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Malcolm Grear on Letterforms and Typography

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Every letter is not necessarily beautiful when judged as a single unit. Each letter is companion to 25 others; some are symmetrical, others asymmetrical. The beauty of a letter is revealed by how it meshes with companion parts of a total typographic system and how it works in combination with its fellows. Read this sample chapter for renowned artist Malcolm Grear's best exercises on interpreting typeface in design.
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Every letter is not necessarily beautiful when judged as a single unit. Each letter is companion to twenty-five others; some are symmetrical, others asymmetrical. The beauty of a letter is revealed by how it meshes with companion parts of a total typographic system, how it works in combination with its fellows.

Single letterforms combine to form words, which form sentences, which form paragraphs, and so on, up to books and beyond. Each typeface has its own texture and tone. Students of typography begin their studio course by studying the makeup of single letterforms, examining their inner parts.

There are no hard and fast rules for typography any more than there are such rules for painting pictures. Sensible students will learn about the typography of the past as well as the present, even though they can enjoy the privilege of ignoring either in their future work.

An understanding of traditional faces seems particularly urgent since technology continues to exert a strong influence on typography. Not all of these influences are good. Many typefaces available today have been designed by technologists who have only slight background in the arts or typography. It is easy, maybe too easy, to design a typeface on the computer screen.

Several hundred typefaces have been designed; only a few measure up to classic standards of readability, balance, harmony—timeless qualities, not just vogue.

I favor no particular process or style—hot or cold type, hand or machine set, formal or informal, classic or modern. I propose for students a developing study of letterforms and typestyles; families of typefaces; thick and thin, bold and light; serifs and sans serifs.

For the graphic designer typography involves technology and craft, expressing action and a state of being.

Sometimes I spend hours choosing a typeface to suit a particular situation.

I have to use a typeface several times before I learn to use it effectively, according, of course, to my aesthetics.

A beautiful typeface is not always the “right” one. Subtleties count. I may feel the ascenders or descenders are wrong for the job at hand; density may accumulate in the wrong place; a crossed w may give too much weight in a particular location. These nuances are matters of taste, but so are notes in music and colors in painting. A trained eye will discern more than the naive eye. So I bring students into the details, where the devils and angels dwell.

Choosing a typeface is not entirely arbitrary. Each typeface is suited to only certain kinds of information and purpose. If we are designing typographic layouts for a novel or textbook, they are likely to differ from typography that works for a single-page announcement.

There are some typefaces that I dislike. It would be foolish to say that I would never use them. I may end up using one tomorrow. In design, all rules are springboards into realms beyond the rules.

To my mind, beautiful typography is based on selection of a typeface in resonance with the text, the sensitive use of space between letters and words, the length of lines and their alignments, the space between lines and between paragraphs, and the placement of type on the page. The overall effect further depends on clear typographic delineation of the different levels of information, the color, light, and texture of the type as it sits on the page, the paper on which it is printed, and the quality of the printing.

Typographic Form

At the beginning of this class, I assign a warm-up exercise based on typography; no pictures.

As an example, I pass out several philosophical statements written by outstanding typographers.

Each student must choose a certain number of these—let's say eight—design a series of plates, and present them in a folio. I normally assign a square format, larger than usual, 16″ x 16″.

Through their design, the students can demonstrate support for the statements or react against them.

Their first step is to sketch ideas using a chosen typeface; the second is to refine the initial concept into a typographic layout; the third is to write specifications for typesetting; the fourth is typesetting itself. Most students use the computer for this setting, although in each class there is usually at least one student who loves the texture of type on paper and will hand-set the type on metal. That student probably learns more about the subtleties of typography than can be learned by using a computer. These sharpened sensitivities can later be applied to electronic composition.

Most students enter the school knowing how to use a computer; very few will have the typographic knowledge to apply this tool effectively.

The last step is to print a number of copies of this folio.

Various assignments can serve as warm-up exercises: for example, another element, such as a chair, may be assigned to work in harmony with the typographic statement; it may simply be a weather report or a calendar, such as the ones shown on the following pages.

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