Listening to Type: Emphases and Pauses in Visual Language

Listening to Type: Emphases and Pauses in visual language

Note: This is an adaptation of a video tutorial which can be found at

Alex W. White Media Bistro Listening To Type Title

You have a thought and you want to communicate it. It is to be heard if you speak it. It is to be read if you write it.

Spoken and written language have been unified since the Phoenicians connected specific sounds with specific marks in about 950BC. Letterforms can therefore be said to be “frozen sound.” Thus typography is “frozen speech.” A good speaker holds the audience by emphasis… pauses… rhythms… and volume – and typography does that same thing, or ought to. Reading aloud helps a designer find and put the right emphases and pauses where they belong. This produces effective and more engaging typography. It enlivens reading.

Alex W. White Media Bistro ListeningToType 1This department page from Esquire magazine uses weight, sans serif/serif, and column width contrasts to liven the page. Though there are eight stories, the page is not confusing because story beginnings are findable (left). Punctuation, capitalization, and extra word spacing make this headline a typographic illustration by being a accurate visual translation of spoken delivery.

What “listening to type” does

“Typographic arrangement should achieve for the reader what voice tone conveys for the listener.” – El Lissitzky, Russian avant garde artist and typographer (1890-1941)

Imagine listening to a recorded book. The reader’s voice changes with the story, helping the listener recognize individual characters in the stories as well as their emotions. A printed book does the same. The heard voices and emotions are exposed in print as various categories of type: headlines, subheads, captions, text, etc.

The dictionary defines typography as “the art or process of printing with type.” The root words are typo (type) and graphy (drawing), literally “drawing with type.” My definition is: “Applying type in an expressive way to reveal the content clearly and memorably with the least resistance from the reader.” Good typography must create clear differences in content, whether in broad strokes or the smallest of subtle touches.

Typography not only involves the abstract black letter shapes but also the space around the letterforms. Concentrate on “not-letterforms,” the surrounding space between words, lines, blocks, and columns of type. It is the contrast of the letterforms to their surroundings that makes type more or less legible. Legibility is central to typography because type is meant to be read.

It is not enough to have “nothing wrong” with a design. There must be something recognizably “right” about it. What makes design ugly is the random combination of bits chosen and placed on whim. Irregular spacing — visual hiccups — will cause a browser or uncommitted reader to avoid your message altogether.

Like the spoken voice, type can be powerfully bold or elegantly understated. It can warn by shouting or inform with grace. It can be stuffy or informal, universal or parochial, traditional or state of the art, highly complex or primitive. None of it is easy! Designers are expected to be masters of an art form that takes many years to learn.

Typographers have inherited traditions through generations of small improvements. Such subtleties as the development of word spacing have evolved over centuries. Many techniques were adopted from handwriting in the 1400s and 1500s. Historically, typography was handled by the printer who cut his own typefaces, designed the page, and reproduced the design on paper. In the twentieth century, printing separated from typography. Around 1950, printers became “typesetters” who set type as outside vendors. “Typographers” or art directors specified what the design should be. Computer’s new methodology nearly obliterated the typography specialists since all type decisions are brought within a page design program.

Alex W. White Media Bistro ListeningToType 2A rich variety of typographic flavors c1691 show contrasts of size, capitalization, letterspacing, and column width. These clearly indicate differences, yet the differences are balanced and unified by using a single type family. Filippo Cecchi, Florence (left). Typography should enhance its inherent message to give it strength (right). 

The essence of typography is clarity

“Typography is the voice of the printed page. But typography is meaningless until seen by the human eye, translated into sound by the human brain, heard by the human ear, comprehended as thought and stored as memory.” – R. Hunter Middleton, Type director of the Ludlow foundry for 50 years

“Between the two extremes of unrelieved monotony and typographical pyrotechnics there is an area where the typographic designer can contribute to the pleasure of reading and the understanding of what is being read.” – Carl Dair, Canadian teacher and author (1912-1967)

“I want to use type to enhance the meaning of the words, not contradict, ignore, obscure, or interrupt what’s being said. My goal is to inject decisiveness; to show that these words know what they are saying.” – Susan Casey, Creative director, editor (1962– )

Pyrotechnics and eye-catching novelty conflict against simplicity and elegant clarity. Practical pointers:

  • Put interesting information where it can best be found.
  • Break the type into palatable chunks. Small bits are friendlier than daunting masses.
  • Recognize that readers enter stories through pictures that then pull them into explanatory captions.
  • Express typographic “voices” by rhythm or contrast.
  • Plainness combined with expressiveness will make the message both legible and interesting. Simpleness alone may be unrecognized and ignored. Complexity may be interesting to look at, but may well be illegible. Breaking design rules makes it more visible — if it makes sense.
  • Allow a little flirtation with reduced legibility for the sake of noticeability. But unless the reader notice something of value, the looker won’t become a reader.
  • Read and understand the story, ask the client or editor what the thrust ought to be, then make that point crystal clear through design choices. Design and editing are conjoined.
  • The type must be an integral part of the composition. If it is altered or removed, the piece should fall apart — whether if it’s a poster, a cover design, an advertisement, a corporate identity program.
  • Breaking the ends of lines of display type at logical places, rather than whenever a line happens to be filled. If the line is broken arbitrarily or in the wrong place, comprehension is slowed.
  • Type strategy includes crafting a size and weight sequences for the headlines, subheads, captions, and text so each is distinctive while they all work as one.
  • Type tactics contrast type style, size, weight, position, color, treatment and hierarchy so the viewer sees enough information to want to become a reader.

Alex W. White Media Bistro ListeningToType3Type, like the spoken voice, can be powerfully bold or elegantly understated. It can warn by shouting or gracefully inform. It can be stuffy or informal, universal or parochial, traditional or state of the art, highly complex or primitive (left). Type’s role is to get through to the reader’s mind (right).

Frozen sound

“Typography is simply the voice, for the head is the destination.” – Rick Valicenti (1951–)

Good typography effectively translates oral sound into typeset form. Verbal emphasis becomes visual emphasis, most usually by contrast of size or weight. Without it, designers are bound to rote adherence to patterning, which is a hindrance to expressive typography.

  • Develop sensitivity to “sound tones.” “You must choose a typeface with a sound that isn’t against the idea and image you are trying to convey, unless, of course, you are introducing an irritating sound, an irritating typeface for a specific reason.” – Gene Federico, master of advertising design
  • Develop sensitivity to typeface changes. “Let’s say a French person comes up to you and starts talking. The first thing you notice is that he’s speaking French – not the words that he’s said. Just set a piece of text, first in Baskerville, then in several different faces and observe exactly how the message changes. The choice of typeface is critical to the emotional response to the words.” – Neville Brody, English designer
  • Develop sensitivity to rhythm. Break repetition unexpectedly to create visual surprise and a focal point. A speaker who drones at a steady speed forces the listeners to dig out the good content. A speaker who alters rhythm of delivery for example, makes the content clearer by grouping information into helpful clusters.

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