Back to black

Grey scalesI had noticed of late that several websites are more difficult to read, that they opted to use a lighter grey text instead of a more robust black. But it didn’t dawn on me that it wasn’t my aging eyes: this was a trend. That is, until I read an article on Backchannel called “How the Web Became Unreadable.”

It’s a good read for anyone interested in typography, design and layout – and not just the Web, but print as well. It makes several good points about contrast including providing some important technical details about how contrast is measured.

I’ve written in the past about how contrast is important in design (here, and here for example). But apparently there’s a design trend of late away from contrast towards murkiness. In his article, author Kevin Marks notes:

There’s a widespread movement in design circles to reduce the contrast between text and background, making type harder to read. Apple is guilty. Google is, too. So is Twitter.

Others have noticed this too, even before Marks. In 2015, Katie Sherman wrote on Neilsen Norman Group’s site:

A low-contrast design aesthetic is haunting the web, taking legibility and discoverability with it. It’s straining our eyes, making us all feel older, and a little less capable. Lured by the trend of minimalism, sites are abandoning their high-contrast traditions and switching to the Dark Side (or should I say, the Medium-Gray Side). For sites willing to sacrifice readability for design prowess, low-contrast text has become a predictable choice, with predictable, persistent usability flaws.

This trend surprises and distresses me because it seems a singularly user-hostile trend; anti-ergonomic against the whole point of the internet. Apparently it’s part of a minimalist design trend. Now I don’t mind clean, uncluttered web pages, but I balk at making them unreadable. Pale grey reduces accessibility and legibility.

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Designing Type

Designing TypeKaren Cheng’s 2005  book, Designing Type, is the third of the recent books on typography I have received*. Of the three, it is the most technical, appealing to the typophile and design geek more than the average reader. But it’s also a reference for layout and graphic artists looking to choose a specific font for a work.

If your goal is to actually design a typeface, she helps appreciate the subtleties of design that differentiate and separate typefaces and letterforms. But it’s not a book about design.

Most books on type and typography focus on the result: working for the combination of readability and legibility that create an emotional, psychological and intellectual effect on the viewer. Cheng takes us on an almost microscopic tour of type, zooming in on the minute parts.

There is a prevailing theory that type should be ‘invisible’ in that the reader doesn’t see the face, simply benefits from its effect. And, I suppose, for the average reader that makes sense. Designers usually don’t want the narrative to be interrupted by a closer examination of the font. Writers don’t want readers to lose track of the plot or theme in order to puzzle over the lack or presence of serifs. But a lot of work and time goes into creating a typeface that accomplishes that goal.

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Frutiger vs Palatino

In a recent review of Sarah Hyndman’s book, Why Fonts Matter, I casually commented that,

You can no more adequately comment on the relevance and impact on the viewer of, say, Frutiger versus Palatino, without discussing the design and layout in which it is set…

FrutigerThe point of which was not to single out those two typefaces as much as to suggest the debate between how readers respond to sans-serif and serif faces (respectively).

Fruitiger is a modern, humanist sans-serif type designed by Adrian Frutiger in 1975. Palatino is a serif type designed by Hermann Zapf, in 1948, to simulate classical typefaces. I like and have used both.

PalatinoI’ve always been a staunch advocate of serif faces like Palatino for body copy in longer texts such as brochures, books, magazines. Everywhere type is dense, continuous, flowing I’ve preferred them.

Everything I’ve read has lead me to believe that serifs guide the reader better than their lack. Conventional wisdom has so dictated for centuries. Studies have supported the anecdotal conclusions.

But the two recent books I received (the other being Sarah Beier’s Reading Letters, also reviewed) are both set in sans-serif for their body. Hyndman’s is set in Franklin Gothic (designed by Morris Benton in 1902)*, and Beier’s in Ovink (designed by Beier herself, in 2011).

If type designers use what others in their field might argue is an unconventional choice, I figured I should pay attention.

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Why Fonts Matter

Why Fonts Matter
The first problem I have when receiving a new book on typography is that I spend far too much time looking up the typefaces described or sampled therein, and searching for them online, instead of reading. Then I start looking at (and critiquing) the typefaces chosen for the book itself. It’s a trees-not-the-forest kind of wonderment that comes over me.

As I am wont to do, I sit back on my deck in the evening sun, glass of wine in hand, and a large pile of previously-purchased typography books beside me, so I can make the introductions. Probably not necessary, since I suspect they already know one another. But it’s comforting to have them all together.

