When Lettering Lights the Way

Though I’ve devoted the majority of my blog posts to the topics of public art, design and wayfinding, I’ve somehow neglected to say much about one of the foundational components of design: typography. While it’s true that the differences between various typefaces can be seemingly inconsequential, there are times when — perhaps unbelievably so — subtlety can significantly impact health and safety. Good typography is synonymous with good design, and not simply for aesthetic reasons.

When I first started studying graphic design, I wasn't particularly interested in type. I didn’t have an appreciation for the nuances of individual letterforms or the way in which a single typeface could set the tone (that is, the look and feel) of an entire composition. My modus operandi was to focus on images and place the accompanying text without much thought.

That all changed when I took a calligraphy class with Eric May, one of my beloved graduate school instructors. Though calligraphy and hand lettering are generally at odds with the clean structure and organization dictated by Swiss Design, Swiss Design being at the core of the KSU design curriculum, it wasn’t until I went through the process of painstakingly crafting individual letters and words with pen and ink that I began to appreciate the beauty of simple type.

I gradually turned away from embellished typefaces and scripts — scripted fonts generally held no interest for me since I could create my own lettering — in favor of clean lines that were both legible and beautiful. I began to see that even the most conservative of sans serif faces could, when handled thoughtfully, reflect personality and spark visual interest.

There is also a practical way to talk about the importance of typography and why and how the aforementioned subtleties of letterforms can be significant. Joshua Yaffa’s 2007 New York Times piece "The Road to Clarity" makes what I consider to be a profoundly persuasive argument; the article documents the development of Clearview, created to replace the “chubby” Highway Gothic typeface and make highway road signs more legible.

Far from being an easy design fix, however, the process of developing a typeface that would dramatically improve readability took several years, a great deal of testing and research — for both the design of the individual letterforms and the reflective material used to fabricate them — along with a healthy dose of trial and error.

One of the big challenges for the design team was figuring out how to make the counter shapes, or spaces inside letters such as "o" and "a" larger without making the letters and words too large to fit on the existing highway signs. (Replacing the signs altogether would have been extraordinarily expensive.)

A second challenge was minimizing the “halation” effect that occurs at night when “the shine of bright headlights on highly reflective material can turn text into a glowing, blurry mess.” At the time the article was published, it was estimated that nearly one fifth of Americans on the road were elderly drivers, a population most affected by the halation phenomenon.

Suffice it to say then that the Yaffa piece is required reading for all of my Graphic Design II students, many of whom start out the semester relatively new to the world of type. Clearview serves as an impressive example of how design and type can improve the quality of life for average people. It is also an example of how the nuances inherent in every typeface become significant depending on a given context.

There is so much we take for granted when it comes to the barrage of visual information we absorb on a daily basis. I suppose I have found, consequently, that learning to appreciate good typography has also helped me glimpse beauty in details that might have otherwise passed me by.