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007: The 10 Commandments of Type

Updated: Sep 26, 2021

Rules exist throughout our lives, including in the world of design and typography. I get that we have to have rules to maintain order in society, but do we really need rules for these types of creative disciplines? Like most answers to complex questions, it’s a shade of grey; not black or white. Rules were made to be broken, after all.

Designer Paul Felton, who won the 2005 D&AD (Design & Art Direction) New Blood award for his work created The Ten Commandments of Typography/Type Heresy: Breaking the Ten Commandments of Typography, published in 2006. The cover design is a clever one, made to look like a holy text with gold foiled minimalist type and imagery on either side - one side the ten commandments and the other the type heresy side. So the book makes a statement by being able to switch between the two juxtaposed sides of a typographic rule book, depending on whether you’re in a rule following or rule breaking kind of design mood.

But why should designers and non-designers care about the commandments of typography? After all, it’s a designer’s job to select and make the type look nice. That’s what the ‘creatives’ do. Incorrect. Whether you like it or not, choosing typefaces, designing layouts and arranging type has all been thrust upon you... and you and you. The beginning of desktop publishing not so many years ago meant that anyone who had access to a digital device became a typographer of sorts. Whether creating a presentation slide deck or formatting an essay or composing an email, you have inadvertently stepped into creative design roles, no matter how un-creative or technical you believe your day job is. You are a creator. You are a designer. You are a layout artist. Welcome to the club - it’s a great place to be.

In coming back to the commandments of typography, many have written their own top ten lists instructing the world about what to do and, more importantly, what not to do with type, and today’s list comes from author Rob Carney. Rob is the Head of Editorial, Graphic Design and Publishing for Transport of London (think: iconic London tube imagery) and he also writes for a variety of design publications. Without further ado, here’s a rundown of Rob’s 10 type no-no’s:

1. Thou shalt not use default kerning.

“Oh, how I yearn to kern”, said very few people on this planet. But perhaps more of us should pay attention to kerning, which is the spacing between two individual letters on a screen or page. As a reminder, kerning and tracking are co-workers who do similar work, but not the same job. While they both are horizontal spacing experts, kerning adjusts the space between pairs of letters, while tracking adjusts the spacing between all letters in a word, line or paragraph of text. Kerning is a little more detailed and finicky and it should be used when setting headline type (you would NOT need to or want to kern type in body text in a short or long document). But why is kerning necessary if you’re using a professionally designed typeface? Well uniform spacing may not always look natural, so it’s sometimes in our best interest to play type God and move things beyond what the type designer or software (InDesign, Illustrator or Photoshop) lays down for us. For example, think about two lowercase letter t’s, side-by-side huge and on the side of a bus. There will likely be space between the two crossbars each of the letter t’s, which makes total sense, but visually, it might look choppy. By adjusting the kerning manually, bringing the two t’s closer together, closing the gap, the entire word looks more balanced and visually appealing. Use your gut. Not all headline type will need to have kerned letter pairs, but it’s definitely an option if you can’t put your finger on why that headline ‘feels off’.

2. Thou shalt not overuse script fonts.

I have a love-hate relationship with script fonts. You know, the ones that look like handwriting. Script fonts can work well in certain circumstances, namely in large sizes, or when used as part of a thoughtfully-designed vintage logo or when used sparingly and paired with a contrasting geometric sans serif typeface, for example. Script typefaces are found on all sorts of amateurish looking posters, flyers, on the sides of transport trucks and even in TV commercials selling the latest buns-of-steel-esque fitness machines. Script typefaces DO NOT work well in body text of any kind. While receiving an actual handwritten letter in the mail is downright exhilarating (who else lives for snail mail?!), receiving the exact same letter in a script typeface similar to my sender’s handwriting, but typed and printed using a script typeface, would cause me to rethink my reply. While the former is endearing, special and truly lovely, the latter is illegible, unreadable and in bad taste (sorry if I seem dramatic). Script body copy breaks so many other type rules around the readability and overall usefulness of a formatted document, that this is a rule that’s really meant to be kept and not one to break often, if ever.

3. Thou shalt not place type over busy backgrounds.

The first rule of readability is black text on a white background is the easiest to read. Especially when considering the accessibility of a document’s design, maximum contrast from the letterforms to the background is necessary so that as many people as possible can easily read your message. Accessible or inclusive design is good design for all. If you are using a background image, contrast of type to your image must be at the forefront of your decision making. This might mean using a light coloured image, increasing the transparency of your image to lighten the colours used, creating a sold-coloured shape in which to place your text or moving your image or background to accommodate your text (think text wraps in InDesign). Black text on a blue background is just not advised.

