what is good typography?Reinforces the goals of the text

Good ty­pog­ra­phy re­in­forces the goals of the text.

Al­most all texts com­mu­ni­cate a set of points (Sum­mary judg­ment should be de­nied for three rea­sons). Some­times a text also needs to in­struct the reader (Add lines 7 through 21 and en­ter the to­tal here). Other texts of­fer warn­ings or ad­mo­ni­tions (You must be 48 inches tall to ride). In every case, good ty­pog­ra­phy sup­ports and re­in­forces the mes­sage. Good ty­pog­ra­phy makes the text more effective.

Three sub­sidiary propo­si­tions flow from this:

  1. Good ty­pog­ra­phy is mea­sured by how well it re­in­forces the goals of the text, not by some ab­stract scale of merit. Ty­po­graphic choices that work for one text won’t nec­es­sar­ily work for an­other. Corol­lary: good ty­pog­ra­phers don’t rely on rote so­lu­tions. One size never fits all.

  2. For a given text, many ty­po­graphic so­lu­tions would work equally well. Ty­pog­ra­phy is not an al­ge­bra prob­lem with one cor­rect answer.

  3. Your abil­ity to pro­duce good ty­pog­ra­phy de­pends on how well you un­der­stand the goals of your text, not on taste or vi­sual train­ing. Corol­lary: if you mis­un­der­stand the goals of your text, good ty­pog­ra­phy be­comes purely a mat­ter of luck.

Pause to con­sider propo­si­tion #3. Ty­pog­ra­phy is vi­sual, so it’s easy to con­clude that it’s pri­mar­ily an artis­tic or aes­thetic pur­suit. Not so. Ty­pog­ra­phy is pri­mar­ily utilitarian.

There­fore, good ty­pog­ra­phy is mea­sured on a util­i­tar­ian yard­stick. Ty­pog­ra­phy that is aes­thet­i­cally pleas­ant, but that doesn’t re­in­force the goals of the text, is a fail­ure. Ty­pog­ra­phy that re­in­forces the goals of the text, even if aes­thet­i­cally un­pleas­ant, is a success.

Does that mean that ef­fec­tive ty­pog­ra­phy can be ugly? Sure. Some­times ugly is bet­ter than pretty.

Look at the high­way signs again.

The script font used on the sec­ond sign could be called “pret­tier” than the stan­dard high­way-sig­nage font. But a high­way sign has a spe­cial pur­pose: it’s meant to be read quickly, from long dis­tances, at odd an­gles, and un­der vari­able light­ing and weather. The high­way-sig­nage font stays leg­i­ble un­der all these con­di­tions. It’s good ty­pog­ra­phy be­cause it sup­ports the goals of the sign.

The script font may be pret­tier, but in this con­text, it’s bad ty­pog­ra­phy be­cause it’s not suited to the task. Con­versely, the high­way-sig­nage font would look ter­ri­ble on a wed­ding in­vi­ta­tion, where the script font would be appropriate.

A re­lated example:

Here, the same font is used in all three ver­sions of this sign. But the first two signs fail to de­liver the mes­sage—the speed limit is 75—be­cause the ty­pog­ra­phy un­der­mines the text. The most im­por­tant el­e­ment is the num­ber 75. Also im­por­tant is the cap­tion speed limit. Only the third ver­sion gets the bal­ance right. It’s the only ex­am­ple of good ty­pog­ra­phy among the three.

Use this prin­ci­ple to test the qual­ity of your own ty­po­graphic work. The ad­van­tage of a util­i­tar­ian bench­mark over an aes­thetic one is that it doesn’t re­quire aes­thetic judg­ment. Trust me—if you’re just start­ing out in ty­pog­ra­phy, you’ll pro­duce some ugly work. Don’t worry. If it’s ugly and ef­fec­tive, you’re mak­ing progress.

Ask your­self: what do read­ers want from your doc­u­ment? And is your ty­pog­ra­phy help­ing them get it?

For in­stance, sup­pose you’re fil­ing a mo­tion in court. As a writer, you have two main goals:

  1. Tell the judge what rem­edy you’re seeking.

  2. Per­suade the judge that you’re en­ti­tled to the remedy.

If so, which of these ty­po­graphic op­tions is better?

Op­tion 1

YOU ARE HEREBY NO­TI­FIED that at a date and time to be de­ter­mined, in Dept. 21 of the above-en­ti­tled court, plain­tiff TRIXIE AR­GON will move the Court for an or­der that de­fen­dant MEGA­CORP pro­duce fi­nan­cial records re­quested by Ms. Ar­gon and re­im­burse Ms. Ar­gon’s costs to bring this mo­tion. This mo­tion is made on the ground that Ms. Ar­gon served Mega­Corp with a valid no­tice to pro­duce fi­nan­cial records at trial. Cal. Civ. Proc. Code § 1987(c); Cal. Civ. Code § 3295(c). Mega­Corp served ob­jec­tions and re­fused to comply.

Op­tion 2

You are hereby no­ti­fied that at a date and time to be de­ter­mined, in Dept. 21 of the above-en­ti­tled court, plain­tiff Trixie Ar­gon will move the Court for an or­der that de­fen­dant MegaCorp:

1. Pro­duce fi­nan­cial records re­quested by Ms. Ar­gon and

2. Re­im­burse Ms. Ar­gon’s costs to bring this motion.

This mo­tion is made on the ground that Ms. Ar­gon served Mega­Corp with a valid no­tice to pro­duce fi­nan­cial records at trial. Cal. Civ. Proc. Code § 1987(c); Cal. Civ. Code § 3295(c). Mega­Corp served ob­jec­tions and re­fused to comply.

The sam­ple para­graph above could also be edited to im­prove how it reads. This ex­am­ple is just meant to show what ty­pog­ra­phy alone can accomplish.

Op­tion 1 em­pha­sizes the first four words—who cares about those?—and the party names, which would have been em­pha­sized ad­e­quately on the cap­tion page. Given your two goals, the ty­pog­ra­phy in Op­tion 1 doesn’t help the judge un­der­stand what rem­edy you’re seek­ing or why. There­fore, this ty­pog­ra­phy fails.

Op­tion 2, how­ever, re­moves the un­nec­es­sary em­pha­sis from the first part of the para­graph. In­stead, it uses white space, a num­bered list, and bold styling to draw the judge’s at­ten­tion to the reme­dies you’re seek­ing. This ty­pog­ra­phy is bet­ter be­cause it re­in­forces one of the goals of the text.

by the way
  • Re­in­forc­ing the goals of the text is a sim­ple prin­ci­ple, but law­yers have a pen­chant for self-de­feat­ing ty­pog­ra­phy. For in­stance, law­yers draft­ing con­tracts will of­ten put im­por­tant para­graphs in all caps. But caps are more tir­ing to read than reg­u­lar text. (Don’t take my word for it—click here and see for your­self.) So the most likely re­sult of this ty­po­graphic choice is that read­ers will pay less at­ten­tion to the im­por­tant para­graphs in the con­tract, not more.

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