That’s just my own obsession with type and typography. There are, those peccadilloes aside, many great delights to be had in receiving a new book about typography. To open a page filled with characters, colours, shapes… it’s almost a childish joy. I trust some of you know that emotion, already. Sometimes I think talking about type is a bit like talking about Zen. From the outside, it seems suspiciously like mumbo jumbo that only the insiders can understand. But stick with me, grasshopper.*

Sarah Hyndman’s book, and the latest in my collection, Why Fonts Matter, doesn’t frame itself by asking if they matter. Of course they do. What she wants to tell is is how they matter, how they affect us. How they make us feel. How they direct us to buying, eating, music and other daily choices. And, of course, how they communicate their verbal and non-verbal messages. Very Mcluhanistic, the message and the medium and all that. And that’s in great part what Hyndman wants to tell us.

And like the Zen master’s stick thwacking sharply over the novice’s shoulders to spur awareness (and rouse us from sleep), Hyndman startles and awakens us. In a pleasant way, of course. A gentle stick. It’s meant as an interactive journey, not a lecture. And she has a light touch, and a mildly sardonic humour, too.

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Uncommunicative again

front pageDid you receive your “spring” newsletter from the town? The one delivered on the first day of summer (or later), lacking any actual news… yes, that one. To me it appears as clumsily formatted and poorly written as all the previous issues. Another one that likely wouldn’t even get a passing grade in a high school art class.

Since the town continues its race to the bottom of the design barrel, I won’t reiterate all the problems in detail, since they just repeat those already exposed. I’ll just throw in a few comments (read here and here and here for my previous analyses). Needless to say, nothing has been corrected, nothing improved, at least in content, design, layout or copywriting.

front pageThat grinding sound, by the way, is my teeth as I peruse this. Sorry for the noise. Bad design combined with bad typography always sets my teeth on edge.If it does for you, too, you may wonder who is responsible for this?

That’s easy. In any corporate hierarchy, the person at the top is where the buck stops. It’s a matter of corporate honour and ethics for the leader to take responsibility for his or her staff’s actions and output. The captain goes down with the ship. After all, that’s what a real leader does.

So here we expect the interim CAO reads and approves every communication that reflects and represents the town. As the top staff member, paid $225,000 a year, this is his responsibility.

A cunning planSo why does he permit what I perceive as a supremely shoddy effort to be issued again; one that is so easily open to criticism, not to mention snickering and guffawing? It remains a mystery.

A cunning plan must be at work, as Baldrick might say. Let me imagine some scenarios for you…

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Amateur layout and bad ads. Again.

Stinky!I see the Town of Collingwood is still letting the EB layout its full page of ads in the paper.  Tragic. Embarrassing. Cringe-worthy.

The latest back page mashup has as its first ad the worst of the worst sort of ad layout, the sort only amateurs would create. It’s too wide for any human being to comfortably and efficiently read. Then there’s the second page with its fat partner in layout crime.

It’s embarrassing for a municipality to be thus represented. The only saving grace is that no one reads the EB any more, so not very many people see how bad it is. But those who do see it, wince.

Why, oh why, does the town continue to permit amateurs to design its advertising? Doesn’t anyone realize these represent the town? They affect our reputation?

These wide ads – and several of the smaller ads – break pretty much every rule in every design and typographic book. High school students could craft more elegant, readable, exciting ads. Maybe elementary school kids could, too.

I’ve written about these embarrassing, amateur efforts in the past and how they hurt the town’s image. Even a bungling non-designer like me can see they are ill-suited for presenting a professional, polished image. I suspect these are designed by the janitor, or maybe someone who delivers the paper. Certainly not by a graphic designer.

Anyone can read the basic books on layout and design to learn enough to see these are awful. Truly awful. Why can’t anyone in town hall see it?

But, you ask, why would the town give the job to someone trained and experienced in that art? That would break this term’s trend.

Council took the management of the water utility from experienced professionals on the board and gave it to inept councillors. Council kicked the experienced, professional, provincially-recognized winner of several awards and honours, the CEO of Collus, off the board and put the interim CAO in his place. The precedent for replacing people who know what they’re doing with those who don’t was set early in this term.

Council cancelled its individual subscriptions to the monthly Municipal World magazine, the best Canadian journal for municipal governance and politics, read by dedicated municipal politicians across the country. Why? Because council felt it knows everything already and doesn’t need peer advice. Besides, reading is hard work.