4. Thou shalt not use many many fonts.

Too many fonts confuses things and moves designs closer to the amateurish side of the scale and away from the professional side. If we think about a single piece that is designed with too many fonts it begins to look amateurish. Rob suggests no more than 3 fonts used in any given document. Furthermore zooming back a bit, using too many fonts in a multi-page digital or printed document (across a website or through a magazine, for example) also can confuse the overall look and feel of a publication leading it down the path of amateurish design yet again. Zooming back even further, too many fonts used for a single brand across multiple mediums (think of your social media presence, a website, any printed marketing collateral, signage and so on), can also confuse the overall look and feel of a brand's image, watering it down at best, and making it feel amateurish (word of the day!) at worst. This may not seem like a big deal but design (including the incorporation of type) plays a big role in the outsider perception and consumer confidence of a brand. If you and your team can't even be trusted to choose a designer capable of producing professional work, what's to say that your product is produced with quality and/or is even safe to use? People judge books by their covers all the time, and companies can use this truth to their advantage when they have a really great product or service to share with the world. They can ensure that their design represents them appropriately. All is to say, don't go crazy with the fonts because it looks bad, making your product or service look bad with it.

5. Thou shalt not fake small caps.

Small caps are exactly what they sound like: they are smaller versions of their capital counterparts, incorporated into the font file and used when all caps are needed but you don’t want to appear as though you’re yelling at readers. Small caps can be used in headlines or body copy to more seamlessly marry with mixed case type (which is to say, when combined with lowercase and uppercase letters). You can fake small caps by stating your message in all-caps and then reducing the point size of the letters, relative to the rest of the type on the page. This is cumbersome, time consuming and does not look the way the type designer intended. Don’t do it. It’s just not worth all the effort. If you really need to use them, instead choose a typeface that incorporates small caps into the mix of available letters.

6. Thou shalt not use fake italics.

Also called ‘pseudo italics’ or ‘oblique type’, fake italics are simply slanted versions of their roman letter counterparts. They’ve had a few too many drinks and are leaning over a little funny. This is in comparison to true italic type that isn’t just tilted over, but tilted and tracked closer together, the result being that there is less space between each letter and therefore true italic type takes up less space on the page. In fact, this is why italic type was developed originally. Although we use italic type primarily for emphasis today, it was originally designed to save space on the printed page because printing’s expensive, you know? So someone (namely, printer Aldus Manutius) developed a way to maintain legibility and readability while maintaining the same sized type on the printed page all while saving space and therefore paper and ink costs. Genius!

If you’ve ever clicked the ‘I’ button in Microsoft Word or GoogleDocs, you’ve broken this rule. If you’ve ever intentionally added a skew (measured in degrees) to type in InDesign, you’ve broken this rule. To be honest, I’ve broken this rule LOTS of times. The way to not use fake italics is to select a typeface with an italic option. This way you’re using the thoughtfully-crafted italic letterforms and spacing that the type designer intended. I get it and I agree that this is the best option, but in a pinch, sometimes good is good enough. (Yes, I could wash my hair, but I’m running short on time so dry shampoo will give me a similar effect - pseudo clean - no?)

7. Thou shalt not use all caps

All caps are really shouty. They just SCREAM ‘I’M SCREAMING AT YOU’. So it’s generally impolite to emphasize text using all caps. Furthermore, and perhaps more importantly than the underlying politeness of it all, is that all caps impede readability and are dang hard to read. Our brains fare much better with lowercase or mixed case type, where we can quickly pick up on the shapes of whole words, with the hills and valleys created by the ascenders and decenders of letters. An interesting study was performed at Cambridge University whereby researchers found that as long as the first and last letters of a word are in the correct spot, the rest of the letters can be jumbled and we can read it just fine. So even when an entire sentence or paragraph contains jumbled lettered words, our brains pick up on the general length and shape of a word and we can read it with relative ease. (Google ‘Cambridge study jumbled letters’ to try it for yourself’.)

All caps aren't all bad, but please use it sparingly.

8. Thou shalt not reverse type

If black text on a White background produces the highest contrast and therefore most readable type, shouldn't it hold true that white text on black background is just as readable. After all, the contrast is still the highest it can be. Alas, it's not the same. Designers for the digital world don't recommend reverse type because it strains users eyes when read for any length of time. Designers for the printed world don't recommend reverse type, especially with small type on porous paper like newsprint, because the letters (negative space) can fill in with ink, reducing the legibility and therefore readability of the overall project. So just don't do it. Or rather do it, but use it sparingly and only for emphasis.

