The Typographer’s Approach to Typography

On the subject of getting into the head of the typographer, today we’ll walk through some decisions that graphic designers and typographers consider early on in the design process. Frankly, I hope this is useful stuff. Often while tracing the unconscious and intuitively made steps toward a given result, the final piece seems only obvious. Discussing these principles in the abstract and keeping my audience engaged long enough to hear it is the challenge I’ve accepted here.


First, some terms

I know I’ve mentioned this here before, but just for clarity’s sake: Typography is “writing with prefabricated characters.” (Gerrit Noordzij said that.) A type designer is someone who makes type, those prefabricated characters just mentioned. A typographer is someone who specializes in using type. Lastly, though it’s a related field, lettering is not type, and the use of lettering is not typography. Ready to get started? Great.

What is the need?

With client work, a sizeable part of the design process goes into properly forming not the answer, but the question to which the design brief responds. It’s often in the process of conducting proper research that certain strong concepts present themselves. If it’s a publisher seeking a book or book cover design, it’s in the text. If it’s a fashion label refresh, it’s in the cut of the clothes, the demographic data, the histories of its designers. If it’s product packaging, or a music tour, or a cryptocurrency, or a playbill redesign, or a geotagging app, a movie prop, something in the research of the thing, its history, or the people who make it will show up as a distinct piece of the solution. From the beginning of this process, I keep a dedicated book to draw and write down my ideas.

The answer to the brief

Working out what rough forms the project will take given its requirements and constraints, I get to work figuring out what content needs to be created, who best to do it, and what kind of meaning the typography should give to the copy it sets. Special attention is placed on the visual requirements: How do specific marks translate from one medium to the next? How will they perform at large and small sizes? On the store shelves and in the lower third of the morning talk shows? Which typefaces and treatments have the handpicked quality required? Which typefaces will deliver consistent results on screen and in other physical applications? Linguistic requirements: How many languages will this piece be translated into, and is the layout I’ve created flexible enough to function well in the common cases? Adaptable to extreme cases? It’s also during this phase that I consider incorporating substrates and other materials, disciplines, and processes that make sense.

Pause. We’ll hold it here for now. I’ll continue when Using Type picks back up on Thursday. Please let me know if you find this interesting. Thanks to Frank Grießhammer’s FF Quixo for setting the title.

One Comment

  1. Chantelle Warburton
    Posted September 22, 2014 at 2:45 AM | Permalink

    Great post! I particularly enjoyed your explanation of the role of a typographer, as well as your answer to the question, ‘What is the need?’.

    I’ve only just discovered the FontShop website and blog—what an excellent resource! Keep up the great work.

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