Typography is the craft of endowing human language with a durable visual form. Robert Bringhurst, The Elements of Typographic Style (Hartley & Marks Publishers, 2001)
I’m neither a graphic designer nor a typographer, but I spent many, many years working with design and type, as well as designers and typographers, enough to acquire at least a patina of their arts. I’ve read and studied them enough to know the basics, more than enough to see when they have not been applied, and enough to appreciate good and bad style. Looking at the ads on the Town of Collingwood’s pages in the Connection, I see the bad pretty much everywhere.
There are skills that whoever puts together the ads SHOULD have, along with a good command of the English language and its peccadilloes; these are skills every communication or public relations officer should have, too*.
I always assumed every town ad was designed and laid out by the town’s communications or PR officer, or at the very least sent to them for approval (after all, why have someone in that position if they aren’t managing all municipal communications?). But now I wonder: are these instead designed and laid out by someone at the “news” paper? Maybe someone was recruited from stuffing flyers into plastic bags to do it?**
How do such bad typography and design get into print? How do grammatical and spelling errors go unnoticed?
I’m not suggesting town pages need to be the model of modern graphic design or the pinnacle of artistic endeavour, but they do represent Collingwood and are the source of municipal information for many readers. At the very least they should be clear, legible, well-made, free of errors, and reasonably good-looking. Not boring, dull, and error-laden. They should adhere to the basic design and grammatic principles. These pages should reflect the town’s brand and self-image, not look like a graphic yard sale.
Advertisements promise a benefit or call for action from the reader, or sometimes do both. Notices are meant to inform. Town pages have both. The layout and design should be carefully thought out so both form and content effectively fulfill the town’s objectives while engaging the readers. But have the objectives of these pages been clearly stated and expressed to staff and shared with the “news” paper? Who wrote them? When? Have they been re-examined since? Is there a process to re-evaluate town communications at regular intervals? Has anyone measured the effectiveness of these pages or public response to them?
Let’s start with the basic principles of design. Yes, I am aware that many town ads are rather clunky, text-dense slabs required for mundane uses such as planning notices, and have to contain material required by legislation. However, these advertising pages still represent and portray the town There’s no reason why proper design, style, and typography should not be applied to a major conduit for municipal communications.
And let’s be clear: Microsoft Word is not — let me repeat that forcefully: NOT — not an effective tool for layout or design. If a program can’t do kerning or tracking, it’s not appropriate for layout. No, not even Microsoft Publisher is adequate for the task. Look to CorelDraw, Adobe inDesign, Adobe Illustrator, or Quark Xpress for the proper tools.
According to Robin Williams in her book, The Non-Designer’s Design Book: Design and Typographic Principles for the Visual Novice (4th end., Peachpit Press 2015, p. 15), the four design principles are:
- Contrast: makes the reader look, and clarifies the communications;
- Repetition: Develops the organization and strengthens the unity (This is also related to consistent use of style);
- Alignment: Nothing should be placed on the page arbitrarily;
- Proximity: Place related items close together to organize information, reduce clutter, and give readers a clear structure.
Williams notes (p. 55) that “repetition goes beyond just being naturally consistent — it is a conscious effort to unify all parts of a design.” There are further principles for typography to consider when writing anything for others to read, including:
- Font (or typeface) choice and size;
- Measure (the width of a line in a paragraph or column);
- Letter spacing and line-height (aka leading);
- Weight (the thickness of a font compared to its base typeface);
- Readability (will people want to read this text?).
All these details matter and should be carefully considered and managed. You need to sweat the ‘small stuff’ in design and typography. Don’t take my word for it: check out any of the dozens of books on typography available, or on the many typography websites.
In Making Digital Type Look Good (Watson-Guptill, 2001, p. 24), Bob Gordon lists other features that designers should consider, including hanging punctuation, first-line indents, raised or dropped initial capitals, hyphenation, character spacing (tracking), alignment, and more. “We cannot let decisions on these matters go by default,” he cautions, “for all aspects of paragraph design have a profound effect on tone, texture, page coloring, and overall effectiveness of our work.”
