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Type Has More Than a Face, It’s Got Personality

Every day is filled with choices – get up early or sleep late, eat in or dine out, make a phone call or send an e-mail. And then there’s the timeless question: serif or sans serif?

For people who work with type and typography, choosing a typeface is not as simple as selecting the first one that shows up in the font drop-down list in Microsoft Word. Graphic designers and others who work with fonts in creative fields understand that visual communication is not just black and white nor is it just Times New Roman and Helvetica.

Typography is the art of arranging and designing type. Its purpose is to make words easier to understand and more meaningful. By definition, typeface is “all type of a single design,” and font is the specific size and style of type within a type family. For example, 16-point bold Garamond is the font while Garamond is the typeface.

“I think each typeface has its own feel,” says Linda Karp, president of Karp Marketing and Design professor at The Art Institute of Philadelphia. “So as a designer, you have to be able to select type that correctly gets your message across.”

Graphic designer Brian Hoff agrees that each font has its own feel and personality. That’s why a little research can go a long way when deciding what typeface and font to use in a design.

“Each font was generally created for a specific medium and purpose, so knowing a little about a type’s history can help,” the Philadelphia-based designer says. “Many designers get into the idea that if a type looks great on its own they should just use it, without really thinking about how it will look on the page or screen and with the other design elements.”

Designers are taught common rules of typography and typesetting. These touch on everything from combining different typefaces and fonts to using serif or sans serif fonts of various sizes. However, Karp says she encourages her students to explore new ways of using type.

“I give students an assignment and they often connect a certain look and feel with the font,” she says. “For example, if I say the assignment is to design a logo for a bridal shop they think the bridal shop needs a typeface that is a script, but that doesn’t have to be the case.

“Garamond Light is a font that can be used for a bridal shop logo and can have the same elegant feel as a script.”

Pushing the boundaries of creativity with type is something that designers and typographers are encouraged to do. That helps explain the rich variety in typefaces -- from Comic Sans to Bauhaus 93.

Some of those with a passion for type and typography are members of the Society of Typographic Aficionados (SOTA), an international not-for-profit organization dedicated to the promotion, study, and support of type. The organization’s membership includes graphic designers, typographers, new media artists, writers, painters, and software developers who convene at the annual TypeCon conference, where a broad range of typographic issues and trends are covered.

Tamye Riggs, executive director of SOTA, says one of the major developments in typography in the past decade has been OpenType, a multiplatform file format developed by Adobe and Microsoft.

“OpenType makes using type less complicated because all platforms (Windows, Mac, Linux) can use the same font style and uniquely coded typefaces,” Riggs explains.

Web fonts are another area of typography that continues to evolve. Web-safe fonts are common across platforms and web designers can use them knowing they will be properly displayed on different computer systems.

“Designers have wanted more flexibility on the web for years,” according to Riggs. “As we move away from printed publications, readability on the web is more important than ever.”

Typography will continue to advance in many ways, designers say, especially as the technological tools grow. The art of designing type is no longer limited to those who apprenticed at a type foundry or received a degree in typography, and some say the lack of boundaries is part of what makes the future of typefaces so exciting.

But even with all the changes, Hoff notes in a recent blog posting that the fundamental purpose of typography hasn’t changed.

“As web designers surrounded by trends and other design/graphic elements, we often forget the main reason people visit websites – to read and find information (quickly and easily),” he writes. “Take away all the extra design elements and all we are left with is type. Unlike glassy reflections, wood grain textures, and shiny buttons, communication with type is timeless.”

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