Who Else Wants To Learn About Aphrodite?

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What is good typography?

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Good ty­pog­ra­phy re­in­forces the mean­ing of the text. Al­most all texts com­mu­ni­cate a set of points (The pe­ti­tion should be de­nied for three rea­sons). Some­times a text also needs to in­struct the reader (Add lines 7 through 21 and en­ter the to­tal here). Other texts of­fer warn­ings or ad­mo­ni­tions (You must be 48 inches tall to ride; Speed limit 75). In every case, good ty­pog­ra­phy sup­ports and re­in­forces the mes­sage. Good ty­pog­ra­phy makes the text more effective.

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Three sub­sidiary propo­si­tions flow from this:

  1. Good ty­pog­ra­phy is mea­sured by how well it re­in­forces the mean­ing of the text, not by some ab­stract scale of merit. Ty­po­graphic choices that work for one text won’t nec­es­sar­ily work for an­other. (Corol­lary: good ty­pog­ra­phers don’t rely on rote so­lu­tions. One size never fits all.)
  2. For a given text, there are many ty­po­graphic so­lu­tions that would be equally good. Ty­pog­ra­phy is not a math prob­lem with one cor­rect answer.
  3. Your abil­ity to pro­duce good ty­pog­ra­phy de­pends on how well you un­der­stand the goals of your text, not on taste or vi­sual train­ing. (Corol­lary: if you mis­un­der­stand the mean­ing of your text, good ty­pog­ra­phy be­comes purely a mat­ter of luck.)

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Pause to ab­sorb the ram­i­fi­ca­tions of propo­si­tion #3. Ty­pog­ra­phy is vi­sual, so it’s easy to con­clude that it’s pri­mar­ily an artis­tic or aes­thetic pur­suit. Not so. Ty­pog­ra­phy is pri­mar­ily utilitarian.

There­fore, good ty­pog­ra­phy is mea­sured on a util­i­tar­ian yard­stick. Ty­pog­ra­phy that is aes­thet­i­cally pleas­ant, but that doesn’t re­in­force the mean­ing of the text, is a fail­ure. Ty­pog­ra­phy that re­in­forces the mean­ing of the text, even if aes­thet­i­cally un­pleas­ant, is a success.

Does that mean that ef­fec­tive ty­pog­ra­phy can be ugly? Sure. Some­times ugly is bet­ter than pretty.

Look at the high­way signs again.

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The script font used on the sec­ond sign could be called “pret­tier” than the stan­dard high­way-sig­nage font. But a high­way sign has a spe­cial pur­pose: it’s meant to be read quickly, from long dis­tances, at odd an­gles, and un­der vari­able light­ing and weather con­di­tions. The high­way-sig­nage font stays leg­i­ble un­der all these con­di­tions. It con­sti­tutes good ty­pog­ra­phy be­cause it sup­ports the sign’s message.

The script font may be pret­tier, but in this con­text, it’s bad ty­pog­ra­phy, be­cause it’s not suited to the task. Con­versely, the high­way-sig­nage font would look ter­ri­ble on a wed­ding in­vi­ta­tion, where the script font would be appropriate.

A re­lated example:

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Here, the same font is used in all three ver­sions of this sign. But the first two signs fail to de­liver the mes­sage—the speed limit is 75—be­cause the ty­pog­ra­phy un­der­mines the text. The most im­por­tant el­e­ment is the num­ber 75. Also im­por­tant is the cap­tion speed limit. Only the third ver­sion gets the bal­ance right. It’s the only ex­am­ple of good ty­pog­ra­phy among the three.

Use this prin­ci­ple to test the qual­ity of your own ty­po­graphic work. The ad­van­tage of ap­ply­ing a util­i­tar­ian bench­mark in­stead of an aes­thetic one is that it doesn’t re­quire aes­thetic judg­ment. Be­lieve me, if you’re just start­ing out in ty­pog­ra­phy, you will pro­duce some ugly work. Don’t worry. If it’s ugly and ef­fec­tive, you’re mak­ing progress.

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