Type influences what we read and affects our choices because we all instinctively understand what it is communicating to us, and we have been learning to interpret the references all our lives… Type functions as a carrier of words. It displays these efficiently so that the reader’s eyes can glide seemingly effortlessly across the page as they read it… There is more to type than just being an invisible transmitter of words. The different shapes and styles of the typefaces themselves stimulate responses independently of the words they spell out, and before we even read them. Sarah Hyndman, Why Fonts Matter, Virgin Books, Penguin Random House, 2016.
About line length, Robert Bringhurst notes (p.26-27):
Anything from 45 to 75 characters is widely regarded as a satisfactory length of line for a single-column page set in a serifed text face in a text size. The 66-character line (counting both letters and spaces) is widely regarded as ideal. For multiple-column work, a better average is 40 to 50 characters.
In Making Digital Type Look Good (Watson Guptill, 2001), author Bob Gordon writes (p.57), “The best length is widely accepted at around 60 characters or 10 to 12 words.” In Designing With Type: The Essential Guide to Typography (5th edn., Watson and Guptill, 2006), James Craig says to keep line lengths between 35 and 70 characters (including spaces).
The human eye moves across a line of type in saccadic jumps, processing the text subconsciously as it travels. When the line is too long, the processing tends to falter; the content is lost and the eye is forced to go back to re-read more carefully. The eye has to travel too far to return to the start of the next line for effective reading. Yet on page 8 of the June 17 Connection, the town’s ad in the right column (property tax interest) is 85-90 characters wide or 12-17 words. Clearly, the lines in this ad are too wide for the size of the type. That reduces the text’s readability.
As a small digression, town ads also use an apparently random, yet annoying form of capitalization. Words like Tax Roll Number, Pre-authorized Payment Plans, Town Hall Drop Box, Property Taxes, and Pandemic should all be written in lower case. This is not the only ad with such errors: look at “Resident Parking Pass,” “Town Page,” “Optional Site Meeting,” “Provision of Professional Engineering Services Roster,” “Standing Committees,” “Virtual Town Hall,” “E-Billing (note that “Pre-authorized” uses lowercase to begin the suffix, but this uses uppercase)” “Resident Parking Pass,” and “WIN.” Inappropriate capitalization is a failed attempt by flaccid bureaucracies to make the mundane in their world seem formal and important. They are simply wrong and it makes the text look fusty and awkward.
This sort of mistaken capitalization would not happen if the person(s) approving the ads relied on a credible style guide, such as the Chicago Manual of Style, the APA Style Guide, CP Stylebook, or any of a number of such books (I prefer the CMOS, 17th edn). Plus, of course, a usage guide to language like Fowler’s, Strunk and White, Oxford, etc., to make sure the grammar, punctuation, and spelling are correct.
Any why so many exclamation marks? Although the one after patio on the Patiolicious ad can be argued as appropriate, the rest are unnecessary and look amateurish. Save the exclamations for really important stuff, not tax interest deferrals.
Black-and-white design, when appropriate, yields the highest level of contrast to command attention and create legibility. And using color conservatively helps call attention to spot- or full-color elements placed strategically within the design. Jason Tselentis, Type Form & Function: A Handbook on the Fundamentals of Typography, Rockport Publishers, 2011.
*NEW* — using asterisks to highlight a word or phrase is a method used in unformatted text forums like Facebook, but is redundant and risible in print when you have bold and italic options available. And it doesn’t need to be in all-caps. Use just one formatting style for this word, not three.
A hyphen should separate combinations of words like 10-month, or strings like phone numbers. It is not a dash or a separator for clauses. An em dash is what the town ad should use after *NEW*.
