Ben Mitchell's typo blog charting the excitement, activities and challenges of my 12 months' studying the MA in Typeface Design at Reading University.

Now with occasional ramblings about type-related things I find interesting.

Opinions are all my own.

What makes a good typeface? Does it just come down to a person’s taste, a subjective opinion? Can a design’s merits be quantified? In our first session, we uncovered some criteria* to judge and critique typefaces.

*Whilst thinking around the subject, I’ve rejigged the criteria Gerry elicited hastily from our class.


   Without much experience, a lot of beginner type designers (me included) don’t have the technical adeptness and breadth of understanding to channel our creativity into wholly original designs. Instead, we start by seeking inspiration in typefaces we admire, and try to emulate or recreate the bits we like, perhaps with a bit of our own personal interpretation. This allows us to explore letterforms and how to craft them.

   An original design requires us to know the range of creative choices and how these choices are limited by functionality. A typeface has to respect cultural and traditional conventions. For example, it’s no good westernising Armenian letterforms to look like Latin letters, no matter how original this may be. Understanding the limits of our creative freedom allows us to make interesting and distinctive design choices. My own most creative designs are the ones where I didn’t know when starting where the ideas came from.


   Well ok Gerry wrote ‘fun’, but I immediately judged a couple of the specimens as ‘funky’. We’re talking about the ones you immediately react to: ‘Whoa, that’s cool!’

   There’s probably a lot of subjectivity in this one, as different people find fun in different things, but I guess we’re looking for designs with style, feelings and excitement, rather than the bland, boring, plain or unremarkable ones.

   Hm, this still sounds rather subjective, and it’s also troubling me that ‘fun’ might be unsuitable in certain typographic contexts (for an epitaph for instance). I’d prefer to downgrade the ‘fun’ criterion to ‘conveying mood and tone’. If we can easily describe the feel of a typeface with adjectives, it’s hit the right spot.


   Does the design work? What’s its purpose? Does it fulfil the brief? How do the letters work in words and paragraphs? The key here is whether it improves on existing fonts.

   For a text face, is it actually comfortable and easy to read? Or do the ‘original’ features interfere with its readability? Does it perform well at small sizes? Can it be used in a variety of different typographic environments?

   If it’s a signage font, is it somehow clearer and more legible than the other options?

   A newspaper typeface has less leeway than a poster face: this is considering the function, and the function needs to inform every part of the design process.


   How usable and versatile is the typeface? Does it contain accented characters for non-English languages? Does it support Cyrillic, Greek, Arabic, Devanagari, Thai or Chinese? This of course affects a typeface’s applicability.

   On a different level, does it have bold and italic? What about light, book, semibold, heavy or black? What about small caps? Does it have optical sizes or grades? Condensed and expanded? Perhaps it has different choices of italics (cursive or oblique forms)?

   Or maybe it’s a superfamily, with serif, sans-serif (and even semi-serif) versions available?

   Of course not all these are necessary; it’s a question of responding to the brief, and specifically the contexts in which the font is going to be used.


   Is it well made? Creating an excellent typeface requires staggering attention to detail! Are our shapes well drawn or are the curves bumpy? Do we have consistency across different letterforms? Is our spacing and kerning immaculate? If we’re creating a screen font, is it hinted well?

   Do our OpenType features work in an obvious way that typographers will be able to use? Do our Thai vowels and tone marks stack correctly?

   Finally the typeface has to work on all combinations of operating systems and software.

   Highly successful typefaces respond to these five criteria differently. Stempel Garamond scores better in function than in funkiness; Dax would do better in funkiness and originality (at least when it was released in the 90s) than in function; Minion would do exceptionally well in execution and scope but less well in funkiness and originality.

   These examples lead me to wonder whether the lifespan of a typeface depends on how it responds to the criteria. The Garamonds, Bembos, Baskervilles and Plantins have had a really long run, and don’t look like they’re ever going to be supplanted. Even Helvetica doesn’t seem to be dating. On the other hand, faces can belong too much to their time: I’d suggest contemporary, trendy fonts used for branding like Dax, Neo Sans, or Bryant are in this position and will be left behind. But what does this mean for ‘excellence’: are Bembo and Helvetica ‘excellent’ or is longevity a different question?

Posted at 2:18pm and tagged with: excellence, execution, function, funkiness, originality, scope, type design, one column,.