This post is from my old blogging site, Posterous, which no longer exists.
One of the most valuable things I ever learnt about design, and more specifically letter form, or typography, was to look at letters as though they are alive, to imagine them as some kind of animal. Once you do that you can see what the body language of that animal is saying. In it’s natural condition an individual letter should look balanced and at rest, evenly weighted and in its own space. This developed over millennia and we give it no thought at all when reading. In fact we can give it no thought at all for that very reason: Everything looks set, and in it’s natural position. There is nothing to distract the eye, and the reading can be automatic.
Basically every letter in the alphabet has unique characteristics that have become embedded into our subconscious. A designer is simply someone who has become aware of what makes a letter look like a letter, which in turn gives one the ability to distort those characteristics without loosing sight of the readability factor.
Letter form evolved certain characteristics due to the tools used to make them. Flat sticks, brushes, and chisels make thin lines at certain angles and thick lines at others. Also, because of human anatomy, some parts of a letter are more upright and some are more angled because most scribes were right handed and wrote left to right.
Below is a good example. All we need to look at is the capital letter ‘A’.
In the top version, compared to a standard letter ‘A’, it looks as though it is standing on tip-toe, or has its shoulders hunched, or is tense and uptight. In the bottom version the ‘A’ is balanced and at rest. Relaxed.
Just reversing a letter can show how many subtle elements are involved in its construction:
See? [The 2nd one is the correct one. The less you think about it the easier it is to see.]
And don’t even get me started on kerning and leading! You could drive a bus through some of it, or not get a tram ticket between the rest!
Once all the letters are sorted and each letter and word looks like a contained and happy unit there comes the element of placing. Placing is everything, as is scale and proportion. You are unlikely to get it right by accident or by instinct. In other words: use a professional 😉
I have often found that after studying something for years it will be a single simple comment that someone makes that teaches me more in a few seconds than a decade’s worth of thinking about it. I had the same experience with writing poetry Has that ever happened to you?
Thanks to all who commented before. Below are the comments and responses:
Abi Burlingham responded:
Oh, I love this. I hadn’t really thought about lettering like this before, and you’ve given me an idea for helping students with low literacy skills too, by imagining the letters as living thins, so this is extra-specially fab! And yes, I do find that sometimes just a few words from somebody will make something click into place, as your blog post has with me now.
Seriously, I woke up and first thing saw you’d blogged again, which must mean another week has gone and it’s Friday again. And your blogs are always so damned good! Made me think I needed to make the effort to blog too. Had the idea for this one for a while so it was easy to get started at least. Thanks for the inspiration, Abi.So glad you like it, and it is a total bonus that it can tie in in some way with your class work. Fabbo! xx
Dean, I think your suggestion to imagine each letter “as some kind of animal” will be of immense value to anyone who uses lettering within design.
Funny to think how we take it for granted that we can take a “A” (sorry – bad font!) and simply flip it over instead of spending the night chiseling out its mirror image!
Hi Jules! I’ve wanted to blog about this for ages. It’s such a simple idea but makes all the difference in the world. I hope someone who needs it finds it and finds it helpful too. That would be excellent.I know! Isn’t it amazing what technology has done. And did you know that the fact that computers have and are able to display so many wonderful fonts is down to a piece of pure chance: Steve Jobs studied calligraphy while at university.Hope you have a good weekend :o) x
GwenEllery (Twitter) responded:
I love your idea of letters being alive with their own body language and characteristics. Your illustration shows that so well. The A and the S in the second design look to me fat and happy. And kind of 70s Bohemian, as if they’re wearing platform heels. Strutting hippy letters in zoot suits and long flowered dresses.
Thanks Gwen. It’s not really an original idea as such, just a way of putting it. It’s meant to be a rule for all lettering no matter the style, except in very exceptional situations.Yeah, that logo does have a real ’70’s feel. It is a direct homage to Roger Keen’s Yes logo. He designed several versions for the band’s album covers and posters etc.Hope your weekend is going well :o)
girl_novelist (Twitter) responded:
Wow, yes you are so correct about learning from someone’s comment. I’ve had this happen to me as a novelist. I’ve studied creative writing for years, and have learned some of my most valuable lessons through a comment here and there.
Morning Suzie! It is so often like that isn’t it? I think it may be because until we are ready to ‘hear’ something we keep hearing something else. And as our attitudes change as we age so does our approach to things.]