A proper style or usage guide will tell you, for example, that a single space is required after a period, not two (an amateur’s mistake, but you will find it in far too many lines on these pages). And that in point 2 of the “property tax” ad, the comma after institution should be either a semi-colon or a period, not a comma. And after the word “needs” in point 3 there should be a colon, not a comma. In person should be hyphenated in points 5 and 6. There should be a comma after May in the first paragraph of that ad. Current year should be hyphenated. The forms of payments are not “channels” by any proper definition of that word (they are simply methods). Livestreamed should be two words, hyphenated. The line “Details on participating at Standing Committees that doesn’t require…” is grammatically incorrect. The verb should be don’t. And you participate in or with, not at for this usage. 10 month and current year should be hyphenated.
One begins to wonder if the town actually has anyone to oversee and proofread these ads, because these errata are quite evident, even to a novice such as myself. Basic tools like Grammarly or Word’s spelling and grammar checker underscore these errors on the screen so they can be corrected. So why are they present in the print version?
Type size is another important element for clarity and legibility. Look at the ad on page 9 for Georgian Bay Reads and examine the line of type at the top: perhaps 6 point, in all uppercase. Difficult to read, for both size and form. It’s confounded by the mechanics of newspaper printing which is grainier than, say, book printing or even online display. Newspaper printing tends to blur small type, so that top line needs to be larger to be seen effectively. It might also be better set in a proper upper-and-lowercase form rather than the shouting ALL CAPS currently used.
And the type in the property tax interest ad is simply too large for the content (14 or maybe even 16pt?). Such an ungainly font warns the reader dense bureaucratese lurks within. What might be a positive notice for some readers instead becomes a bland, grey box of words, words, words. And don’t get me started on how those words are written: surely there are better ways to say this sort of thing. This notice is hardly more engaging than the instruction manual for a power bar.
Contrast is equally important: text needs to have a high contrast from the background to be able to read it properly. It needs to stand out. Look at the “canopy” ad***on page 8 and the Georgian Bay Reads ad on page 9: both have dark green text set against a black background, making the works difficult if not impossible to see without considerable effort. For any low-contrast design to work, that text needs to be much larger and thicker (bolder) otherwise the eye passes over it without seeing the words.
You might also note both these ads have green-on-black graphics, which are equally difficult to see properly in that size, and made fuzzy by the printing process.
Almost every ad on those pages uses the same typeface, a sans-serif (likely Swiss, Helvetica, or possibly Arial). The dullness is sleep-inducing. First, contrast is not simply light and dark or making some words bold: it is also found in mixing typefaces so some lines or blocks make a statement. Designers typically use a different typeface for headlines than for body text so that the eye sees the hierarchy of importance easily. Simply making a headline bold is not creating contrast. Headlines should stand out.
Helvetica is good for typographers who do not know what to say. Thomas Bohm
With the exception of a line in the museum ad on page 8, and the graphics for Bahangra Dancing and Patiolicious on page 9, everything appears to be set in just a single typeface. Aside from being boring, this shows a remarkable lack of imagination. It can be argued that sans serif typefaces are generally less readable in blocks of printed text than serif typefaces, but more to the point, there are better-designed sans-serif typefaces that improve readability if you want to use one.
Don’t just pick a font from what comes free with your computer or program. That’s the lazy approach. Pick a typeface that conveys to the reader a sense that you actually care about what you’re telling them, that you care about the message; not just one from a list of freebies. Does the type convey gravitas? Friendliness? Authority? Tradition? Modernity? Competence? Or just laziness?
But whichever font or typeface you use, its height (size) and weight need to be matched with the appropriate letter, word, and line spacing for optimum readability. You can’t rely on the default settings of any program (and certainly NOT Word) to produce the most readable text in their default settings.
Typography has a threefold purpose. First of all, it is about rousing people’s interest to read a text. The second purpose is to enhance legibility, and finally, typography determines the direction and speed of reading. Joep Pohlen, Letter Fountain: The Ultimate Type Reference Guide, Taschen, 2015, p.182.
Pohlen adds (p.184) that the first impression a page makes determines whether a reader is interested enough to begin reading and that it is important to catch and guide the ‘searching eye’. “Where does the reader look first?” he asks. “In what way is he drawn into the text and how does he read the information to be conveyed?” Look at the town pages and ask yourself these questions — as should have been asked by the person(s) proofreading and approving them. If there is anyone doing that.
