Printing and Design Tips: May 2021, Issue #238

Type Design: Making Text Stand Out

I think the reason publication design exists as an artistic discipline and marketing tool is twofold: to make the reader want to read the book, magazine, or other printed product, and to group ideas and present them in a logical order in manageable chunks.

"Content" without "design" would, perhaps, all be set in the same typeface, at the same point size, running from the left margin to the right, all the way through the book. You wouldn’t know what was important because everything would seem to be. Chances are that you’d stop reading pretty quickly and probably be totally confused.

In light of this I was pleased to find another design textbook at my fiancee’s and my favorite thrift store. It’s called the PDW Publication Design Workbook: A Real World Design Guide. It’s a Rockport textbook, and it was written by Timothy Samara.

Keep in mind that I was a Literature major, and I learned publication design on my own by doing it. Or, more precisely, I learned by closely observing how other people were doing it successfully, in books, on billboards, in magazine ads. So I found this textbook to be a treasure, because among other things it presents "rules" for design, or in this case suggestions for how to break up content into manageable chunks (thoughts and ideas), and arrange them in a coherent story such that readers can acquire new knowledge.

One of the more useful infographics in the book, "Hierarchic Strategies," displays nine options for organizing text on a page to highlight prominence. Hierarchy of information is really what I’ve been talking about for the past few paragraphs: how to show the reader immediately what’s most important and what’s of lesser importance.

Here are the nine options Samara’s book suggests (page 55, PDW Publication Design Workbook: A Real World Design Guide):

1. "Change in weight." If all of your text is the same typeface and point size, setting one line (headline or a line of important text) in bold, when everything else is set in a roman face, sets apart that line as being important. The contrast makes it stand out. (Actually, that’s true for all of these options.)

2. "Change in size." If all lines of type are the same typeface, weight, point size, etc., increasing the point size of one line of type will make it the most important line. This is what we do with headlines.

3. "Change in position." If you have a stack of lines of type that are all indented, leaving a scholar’s margin on the outer margin of the page, and you bring one line of type back to the outermost margin, that line will be the most important (because it will be the only line not indented).

4. "Change in rhythm." If you have a column of type repeated in the same position and format from page to page, and you break the pattern, then the type that breaks the pattern will be the most important. To illustrate, let’s say you have a single column of type with a wide outer margin—a scholar’s margin. Let’s say it’s the first page of a chapter, and you start the copy a third of the way down the page—on all chapter opening pages. If you place copy in the scholar’s margin (let’s say a pull quote), starting higher on the page than the main column of type, that copy block will be the most important element on the page. Again, divergence from reader expectation creates visual dominance.

5. "Change in spacing." If you spread out a single line of copy (letterspacing), it will become the most important design element. That’s why this design flaw (usually) is a problem. It catches the reader’s attention first.

6. "Change in orientation." If you turn a block of type on its side (90 degrees: let’s say it’s a headline) from the usual orientation of the main column of text, it will stand out. It may not be readable if it is more than a few short words, but it will grab the reader’s attention.

7. "Change in relative gray value." If you set a column of type in gray (let’s say 80 percent black), and then you print one line of text in the same typeface and point size in 100 percent black, it will stand out. It will be the most important line of type.

8. "Change in contrast with background." Let’s say your page has a gray background (a full-bleed 50 percent black area screen). Over this you surprint a black headline, and you reverse out a single word in an otherwise black text block (body copy, not a headline). That one word will grab the reader’s attention. In fact, depending on the level of gray tone of the background (the contrast between the white type and the background), the single reversed-out word will appear more important than even a much larger headline.

9. "Change in chromatic color." The infographic includes a thumbnail image of a page with a brown background, small surprinted type in blue, more small type (only two words) in light yellow, and much larger type in light brown and a dark red. Even though it is the smallest type on the page, the yellow stands out in contrast to the dark brown background. The blue type, rust red type, and much larger brown type are all subordinate because they lack the contrast of the brown vs. yellow coloration.

These are a handful of rules of design and examples, meant to be studied, understood, and then occasionally broken for a good design reason. Hopefully you’ve been able to visualize these examples. Also, hopefully, they will have encouraged you to find other ways designers have established a contrast between one line or chunk of copy and another, since contrast is one tool you can use as a designer to create a visual hierarchy of importance.

These few examples show that by varying simple characteristics of type on a page, you can direct the attention of the reader. You can lead her/him through the content. She/he wants you to do this. Otherwise the content on the page is a vast, undifferentiated sea of words.

Type as Image (Helpful Information for Logo Design)

PDW Publication Design Workbook: A Real World Design Guide includes a wealth of knowledge. Here’s one more infographic from a section on "Typography as Content," (page 32).

I have included two of my favorite examples from this infographic. The goal is to make the reader look at the printed word(s) not as "information" but as "art." This is a useful way to approach typography when you’re creating a logo for a design client.

"Pictorial Inclusion"--PDW Publication Design Workbook: A Real World Design Guide includes the word "Organic" in all caps in a bold sans-serif typeface. The center hole of the letter "O" has been replaced with a reversed-out (white) flower. The center of the letter "A" has been replaced with three reversed out leaves. And above the letter "I" is another flower (in the same color as the type) instead of the customary "dot" above the "I."

The heavy sans-serif letters have also been spread out slightly (letterspaced) to make them feel "airy" and "sophisticated."

This works as a logo because the pictures are relevant to the word "Organic" and because the pictures have been so closely incorporated into the simple contour of the uppercase letters (essentially a rectangle). And the dot above the "I" works because it is whimsical (since it is unnecessary; that is, uppercase "I’s" need no dots above them) and since it is the sole mark of the logo that extends beyond the outer shape of the letterforms themselves.

"Form Substitution"--PDW Publication Design Workbook: A Real World Design Guide includes the word "FI5TH" ("Fifth," with a "5" replacing the second "f") as a logo. The numeral is larger than the letterforms, so it stands out. What makes this effective is the shortness of the word: five letters. If it were a long word, it would be confusing. This is short and immediately recognizable. It shakes up your brain. Your brain supplies the missing letter (because the word is so short), but it also switches back and forth between reading letters and reading numbers. You recognize, understand, and see the humor, all in a fraction of a second.

[Steven Waxman is a printing consultant. He teaches corporations how to save money buying printing, brokers printing services, and teaches prepress techniques. Steven has been in the printing industry for thirty-three years working as a writer, editor, print buyer, photographer, graphic designer, art director, and production manager.]