Torch: Practice Makes Purpose

Faced with terminal velocities of choice and amateurism, designers today have to choose typefaces purposefully and carefully or risk an infinite failure: That their work be lost in a sea of voices, or surgically negated by tentative readers who, uninspired by the design’s intent or frustrated by the lack of an edited experience, reformat the design as each decides is comfortable.

Now, more than ever, we must fight for the value of intended experience. But instead of using heavy-handed tactics in an attempt to force an experience upon our readers, let us be introspective. Let us focus on the value of our craft, and help our readers to share this value. Let us make such wonderful native experiences that our readers begin to consciously avoid mechanisms of design homogenization and deterioration. Let us practice typography worth experiencing, and begin by choosing typefaces.

“Letterforms have character, spirit and personality. Typographers learn to discern these features through years of working first-hand with the forms, and through studying and comparing the work of other designers, present and past. On close inspection, typefaces reveal many hints of their designers’ times and temperaments, and even their nationalities and religious faiths. Faces chosen on these grounds are likely to give more interesting results than faces chosen through mere convenience of availability or coincidence of name.”

In this single paragraph of Robert Bringhurst’s The Elements of Typographic Style (pp 99–100), there are several excellent suggestions for making purposeful typeface choices. Most notably: working with type, inspecting typefaces, learning about type designers, and studying the work of other designers. Here are some ways to go about each of these exercises:

Work with type

Spend more time on the typographic aspects of your projects. Seek work with a focus on text and typography. Experience can’t be accelerated, so constant exposure is the only real means of increasing one’s involvement with, and sensitivity toward, type. If it’s difficult to find time at work, make time on the side. Typeset a small text from Project Gutenberg.

Inspect typefaces

Look at specimens of typefaces. Create your own type specimens and save them. Look at type in different contexts. Study the details close-up. Study the tone and color from a distance. Compare several typefaces in the same context, and observe their similarities and differences. Write notes about what you think. Write a blog about what you think.

Learn about type designers

Read interviews with type designers — MyFonts has a fantastic series called Creative Characters. Go to TypeCon and talk with type designers in person. Listen to Typeradio. Read and ask questions in the Typophile forums.

Study the work of other designers

Search Dribbble for shots tagged type, typography, or Typekit. See how other designers are using type — Typekit’s “Sites we like” feature is a growing resource, with four posts so far: October 8, 15, 22, and 29.

If you have additional resources or techniques for choosing typefaces, please share in the comments. And as we return to work and study, one more word from Mr. Bringhurst:

“Typography, like other arts, preys on its past. It can do so with the callousness of a grave robber, or with the piety of unquestioning ancestor worship. It can also do so in thoughtful, enlightened and deeply creative ways.”

  • 1. Dionne’s avatar Dionne Nov 02, 2010

    This is a great post! Practice does make purpose and this was reiterated at a Typography Workshop I attended by Ilene Strizver of The Type Studio . Workshops are another excellent way for designers to engage in stimulating typography and design exercises, conversation, and to expand our knowledge base and exposure to valuable techniques. This workshop was great, the best part was a segment titled “Kerning Demystified” – which inspired me to write the following blog post:
    More Than Meets the Eye

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