Consistency matters, too. Why is the top part of the ad in the leftmost column of page 8 set ragged right (flush left) while the bottom part is set centred? Why is the indent after the bullet in the bottom left ad wider than the indent in the list of the ad for property taxes? Why are the headlines for the ad on waterfront parking passes when the text is flush left? Why doesn’t the headline in the “share the road” ad fill the line length? It all feels so slapdash.
Why are FREE, COUNCIL CORNER, and BID OPPORTUNITIES in all caps when other words in headlines aren’t? Why are the words “until” and “end” not capitalized like the rest of the headline? Why is the contact information line in the parking pass ad centred when the text is flush left? Why is the Patiolicious ad centred when other ads are flush left? Why are hours shown like a.m. and p.m. and as am and pm? Pick one style (CMOS recommends small caps with periods for printed documents)! Why is the BID OPPORTUNITIES text in royal blue and some (apparently at random) words in bold?
The union of uppercase and lowercase roman letters — in which the uppercase has seniority but the lowercase has the power — has held firm for twelve centuries. This constitutional monarchy of the alphabet is one of the most durable of European cultural institutions. Robert Bringhurst: The Elements of Typographic Style, p. 53.
Why does the masthead on both pages call it a “weekly town page” when it is clearly two pages?
The image on the “Share the Road” ad appears to have been lifted from an online site (for example versions of it appear here, and here) but I see no credit or copyright: did the town get permission to use it? If so, the image source needs proper credit. If not, was copyright violated?
Design and typography matter because these pages convey a message to readers about the town. They should look professional, thoughtfully prepared, consistent, and clear as to their purpose — not like a high-school project prepared in Word and slapped together in a hurry. They should be error-free because those errors send a message about municipal competence and credibility.
Collingwood can and should do better in presenting itself to the public.
* Examine the bookshelf in the office of any person employed in communications: it will speak volumes about their credibility and knowledge. What style guide(s) do you see? Do they have the Chicago Manual of Style, Fowler’s, Strunk & White, or the CP Stylebook? If not, which guides do they have for ready reference? What dictionary or thesaurus are they using? Oxford, Random House, Chambers, or Merriam-Webster? If it’s a generic Webster’s and not a credible publisher you know you’re in trouble. Do they have books on graphic design and typography or subscribe to industry journals about them? If you don’t see any of these, you should consider hiring someone with those skills and resources (and perhaps ask why your current staff person lacks essential skills!). Give them extra marks for having Bringhurst or other manuals on typography and design. And if they use Publisher or Word for layout and design, consider replacing them ASAP.
** What is the “news” paper’s role in these ads? I assume that the advertising staff must advise the town that, say, green type on a black background is illegible, and warn about tiny type being difficult to read, and that two spaces after a period are incorrect. But do I assume too much? In a perfect world, a business looks after its clients’ interests, gives them advice and recommendations, helps with the layout, does some proofreading, and does whatever else is required to make their clients’ ads be their best. But I have no idea what the “news” paper does in relation to town pages. Perhaps they do the very least possible: just take the ads, print them, and cash the cheques.
*** The canopy project is “a community forest project aimed at increasing the Town’s urban tree canopy on private lands.” I suppose it’s on private lands because the town has a terrible record with trees on public property. It plants them, then abandons them to die without water or care (as it did along Third Street, in the Second Street dog park, and along Heritage Drive for example). And it cuts them down easily (as it did with more than 50 mature trees along Hurontario Street to build a sidewalk so one of our laziest councillors wouldn’t have to cross the road to use the existing sidewalk there) but never seems to replant (and care for) new ones to replace them. So, rather hypocritically, the town turns to private owners to do what our tax dollars should be funding and makes it look like a community project.
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I just glanced at the current town pages in the Connection this morning and grimaced. Everything I said above goes for this week’s dreary, unimaginative, poorly-designed, typographically inept advertising. I’ll post more details when I have enough tea in me to stomach facing another example of bad communication from Collingwood.
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