Council has turned to obscure one-and-two-person consulting firms few if any of us have ever heard of for recommendations on big, important, strategic issues that affect the town’s well-being, rather than listen to respected, worldwide firms like KPMG.

The arrogance of amateurism is this council’s legacy. The inmates are running the asylum. These ads are regular, graphic reminders of that.

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Type Crimes and Taxes

tax guideType crime is the term author Ellen Lupton uses in her book, Thinking With Type, to describe egregiously bad typography. That description came to mind as I perused the latest fluff mailer from our MP; the so-called “Tax Guide.” So-called because it isn’t a guide: it’s the usual, dreary Conservative whack-a-mole propaganda about how great they were when in power and how evil the Liberals are now.

In fact, if you want actual information, the publication has a final page where you have to send in to get it (or call the Canada Revenue Agency). And unless you’re an accountant, you’ll need more info because this “guide” is pretty vague at its best and has no specific information about filling in your tax form.

Dreary is right: in terms of design, layout and typography, it’s simply awful. I grade it somewhere between the abysmal colour advertising produced by the Town of Collingwood, and the even worse greyscale newsletter. It also has some grammatical errors that a real editor would have caught. *

And why is her information awkwardly centred at the bottom of the front page instead of flush right?

tax guide_03

Look at the sample above (pages 4-5). The first thing that strikes the reader is the vertical density of the type. The leading (the space between the lines) is far too tight, leading to a drabness of copy (in some paragraphs, descenders of one line touch the ascenders of the next!).

The thinness of the body typeface, too, adds to the overall greyness.

You should notice that the leading in the stacked headlines is inconsistent, too.  And why stacked? There’s plenty of room to spread them across the page. That stacking creates odd, disconnected white spaces that leave the reader’s eye bewildered where to go next. Across to the icons on the right? Down to the words below?

The vertical and horizontal lines around two sides of each section increase the sense of funereal confinement and make each section look like an obituary. And that little diamond on the left end of the horizontal fencing keeps drawing the eye to it.

The background attack-ad graphic at the upper right (“clawed-back for 2016”) impairs clarity and readability. If you look closely, you’ll see that the author used double spaces after end punctuation in sentences, not the proper single space. The paragraph indent is too narrow for the line length, too.

Clawed back doesn’t need a hyphen in either instance. But the benefits were not “clawed back” – they were reduced to former levels. The proper definition of a claw back is, “…money or benefits that are distributed and then taken back as a result of special circumstances.”

And don’t get me started on the run-on sentences, the bureaucratese language and the byzantine descriptions of how our tax system works replete in this work.

By the way, American travellers have an $800 duty-free exemption when returning, compared to Canada’s measly $200. Maybe it’s not something to crow so loudly about.

The headline font for sections appears to be Arial, the body Times New Roman (both over-used and boooooooring….) and the page heads are Agenda bold or perhaps Humanist 521. Why some words are in inverse type is beyond me, nor can I fathom the reason for the inappropriately wide space between some of the inverted words and the other words in the headline.

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Just My Type

BemboThose long legs. Gently sloping shoulders. The swelling curves above and below. The sophisticated line of the throat. Everything to attract me, to draw my aging eye, to warm my heart. The sensual Bembo. She’s my kind of type.

Bembo is one of the great Renaissance typefaces that has since been revived. It was designed by Francesco Griffo and first used in a book of poems and essays by scholar Pietro Bembo, published by printer Aldus Manutius, in 1495. Monotype recut it for modern use in 1929, digitized it in 1990 and more recently, in 2005, redesigned it for today’s printing as Bembo Book.

Bembo Book’s designer, Robin Nicholas, says this of the typeface:

Bembo was drawn to embody the elegance and fine design features of the original but marry them with the consistency of contemporary production methods… (Bembo Book) is slightly narrower than existing digital versions of Bembo, it is a little more economical in use and gives excellent colour to continuous pages of text. Ascending lowercase letters are noticeably taller than capitals, giving an elegant, refined look to the text.

