Typography: Aesthetic and Function

The aesthetic comes in the selections and combinations of letterforms; the function speaks to the communication

Originally published in 2001 to accompany the exhibition, “Typography: Aesthetic and Function” at Kansas State University

Working with type—or to be more formal, typography—is a very curious thing. Like some things, it looks deceptively simple. After all, they are still the same twenty-six characters we’ve all seen and dealt with since we were six years old in first grade just learning to read (plus numbers and punctuation, but you get the picture). A is still A and Q is still Q. What most people (except designers who work with type every day) fail to realize is that typography is quite a difficult enterprise to master. I’ve been “practicing” for nearly thirty years and I feel like I’m just now beginning to get the knack of it all, let alone master it as a discipline.

The thing about type is that it takes a tremendous amount of trial and error. I tell my students this all the time: it’s the old “what if” principle (“what if you tried this, or what if you tried that.”). And in most cases, a designer really can’t tell until he tries different things. Sure, a seasoned eye can ward off some of the possibilities of a failed idea before the get-go. But for the most part, there is the part of the design process where the designer just has to try many different approaches.

And so it goes with type. A designer works with contrasts and textures: darks with lights; serifs with sans serifs; a script with a big, chunky slab serif; big against little, few against many. It is this contrast, these combinations, where I find that my interest lies. A designer works with type as part of a palette in the same way that a painter works with the colors of his palette.

Type can speak to the viewer. Type has attitude: type can be quiet, it can be loud. Type can be conservative, or it can be wild. By looking at any number of typefaces, one can start to assign attributes to the look and feel of certain typefaces. As soon as a designer begins to work with letterforms, the designer is immediately faced with the combination of these letterforms into words or language. What do the letterforms say? (they must say something because of the combination of the forms into words). I’ve always been interested in what my type says. I believe a designer must “think editorially”—they must be concerned with what the words say, not just what they look like. It is the role of the designer to establish a hierarchy to the information, determine an order and direction, all in a manner to guide the viewer.

I’ve always remembered a tried and true design axiom I learned in school: visual + verbal = message. The visual could come in any number of forms that a designer utilizes in a piece of visual communication: imagery, whether photographic or illustrative; color; conceptual approach; scale: etc. The verbal is the combination of these letterforms into language. All graphic design projects utilize typography in some way or another. And the message is at the heart of all of these projects. All of these elements combine to support the message at hand, all coming back to the initial conceit of the project. It’s a roundabout cycle, all working toward the finished piece. If any one part is not working, it could throw off the balance of the entire piece.