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Type Tips

Five ways to improve your typography now

August 17, 2016 by
David Sudweeks
David Sudweeks

Sure there are lots of things you can do to improve yourself as a typographer, like reading books and becoming a generally more observant person. And there’s no getting around that. You’ll eventually have to do it and it’ll take time. “But what can I learn right now?,” you ask.

I first presented these ideas in 2014 as a talk to students of art and design at Cal, just up the street from my last place in Berkeley, California. The talk was called Five things you can do to improve your typography now. I’ve done my best to recreate the demo portions here with screencasts. Let’s get started.

1. Take on serious work

By that I mean do work that matters — great work. That it represent a big brand or an important social cause isn’t necessary. Make your work matter by putting in the effort required of greatness. License and use current fonts, the ones you hoped you might get to work with someday. Create and commission original art to use in your designs. Collaborate on projects with designers you look up to. Explore materials and processes you haven’t worked with before, and design to process. Isolate specific areas in your skills that need sharpening and build exercises into your projects that give you those skills. It will cost you more to do more, so be resourceful and plan for those expenses, selling ideas to and billing clients where applicable. Especially to young designers to whom this kind of work sounds difficult: this advice is for you. These are the kinds of experiences that will turn you into a better designer, so start making your big plans a reality by doing something that gets you moving today.

2. Use a baseline grid

Baseline grids iron out lots of the little bobbles in text layouts and reinforce a consistent structure throughout the document you’re working on. How they work: first, the designer sets a standard horizontal line increment for the document (the baseline grid), and then sets each paragraph to align to it. This best serves the designer after she has done plenty of testing to determine the desired relationship between text size and line height of the smallest elements in the document, and between these and the body and larger typographic elements. Line heights should all be multiples of each other. Learn more about baseline grids

Using baseline grids on the web, or at least getting a similar result, is possible. It requires setting up your styles’ line heights and margins, etc. to enforce strict adherence to the desired grid increment.

3. Let styles cascade

This sounds like advice that applies mainly to web design, but the principle of not repeating oneself also has direct bearing on the way designers set up their paragraph and character styles. Arranging these properly helps keep your design flexible, so you can do things like change the typeface in one paragraph style, and all the rest of the styles in the document follow suit. I call this behavior cascading since I think print designers stand to learn a lot from good CSS.

In this example I’ll use Adobe InDesign, because it’s my preferred tool for setting lots of text in multi-page layouts. Begin by noting how applying styles works within text. You can apply a paragraph style by just clicking with the text tool anywhere in the middle of a paragraph, and then selecting the style from the Paragraph Styles panel. You don’t have to highlight anything. The style is applied between paragraph break characters (also known as hard returns).

To apply character styles, you have to select (or highlight) a character or range of characters first. That’s because character styles are designed to work as exceptions to the rule on a per-character basis. That’s a good question to consider overall when working with styles: What’s the rule, and what’s the exception?

Setting up your styles like this saves you a lot of time, additionally letting you explore lots of options more quickly.

4. Check proofs at scale

If you’re designing a print piece, get into the habit of regularly checking your work on paper at its intended size. This is an indispensable step as you work out the first important details of the design: typeface, type size, line spacing, column width, and any tracking values, if applicable. As you begin to get a sense for what the final dimensions should be, trim the page to match the final output so you can see how it will work at scale. If the end result is multiple pages, such as a book, test the dimensions you’ve proposed by making what’s known in the industry as a ‘paper dummy,’ a fully bound book block made with blank paper. This lets you flip through and get a sense for the dimensions and how well your page compositions work in their environment.

Something to keep in mind: Depending on the paper, ink, and process used to print your piece, you may get a very different final result from what you saw in your own studio proofs. A partial solution to this problem is understanding the printing process you’ll use, and if it differs from the one you use for proofing, how it differs. For example, offset printing (one of the most common commercial printing processes) applies ink to paper by means of contact with a flat (or rotary) printing plate. Depending on the paper stock and ink, the printed image may swell slightly as the ink seeps into the fibers of the page. Let’s contrast that with laser printing, which is common to office environments, but generally not commercial printing. As paper passes on a drum, finely-ground plastic dust (or toner) sticks to the portions of the page that had just previously been statically charged by a laser—and then a fuser heats up the plastic toner and melts it onto the paper. This gives you a sharp image, one that’s generally a little lighter than you get on a commercial press. Take that difference into consideration and design to process. The other part of the solution is conducting a press check, or doing periodical test runs on the commercial press to see and anticipate problems and adjust as necessary.

5. Cheat

Okay. Don’t do anything dishonest. That’s not what I’m talking about. What I am talking about is developing a sensitivity to form, and adjusting things that look wrong, even altering the content you work with. Especially if you’re a student and the ultimate destination of your work is your portfolio, look at your projects like a photo re-toucher looks at his. Anything out of place? Got a widow or orphan problem? Paragraph breaking in a weird spot making a huge unsightly mess of your text column? Raging rivers? Four hyphens in a row? Unruly rag? All these problems are regularly spotted and addressed by the pros through editing and copyfitting, and it’s not limited to making a column a little wider or narrower. If you’ve got control of the whole project, feel free to add and take away words or whole paragraphs, rephrase things and generally improve the composition. And If you’re not in a position to introduce arbitrary changes to the content, consider proposing the same fixes through proper editing channels. Just ask. Clients are often quite willing to give the designer latitude in this regard.

Editing the content means you aren’t tempted to rely on all the hack methods of cheating: horizontal scaling, ‘Optical’ kerning, reducing the margins beyond what’s reasonable, and who knows what else.

Besides changing the content, this last step is about keeping your eyes open and fixing things that seem a little off, even when you know they aren’t. For example, for the Great Pairs series, I set a few lines of stacked type at a 45° angle, but the bottom one, because it was italicized and because of the wedge-shaped negative space above it, felt as though it was set at a different angle. So I adjusted it, ultimately ending up at around 49°. I changed the spacing a bit too.

Keep an eye out for this stuff, especially for very common problems like uneven indent between type set at large headline sizes and body sizes, and when you see it, update the style or give it a nudge. That’s it. I hope this is valuable stuff to you. Let me know.

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