April 15, 2023: What is good typography, and why shouldn’t I see it?

Good typography is invisible” is a common enough paraphrase, but I think we should just give Beatrice Warde the credit and not argue. She actually wrote, “Good printing is invisible,” but I think you get the point. Before the pedantic among us are tempted to take this argument to its comical extreme, let me qualify that sometimes you DO see good typography, it’s just not very often.

It was Frederic Goudy who, upon receiving a hand-calligraphed award, famously said, “Anyone who would letter space blackletter would steal sheep.” I feel just as strongly about using Blackletter in all caps, which puts me at odds with far too many biker gangs and tattoo artists. I’m not looking for a fight, but I will offer any of them a free typographic consultation if they promise not to hurt me. But more to Goudy’s point, most things you notice about typography aren’t good. Awkward kerning, mixing faces indiscriminately, crash leading… all detract from the message.

Good letter spacing and kerning are essential for words like “FLICKS” and “THERAPIST.” A pleasingly kerned word can be a thing of beauty; awkwardly kerned and spaced words are merely distracting at best. Kerning is the space between individual letters, and Letter-spacing (aka “Tracking” for you digital folks) is spacing between all the letters in a line or paragraph.

Good typeface choices are important – Papyrus and Comic Sans are the whipping boys of designers everywhere because they exhibit a complete lack of self-awareness. Curlz is more aloof because it’s intentionally silly. But even a face as staid as Caslon will suffer if you spend more time focusing on the typeface rather than what it spells out. The goal of type designers should be to create an evocative yet transparent face. An engaging face that can deliver bad news in a pleasing manner.

Emphasis contributes as well. Using caps & small caps instead of boldface can make a stronger statement without shouting. The inherent authority of this combination sneaks up on you, and mixing C/sc and lowercase can change the focus of an otherwise highly-charged statement. 

Monotype Poliphilus & Poliphilus Titling (handset), based on the types of Francesco Griffo c. 1498

An important thing to remember is that good typography doesn’t take itself too seriously, and what we consider “good” is always subjective. Too many rules? Just smile and bend them* or break them in an informed manner. It’s just ink on paper or pixels on a screen. Classic Roman letterforms were far more serious – no punctuation or word spacing, and it was literally carved in stone. Plus, they had several fewer letters to work with.

*The C/sc above are really two different sizes of Titling caps. Monotype never made any small caps for the Titling face.

Here’s an example of a Roman stone carving showing their respect for letterforms:

Arch of Titus, Rome, 1st century CE.

No punctuation or word spacing, and pompous as only a Roman Triumphal Arch can be.

And here is my favorite example of stunt kerning:

Carved marble panel, Baptistry, Florence, 13th century.

What a difference 1200 years makes. So yes, I like to see good typography, but Interesting typography gets my attention every time.

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