9. Thou shalt not combine serifs.

Opposites attract. Contrast, not conflict. Difference is delightful.

When selecting typefaces for a project, it’s common typographic practice to choose typefaces that are more dissimilar from one another than they are similar. Contrast creates visual interest and also helps develop hierarchy in a document and when used in conjunction with size, helps readers navigate the flow of a document - where to look first, second, third, and so on. Choosing typefaces that are too similar to one another (ex: two serif typefaces) makes it look like you’ve made a mistake. It can look as though you chose one typeface, changed your mind halfway through your project, selected a different typeface but then you forgot to go back and change the original choice.

Carney also cautions designers not to use a serif typeface for a headline and the body copy that follows that headline. He suggests that it throws the typographic hierarchy all out of whack. I’d never heard this typographic rule before, but it makes sense. If you look at most major, reputable websites and printed publications, the headlines are generally in a sans serif face, while the body text is a serif face. I always love learning about these little nuances of design - it’s like finding a few more breadcrumbs on the trail leading to the magical house designed with candy in the woods. Let’s just hope there’s no one there looking to eat us alive… well maybe our clients every once in a while.

10. Thou shalt not use long measures

A ‘measure’ refers to the length of a line of type or the width of a column of type. It’s how many words you need to read before your eyes must move down and find the next line of type. While the tiny flourishes along the baseline of letters (serifs) helps readers construct a visual path horizontally, left justification in the western world helps readers’ eyes have a consistent place to find the next line of text. This is in comparison to text that’s centered, therefore containing a moving, ragged edge that takes more work for our brains to find the start of the line every time. But it’s all for not if your line of type is incredibly long. This is why most books, newspapers and other printed publications break text into more digestible columns with more optimal measures. Our brains have a hard time reading lines of text that are both too long and too short, causing distraction, so we must take the goldilocks approach and create a measure that’s neither too short or too long, but juuuuuuuuuust right. What’s the perfect number? Some experts say 10-12 words (says type designer Eric Gill of Gill Sans fame), while others suggest approximately 66 characters. Creating measures that are juuuuuuuuust right help readers avoid reading; it helps readers focus on the content instead of the act of reading itself, which is what every great typographer, designer and layout artists should be aiming to do with any sort document they get their hands on.

We’ve now reached the end of the ten commandments of typography. But wait, there’s more. One more. One more very important, nay critical, commandment that I firmly believe must be followed, perhaps above all others...

11. Thou shalt not use Comic Sans.

I needn’t say any more than that, but I will. It’s not a good idea to use it for emphasis. It’s not a good idea to use it for humour. It’s not even a good idea to use it ironically. Repeat after me, I shalt not use Comic Sans. True story, when looking for local daycares for my then one year old daughter, there was a highly recommended daycare with a purposely misspelled name - my guess it was in an attempt to look juvenile and cute. Although it came highly recommended by those I respected, I couldn’t wrap my brain around the horribly misspelled name, but the kicker was the sign when I drove by to take a closer look. Comic Sans. I hit the gas. No way, no how. Like I said earlier, how can I trust the judgement of management to take care of my child when they don’t even have the common sense not to use the world’s most laughable font front and centre on their lawn?... My loss? Perhaps. But that’s a decision I’m okay living with.

Let’s wrap up.

What I’d like you to keep in mind is that there’s no definitive list of to-do’s and not-to-do’s when it comes to typography or design or art (except the Comic Sans rule… seriously). The beauty is in the eye of the beholder (or ‘beer holder’ in the case of wooing clients over drinks). Instead, these rules play the role of detective, helping us figure out why certain designs look professionally polished, while others look so cringingly amateurish. By identifying specific considerations to make our type projects tip more to the professional side of the scale, it helps novice designers speed up their design process, or at least cut down on the number of iterations a design moves through. These rules can be very helpful when you’re just starting out or when you’re looking to refresh the eyes through which you examine designs.

At the end of the day, if you’ve communicated your message in a way that resonates with your target audience and in a way that’s in alignment with your client’s goals, and most importantly, if your client is happy, then rules be damned; congratulations. You’ve done what you’ve set out to do, designer.

Talk Paper Scissors Theme Music: Retro Quirky Upbeat Funk by Lewis Sound Production via Audio Jungle

Boat Origami Photo: Boat Origami Photo by Alex on Unsplash



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