Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Design Study, Font Follies

Carrying on with our investigation of Chris Gampat's "Emulsion" magazine, let's look at textual issues. Typography, styling, and a little bit of layout stuff.

More or less by accident this product seems to have at least 6 different font families. There are several obvious flubs, where Chris simply botched the font choice on a paragraph or a page. I think this accounts for at least 2 of the font families. There are a few places where the deviation from the surrounding font family might be intended to look like a pull quote or something.

The main font family in use is Economica, which is a spectacularly ugly font.

I dislike sans serif fonts in general, especially for running text, but that is maybe a personal problem. Economica is not merely sans serif, it is ugly and has low legibility even for a sans font. Most notably, it has several ligatures including this oddity:

When used in running text, the connecting bar from o to t creates the illusion of an r crammed in there, "ort." This reads slightly heavy so that every time the ligature appears there is a kind of illusion of a dark spot, a blotch. When your content includes the words photo, photography, shot, shoot, and shooting as much as this material does, that's a lot of blotches. In some sizes, especially italics, the type also comes out rather cramped. This is not a font for reading, this is a font for looking cool. There are probably good uses for it, but running text is not one of them.

Note also the weirdly lowered dollar sign, and imagine it, if you will, placed next to one of the quite tall and upwardly-weighted digits (as dollar signs occasionally are). The effect is gruesome.

On one front the choice was good, however. The descenders on the lowercase f, the weird but almost two-story g, as well as the heavy use of ligatures, does produce a touch of a classical feel. The lack of serifs and the overall modern look speak to a contemporary world, while the classical elements bridge the gap to the older world. This is a genuinely excellent note to hit for a magazine like this, where the topic is contemporary use of classical materials.

You need to select your fonts carefully, and appropriately for their uses. When in doubt, stick to mainstream fonts, don't run around buying weirdo fonts from all over. Start with Times and Helvetica, and edge slowly outwards from there.

Moving onwards, Chris consistently uses font sizes that are much too big, and he cannot stick to a single size. One 2-page spread, which contains a single flow of text, has three different font sizes. His smallest size is about 14pt, which is only slightly too big, and he goes up to at least 20 points fairly often, using a couple of different intermediate sizes along the way.

This is Chris's smallest font, as compared with the Wall Street Journal magazine (WSJ on top), which is set in about 10 point font. The WSJ font reads as quite small in real life, but only because the magazine itself is tabloid sized. It is perfectly legible, and not at all an unusual size:

And here is his hilariously enormous largest (I think) font:

Computer people, including me, tend to use fonts that are much too big when we go to print. My most recent blurb books use 14 point fonts, and I started out quite a bit larger. I have made a mental note to drop down to 12 point font in future. 14 is simply too chubby. We also tend to overlead, placing too much space between the lines. With decent printing (which mostly everything is these days), you can really cram the material in there as long as you're attentive to the overall balance of the page from micro to macro scales, and use good legible fonts.

There is no way to know you've got it right without pulling a physical proof, as far as I can tell. What looks ridiculously cramped and tiny on screen is loose and clumsy on the page. I, at any rate, have not mastered the trick of visualizing what it will really look like from the screen. It is worth noting that Chris did pull a proof and did not make his text flows even reasonably functional.

I half believe that Chris sometimes simply enbiggened a chunk of text until it filled up the space on the page he'd allocated for it, in preference to the rather more laborious task of re-doing the layout.

The fluctuating font sizes are but one of several problems.

Chris uses centered text, ragged right text, and fully justified text seemingly at random. The number of columns ranges from 4 (with a large font, natch, for lines that contain anywhere between 1 and 2 words each) to a single column (at least once with his smallest font size). The result is a chaos of varying line lengths, mostly wrong.

4 columns of 20pt font looks idiotic and is hard to read:

2 columns of centered 20pt doesn't look any better:

Things read best when you have something like 8 to 12 words per line, 50 to 75 characters. This means that you need to attend to the relationship between font size, page width, margins, and number of columns in your running text. Longer lines will feel more serious and scholarly, shorter lines will feel peppier and populist. Roughly speaking. As an added benefit, somewhere around 40 or 50 characters is the minimum length at which justified English text will look good, without   weirdly         spaced   words. Justified text looks much better on the page than anything else. It looks "finished", "well-made."

Much of the material is written out as a Q&A, and Chris cannot decide what combination of bold and italics to use. Sometimes the questions are bold, the answers italics. Sometimes the answers are plain, sometimes the questions are bold italics. Often, but not always, he manages to maintain the same style within a single artist's portfolio.

He could have stuck with one arrangement. He could have switched back and forth between two arrangements to give a little more separation from one artist/portfolio to the next. There are probably other things he could have done, but did not.

More chaos, more incoherence.

I think literally every control you can apply is adjusted more or less at random throughout the running text: alignment, line length, font size, font family, font weight, italics. What else can you do? I suppose he could have superscripted entire runs of text, and he did not.

I cannot really think of what to say here except to say "don't do this." You do need to be fairly maniacal to maintain consistency of all these things throughout, and usually you will make at least one substantial error which will require a thorough rework of the whole manuscript to correct.

Plan for this. The total rework will take less time than you think it will, and since it's inevitable, embrace it.

The alternative is to produce a careless piece of shit.


  1. My most favourite font moment of all time was when I italicized (among various other things) a majuscule Q in Hoefler Text. Startled me to BITS!

    1. The Hoefler Text typeface, apparently, has a variety of italics from "merely special to full-blown decadent!"