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OK. It is not everything I know — rather this is a distillation of what I know, based on almost 40 years of rumination and working with type and design. This is more of a philosophical article rather than a practical or demonstrative one. After all, the language of modern typography is over 500 years old. Choose a direction — any path of study — and you will spend years drilling into minutiae.

Rather than anything practical — I just wanted to write what I have learned about the practice of typography. The whys and reasons for it — and the whys and reasons for its continued importance and consideration.

Typography is the only visual art form that is not about creating an illusion. Painting, photography, film — these are all about creating a simulacrum of something — the drama of a feeling through line and color. Instead, typography is about transparency — the better the work, the less it is seen. At least, that is my over-arching thesis.

What do I mean — transparency versus illusion. The eye translates the external world in very interesting ways. Or rather, the brain takes the raw input from our eyes and does very interesting things. The human eye does a constant rapid-fire scan of its surroundings, taking in color and shadow. Through rod and cone and rapid-eye movements called saccades, a sense of the world is created. These saccades follow no linear path, rather they are constantly scanning, taking in the interconnectedness of the visual world. The saccades allow the brain to take distinct and separate colors and shadows and give us sunlight-dappled leaves moving in a breeze. With no saccades, it would be chunks of color constantly changing.

This eye movement is what allows a photograph to be “seen” — or a film to have motion. It is also what allows us to read a book.

Text is never read as a whole. It is read as shapes first. The shape of the letter, the shape of the word, the shape of the text block. Our eyes bounce between all of these things to make sense of what has been typeset. Rather than blending everything into a seamless event, our eyes travel over these shapes and a story is told. Rather than using the saccades as a method of generating an illusion — it allows us to see that a word is part of a greater whole.

The shape of a word is called a “bauma”. When we learn to read a word, we learn to read its shape. Indeed, studies show that we can recognize a word just by the top third of its bauma. There are ways to impact the integrity of the bauma — setting a word in all caps will make a word harder to read. So too will the addition or subtraction of too much space.

Typography is an intimate event — when a book or a magazine or a paper is read, we hold the material close — it expands to fill our peripheral vision — our focus becomes the page. The page becomes a home in which our vision resides.

Take for a moment the meaning of that — The page becomes a home in which our vision resides. The sum total of the experience of reading must be whole — it must remove distractions — it must impart the meaning of the text as effortlessly as possible.

Taking the shapes of typography — the page, the text block, the line, word and letter — all must be tied together to create that intimate space.

One can start with the type, choosing a typeface that is appropriate to the text. “Appropriate to the text” is a lifetime of study in and of itself. If we take apart the shape of a letter, its calligraphy, we find that the stroke and bowl of each letter has its own meaning. There is drama in shape, there is inherent tension. To step outside type for a second in order to give an example — painting is made up of calligraphic marks — the method by which a brush lays down a layer of paint speaks to the subject. To look at the quiet of a Vermeer, is to not see his brushwork. To look at the tumult of a DeKooning painting, is to see the brushwork and the erasure. Each painter is speaking to their subject matter through line, shape and form — transmitted through brush. So too, the shape of a letter transmits its own drama through its thicks and thins, its proportion of ascender and descender to the shape of the body of the letter. A typeface that is “appropriate” is a typeface whose tension speaks to the content and context of the text.

After selecting a type face, it is then deciding on size. Point size can be determined by the number of pages one wishes to impart. It can also be determined by audience — larger type for people with poor eye-sight, for instance. When we choose a typeface we have to consider these factors — audience, page, intent, feeling, history. Whatever the story is of the typeface, it shall also become the story set in text.

From here, we decide the maximum number of words per line — why? Because if a line of text is too long, the eye loses track of the shape of the text block — it becomes harder to read.

We next decide how many lines of text will be on a page — looking at the whole of the block as a shape. Do we run ragged or do we justify? If we run ragged, we have to be sensitive to line breaks — avoiding too many hyphens, massaging the shape of the text block so that the ragged right line of the text looks ‘appropriate’. If we justify the text — we have to be sensitive to the spacing of each word — too much space on a line, and the shape of the word becomes incoherent — too much white space in a block of text, or too dense a text, and we create black or grey areas on a page — rivers or pools, distracting from the essence of the text.

Herein is the biggest lesson I have ever learned regarding typography. Typography starts with white space. It starts really with the shape of the page. The shape of the page and the shape of the text block are interconnected pieces — to determine the appropriate size and placement of the text block — we have to determine the size of the page. Part of that determination is figuring out margins and gutters — the feeling of the page as it turns — how do recto and verso interplay?

The best advice I can give to any designer is to read Jay Hambidge’s The Elements of Dynamic Symmetry . It is dry and frustrating and the language is archaic — but do the lessons — learn how to create proportion and learn how mathematical systems are used to create aesthetic shapes. From this book, we learn that a page — a blank canvas — means something. It has gravity. Read also Jan Tshichold’s “The Form of the Book which expands the idea of space into the appropriate use of letters.

Space matters in typography. Miles Davis said “It’s not the notes you play. It’s the notes you don’t play.” Never be afraid to let white space speak — it can speak volumes. A line of text is composed of space — the space between letters and the space between words. How much space should be allowed between punctuation and the next word? How much space should be allowed between lines? If you want your words to be set strong, look at that white space. Well-set text almost has a halo — the effect between one letter and the next — that interplay of light and dark can make a word shine.

In the end, the interaction between the page and the text, between the line and the letter, should become transparent. A reader shouldn’t notice the effort of the typographer and the time spent agonizing of letter and word space. Instead, all the reader notices is that the words are easy to consume. The text should be transmitted to the reader with no effort.

In the interplay between the eye and the page, the words speak directly to the reader’s brain. As Michelangelo saw his sculptures within a piece of granite before beginning to carve, a great typographer sees the meaning of content on a blank page. By removing everything that makes it more difficult to read, by balancing light and dark, shape and meaning, the Typographer succeeds.

–Ben Trissel

About Ben Trissel

Ben is the Founder of Sidgl, 4th generation craftsman and designer that believes in thoughtful design, sustainable manufacturing and functional beauty. Sidgl makes handcrafted bags that are designed to look good, feel good and above all function well.

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