26 Trade Secrets: Making words visible

Becca Magnus shares her experience of February’s Trade Secrets workshop – this time with a focus on typography.

For our latest Trade Secrets workshop, Mark Noad took us on a journey of written language from the perspective of a designer. What a fascinating journey it was.

In two hours, we began to understand how words take on form, weight and new meaning through the eyes of a designer. How a simple choice of typeface and juxtaposition with an image can change our understanding of a word. How designers change words from fleeting, ethereal thoughts to art with physicality and gravitas. How designers make our words real. It was eye-opening.

To start us off, Mark introduced this simple formula to help us understand the basics of how typography works:

Letter forms = word choice

Typeface = tone of voice

Typography = grammar and syntax

Design = composition

We then dived into a potted history of the development of the English language, specifically the mark-making that led to the letter forms we have today. Did you know that the letter forms for Latin-derived languages come from an inscription on Trajan’s column? I did not and I’m still processing that fact. There’s a replica in the V&A that you can visit and ponder at your leisure.

Another fascinating little-known fact in the development of English – many of our wonky spellings come from the printing of the Gutenberg bible. Any typos in a print run were subsequently taken as ‘correct’, which is why we now have some very odd words. Typos. Who knew?

The printing press was a seismic invention, opening up access to mass communication and permanently changing the structure of society. With writing, it also brought early typographic design from the monks to the masses. The nature of typesetting transformed words from page ornament to vehicles for meaning with heft and weight. As printing developed, new typefaces were created to convey different moods, influenced by the aesthetic ideals of the times. We moved from gothic blackletter to serif typefaces with conservative elegance to sans-serifs with geometric simplicity and clean lines.  Digital design has hugely influenced our current visual ideals – Apple became the defacto choice for designers due to their wider choice of expressive typography. Designers have become rockstars due to their rogue use of type – like David Carson setting an interview in Dingbat for Raygun magazine. Typographic choices are visceral statements. They matter.

We ended by exploring typesetting ourselves in a much less demanding activity with postcards and old-school Letraset sheets – the tools designers used before Illustrator and InDesign. By picking a typeface and physically setting our type on the page, we were making new choices on the mood and idea we want our words to convey. Adding dimension. Amplifying meaning.

It makes you realise just how important the relationship is between words and design, between writer and designer. And how often we work in silos, rather than collaborating meaningfully. What could we create if we truly work together to find new ways to add dimension, amplify meaning and make visceral statements through the work we do? This writer would love to find out.

Here are some nuggets of typographic wisdom that you can start using today in your work.

The top qualities designers consider and balance in their choice of typeface

  • Readability and clarity
  • Impact and strength
  • Character and appropriateness
  • Practicality and flexibility

Rules of thumb for good readability

  • 66 characters with spaces is the optimal length for a line of text (roughly 10 words in English)
  • Anywhere from 45 to 75 characters is acceptable

– Becca Magnus

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