Adobe also made a Bembo typeface, but it seems to have drawn criticism from the admittedly rarefied community of type aficionados. Thomas Christensen, who writes The Typehead Chronicles, says this:

Adobe Bembo, however, has received a lot of criticism in the typophilic community for not living up to the quality of the metal version. It is said to be light and spindly and to produce a palid gray page. (Some of this criticism may be overdone.)
Some recommend Minion as an alternative, but I am not a fan of Minion. Another proposed alternative is Dante, but I think it has an entirely different feel. There are a couple of new versions of Bembo-like digital fonts that might be worth looking into. One is JY Aetna by Jack Yan. Another is the new Yale typeface by Matthew Carter, but it is only “available to Yale employees, students, and authorized contractors for use in Yale publications and communications,” a restriction that is a giant step backward.
Now, in 2005, Monotype has released a new digital version of Bembo, called Bembo Book. It is said that this version restored many of the admirable qualities of the letterpress Bembo…

Although dismissed by Christensen, Robert Bringhurst’s book, The Elements of Typographic Style, is set in Minion (with captions in Scala Sans), possibly because it doesn’t intrude into the language and the message (Bringhurst shows many typefaces in his examples). For the most part, a typeface should not be visible to the reader any more than a  window pane is to someone looking outside.

But it will be visible to a typographer or graphic artist, much like one magician knows another magician’s tricks. The trained eye will see how the text flows, how the eye is directed, how well the elements balance.

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Bad Designs

Bad designI’m not a graphic designer. I was not formally educated in that art. However, over the years, my jobs in editing and writing for books, newspapers, magazines and publishers have required me to learn the rudiments of layout, typography and design.

I am the first to admit my design talent is merely adequate. Despite that, I did absorb enough to be able to recognize egregiously bad design.

And this week, I found what may be the best example of the most egregiously bad design and layout I’ve ever encountered: the Town of Collingwood’s advertising section on pages D6-D8 of the Enterprise Bulletin, April 24, 2015.

Whoever assembled these ads has – incredibly, it seems – even less talent than I have in layout and design.

First, the size: the ads sprawl across two-and-three quarters pages when they could easily have fit in a page-and-a-half.  Since we taxpayers pay for those ads, this wasteful layout is costing us money. There is no excuse for this.

Second, the type: about 99 percent of the text is set in the same sans-serif typeface – Arial or Helvetica – body and headlines, making it incredibly boring and dull to look at. Couldn’t someone had clicked the font menu and selected a serif typeface just once?

Serif fonts  improve ease of reading; they have been used since Roman times. The serifs help guide the eye along the line – and the longer the line, the more they prove useful. But even if you use sans-serif for the body, it is good design to use a different typeface for the headlines. This wasn’t done: instead the pages have a monolithic sameness.

As the Creative Market site notes,

Perhaps the single most important part of graphic and web design is typography. Like color, texture, and shapes, the fonts you use tell readers you’re a serious online news magazine, a playful food blog or a vintage tea tins shop. Words are important, but the style of the words is equally essential.

So what do the fonts of the town’s ad pages tell readers? Boring, dull, unimaginative, stiff, stodgy, amateurish? All of these?

The type size, too, is unnecessarily large for body type – 12 or perhaps even 14 point. At the most, it should be 10-11 point and probably could be smaller. This oversized text is the major cause of the sprawl, too.

But the headline size has not been scaled to match the large body size, so the headlines look grotesquely small. And to compound it, the small headlines are all centred, looking orphaned amidst all that extra space.

And why are some headlines in black, some in blue, and others a mix of blue and black?

All of the body copy is justified – again adding to the boring similarity of every ad. Fully justified text like this has been proven harder to read in large blocks than ragged right text. And the full justification creates awkward gaps between words in the longer lines.

Then there’s the excess leading (the space between lines) and the embarrassingly wide distance between paragraphs (did someone hit return twice? That’s a bad habit from the typewriter era). Thick horizontal lines of whitespace mar the appearance and force the reader’s eyes to drift too far to find the next paragraph.

I won’t even begin with the issue of kerning in the headlines, except to note that there doesn’t seem to have been any effort made in that department.

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1927: Ads, Layout and Typography

As promised, here are the first 20 scans of the ads from the 1927 North American Almanac I recently mentioned. If there is interest, I’ll do another set later this week. There are probably another 40 or 50 pages of ads in the book.

I think these ads give us a wonderful window into the daily, household life of the time, into cultural views and medical thinking. As well, they show the state of advertising, layout and typography. It’s fascinating to look at the mix of typefaces and their placement.

Click on the image to load a larger version and see the ads in greater detail.

1927 ad page

1927 ad page

1927 ad page

1927 ad page

1927 ad page
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