feeling of losing one's self, again and again. A potent idea of balance; of gravity; and almost falling. Human vulnerability.
Tip #1: Always read the text before designing it.
It's the only way to honour the content. And what brilliant content this is. Without meddling too much with the author's actual line breaks — akin to messing with a photographer's sacred crop — the silence between each breath was pushed, aka the jazz trumpeter approach. With space, one conducts an orchestra of visual elements. The idea is to provide enough tension to create the moment. For the reader to live from one word to the next. In crescendos and decrescendos. Think rhythm, melody and harmony. Musicality is a typographic designer's signature.
Tip #2: Discover the outer logic of the typography in the inner logic of the text.
When one reads this poem, one should be inspired enough to deconstruct it and put it back together in a meaningful way. Avoid humpty dumpty situations. If you do your job right, the reader reads and that's enough. If you do your job really well, the boundaries between author and designer sometimes vanish. Writing merges with typography, and the text becomes its own illustration (Robert Bringhurst). To truly appreciate Andre Bagoo's poem here, you have to read it. No other poem fits here.
Letters have a life and dignity of their own.
There's a classical take most type heads come home to. Any dedicated artist really. Homage to the past, hope for the future. Other genres do this as well, but not to the rigor and life span of the classical arts. The classics can be learned and passed on. Adapting and staying. Classical typography is timeless because of its rigorous combination of art + science and because built into it is this element of shifting time — evolution — an encapsulation of future history that preserves and refreshes.
What came before is where lies the challenge. Bringing what is deemed primitive or other to the forefront, alongside classical, modern, etc. That which was lost in the colonial fires, provides fodder for new typographic innovations.
Typography at its best
is a visual form of language
linking timelessness and time.
— Robert Bringhurst
Today we yearn our past, and we long for truth. We dig backwards, we build forwards. A good typographer has a keen eye and sensitivity to type. And can make a real living off of
just using a handful or less typefaces (ex. Helvetica, Garamond,
Baskerville, Futura and Gill Sans). A good typeface is resilient and suited to the task at hand and above all, committed to the every day communion of reading.
Tip #3: Choose a typeface or a group of faces that will honour and elucidate the character of the text.
In Andre Bagoo's poem, the typeface Bembo is used. It's a classical humanist typeface considered a good choice for expressing classic beauty or formal tradition in typographical design and is generally held to be a good book face...extremely consistent in color and texture (source: wikipedia).
A friend once advised me, "To make [cook] something good, you're best off using a few good ingredients, ingredients you like." Start with the right typeface, and you're off to a good start. Bembo works because in its humanist nature, there is a warmth to the rounder letterforms, remnant of music notes that can be chicken-fed onto the page, and found both singing and mourning.
Tip #4: Make the visible relationship between the text and other elements
(photographs, captions, tables, diagrams, notes) a reflection of their real relationship.
Time and time again, you will come across this notion of grids. It's important. I recommend Grid Systems: Principles of Organizing Type, by Kimberly Elan (available in ebook). Grids are a fascinating science that push visual communication forward — a mathematical proof that reveals the underlying geometry of relationships. Blueprints. An architecture of related and meaningful content. The language of grids can get complex quickly, but really just a basic knowledge of grids is enough to do good work. The Tourist used a 6-column grid.
There is a style beyond style.
Art is a form of thinking. In typography, to approach it as a visual language to think and solve problems, requires a level of versatility that demands an open mind and maturity to learn and move freely, and not just stick with one style or the other. There's no silver bullet, just the right bullet for the job. The more knowledge, the more freedom.
Tip #5: Shape the page and frame the textblock so that it honours and reveals every element, every relationship between elements, and every logical nuance of the text.
The text blocks in Andre Bagoo's poem, give away subtly the how, but keeps you distracted with what. It's the how/grid that keeps the particles of text in order and organized well-enough for the reader to access and digest properly. The use of line elements and geometric blocks reveal the base grid on which the type sits, but is on double duty as a metronome to keep march and sway the reader from left to right, directional and intentional, and meaningful.
Tip #6: Give full typographic attention even to incidental details.
Page numbers and section headers matter too. Treat each typographic note with love. It's where your readers find comfort, knowing what they hold in their hand is something special and well-considered. It's in the details where strong typography prevails, where the designer has a say.
For beauty, for a living. When I think back, typography was mostly
inaccessible. A foreign language which if it wasn't taught in primary
school, was unnecessary...but now very much my sledgehammer. My go-to
device, to solve umpteeth design problems. Bringhurst states in summary:
There are always exceptions, always excuses for stunts and surprises. But perhaps we can agree that, as a rule, typography should perform for the reader:
• Invite the reader into the text;
• Reveal the tenor and meaning of the text;
• Clarify the structure and the order of the text;
• Link the text with other existing elements;
• Induce a state of energetic repose, which is the ideal conditions for reading.