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From the author of Software Can't Do the Right Thing All by Itself

Software Can't Do the Right Thing All by Itself

It's important to draw the distinction between two very different sorts of typography: type for reading and type for advertising. In this latter category I'd lump many popular magazines and websites, where nuggets of information are short, and the emphasis is on visual entertainment. These are places we go for informational snacks, not intellectual nourishment.

Even if the goal is to be eye-catching rather than edifying, that doesn't equal "anything goes." Bad typographic practice can distract from the simplest message, from a logo to an advertising banner to a one-page flyer. Ad agencies are well aware of this fact and are some of the most finicky type customers on earth. But many designers don't seem to see that subtleties count in even the most blaring commercial message. Even where the nominal goal is to draw at all costs the eye of the passerby (whether flipping the pages of a magazine, driving in a car, or watching television), when the type distracts from the message, the typographer has failed. Figure 3 is a case in point: an otherwise pleasant effect undone by a butt-ugly apostrophe.

Figure 3 This store's logo has a problem. Not only does the apostrophe not match the typeface used for the rest of the shop's name; it isn't even obliqued in an attempt to match the stance of the script type around it. A logotype should make a more positive impression.

Figure 4 shows a similar oversight, a seemingly small thing that loomed large when the poster (probably proofed at desktop printer size) was reproduced at final scale, which was about six feet tall. At this size, a small typographical problem—the fact that the 1 is much narrower than all the other numerals—becomes a major visual gaffe. Because it's narrower, the 1 usually sets with more space around it, a necessity if numbers are to align in neat vertical columns in financial tables and the like. It's not very noticeable at text size, but in the final poster the numerals were two inches tall, and the bad spacing jumps out at the eye. It looks like a mistake, and although casual viewers may not understand the reasons for it, they can't help but notice that something's odd here.

Figure 4 The 1 in 1957 appears to be drifting off to the left, just as the final 1 in both instances of 2011 at the top are wandering off to the right. This spacing may be natural for these numerals in this typeface, but in this context they can't be allowed to set like this. The discerning typographer will kern them closer to their neighbors to achieve consistent, undistracting overall spacing.

Even though such mistakes are created by the normal functioning of computers and typesetting programs, they shouldn't be seen as inevitable or excusable. The eye of the typographer has to be mistrustful, never assuming that software can or will do the right thing. In its mechanical way, software can look, but it can't see.

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