Techniques for designing with type characters
~ 15 April 2008 ~
After weeks of code speak, let’s totally shift gears and talk exclusively about visual design in all its splendor and beauty.
Typography and typefaces, without a doubt, are two of the most fascinating aspects of visual design. Great designers can execute great designs with typefaces and nothing else, if required, and certainly if preferred. Design legends Saul Bass and Paula Scher have proved this many times over, and they comprise only a fraction of a very long list of luminaries who can wield type brilliantly.
Examples of great design using little more than typography are virtually numberless. Some of the favorites I’ve spotted recently include designs by John Arnor G. Lom, Coudal Partners, and NB:Studio, linked respectively:
But of all the work I’ve seen recently, few have captured my attention as much as that of Veer’s Type City Prints. “Each portrays an urban facet, illustrated character by character with a typeface that evokes the image itself,” Veer’s website explains. “Illustrations are letterpressed onto archival, acid-free paper using brass dies mounted type high.”
Inspired by Veer’s work, I had the privilege of creating a Type City-esque design of my own for an in-house poster contest. Designed in tribute to one of the buildings that adorn the organization’s headquarters (and one of the most compelling edifices in the state), the entire design was created solely with characters from the Bickham Script Pro and Engravers MT typefaces.
I’ll speak more about the design soon, but for now I wanted to share a few things learned during my first attempt to design with type characters. Luckily, in the course of my project, I was fortunate enough to correspond with Veer’s Justin Lafontaine, the talented designer behind the Type City Prints. (Correction: Christina Huber’s artwork is also featured in the set. Thanks Anders!) Below is shared knowledge from our experiences.
1. Use characters from the subject’s description. What better starting point and technique for conveying meaning than to use characters from the name of the building, location, object, or person? “The first thing I did was spell out the phrase, such as locations for the buildings, and copied it a few times at varying sizes in both upper and lowercase,” Justin explains. “This gives you a really good palette to start from which you can quickly grab different sizes depending on what you need.” (Regrettably, I learned about this tip only after I had made substantial progress, and therefore my design uses random characters and lacks that extra bit of meaning I could have given it.)
2. Take advantage of symmetry for both speed and beauty. For objects or buildings that are symmetrical, use symmetry to your advantage for creating the design with less effort. As Justin describes, “I usually built one side, then flipped it to complete the building.” As a result, symmetry also enhances the aesthetics of your work. “The symmetry in these can be pretty beautiful.”
3. Scale the characters to convey perspective. Justin: “In lots of them I used the scale of the characters to give the illusion of perspective, like larger characters closer to you, and smaller as they become further away. That helped a lot!”
4. Repeat sections whenever possible. This is probably the most important tip. You’ll find sections of the piece which you’ve meticulously built can be copied and pasted elsewhere in the design, and the duplicated section isn’t really perceptible without closer inspection. This is a real time saver. “All you need to do is some minor swapping, and it looks like a totally new texture,” Justin adds.
5. Don’t attempt this in one sitting. I take it back — this is the most important tip. Not only is type character designing extremely time consuming, it’s also monotonous work that requires a constant zoom in, zoom out dance to get things right. My design required a total of about 16 hours to complete. That’s just two full-time days worth of work, but don’t even attempt to do it two days back to back. Spread it out over a couple weeks to allow adequate time for correction, detailing, and simply to give yourself a break. (Mine was spread over three weeks.)
In retrospect, type character designing isn’t for the faint of heart, but it’s extremely gratifying if executed well. (A big thanks to Justin Lafontaine for sharing his advice!)
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