Wednesday, March 05, 2014

Dear Font Designer ....

I spend several hours a month looking at fonts that I might want to acquire for my business. I'm pretty choosy. It's not just a matter of expense. I budget for fonts that will set me back over a hundred dollars and purchase them shortly before I need them (or sooner if they go on sale.) So if price is (usually) no object, what's getting in my way?

When I'm roughing the design for book covers and interiors I don't always have a specific thing in mind, so browsing through fonts helps me focus and suggests ideas. This means that your font design might suggest a concept that will result in my buying and using your font on my next project. I don't want to limit your creativity. Your vision and passion are an inspiration to me, and I'm always eager to look at your latest font.

Having said that, I'm often frustrated by some typographic tropes and give lots of gorgeous fonts a fast pass because of problems that come up when I'm trying to create a cover. Here are some very, very common problems that keep me from buying otherwise wonderful fonts:

Letters that look similar to other letters:  Usually, font designers are good about making certain that their letters look different from each other. They do a less-consistent job of making letters look uniquely like themselves in the grand scheme of all of typography. I see S letters that look a lot like a fancy P, and lowercase L letters that look like a lowercase T. A slanted, narrow, lowercase E when placed next to a F, T, or other letter with an overhanging element can be mistaken for an i with the dot obliterated. Here's the thing. When you have the entire font or a big block of text to look at, these visual misinterpretations by the human eye are rare because the context of all the letters helps our wonderful pattern-recognizing brain tell the letters apart. But if the title of my book is FiSh, which must stand alone on that book cover, it might look like FePh, or Tilk, or any other number of weird things depending on the font's idiosyncrasies. Those idiosyncrasies can have strong artistic and traditional foundations, but tradition doesn't help me a darned bit when I'm trying to make the reader understand that the book's title is FiSh. I recently saw this illustrated painfully in an otherwise beautiful poster where STRANGER seemed to read SIRANGER. For real. I even had a whole phrase to help me interpret the typography and I still had to take about fifteen seconds to see it. This is mainly a problem in swash and cursive designs, but I've seen it in decorative serif fonts as well.

Which leads me to letters that run into each other in unhelpful ways or that are spaced poorly, aka kerning and white-spacing: I think it's fair to say that all typographers, except perhaps novices working in a vacuum, address kerning and negative space to the best of their ability. For titling, I can adjust kerning to a certain extent and I'll be fine. Having said that, there's really nothing I can do with an r and n that combine into a figure that looks like an m but that, when I adjust the kerning, have awkward negative space around them so that they look ugly. The most common problem I run into? The capital letter M whose legs have such an extreme lean to them that even when the following letter's stem is touching them, the spacing still looks far too wide, white and awkward. The abbreviation Mr. and MA suffer in particular, and neither of those are an uncommon letter pairing. I find it maddening that this happens so often. All by itself, I have to say, the broad M letters look quite nice, but letters don't usually live in a vacuum. I rejected a huge number of otherwise wonderful fonts for the title job for MASKS because the combined slants for the M and A created a huge amount of white space that was not carried through to the rest of the title, even when I adjusted the kerning for SKS. As for body text, I'm not going to go through a whole book checking to see if rn looks like an m, so please, play safely out there, typographers.

Asian-inspired brush scripts that have letters that are too rough and have truncated parts meant to serve as absence of brush or a 'natural' brush look but end up looking unfinished and awkward:  Some of my clients are martial arts writers and would love to have a font that had the elegance and sophistication of good Asian-inspired brush calligraphy. Me too! The most common problem with the fonts I've looked at are incomplete letters. (The capital letter T in particular seems to always have a broken stem.) The second main issue is an almost random baseline and x height. I appreciate a certain looseness to the baseline and an overall feeling of freedom, but more often than not the baseline looks like someone tried to make a font that looked like Chinese or Japanese writing which is artful and gorgeous, but doesn't translate well into roman letters (roman letters are what most American and English readers think of as 'normal'). There's little respect for the roman letters in their own right and even less respect for the 'normal' baseline aesthetics for roman letters. Roman letters written as if they're set on a vertical rather than horizontal line and with a huge variation in ascender, descender and x height invariably looks sloppy, no matter how lovely the individual letters might be. More griping about baseline: capital letters are used to start the word more often than not, right? How am I supposed to ground my baseline with a broken stem? Sadly, such fonts that I attempt to use on a book cover end up looking like a Japanese or Chinese restaurant menu rather than a professional book design. I like that look ... on a menu ... but I'm trying to sell a book here, not food, and more often than not I need a formal mood. Artistic, good. All over the place, bad. Very short book titles can work using a rough font provided that the individual letters in the title harmonize well, but unfortunately, often they don't. Longer titles result in very poor results. I often have the feeling that the typographer is speaking with an awkward accent rather than working with a true understanding of the language of brush calligraphy. It would be very, very nice if there were alternates, btw, so that commonly used letters that repeat in words: e, s, t, o, a, r, etc. (and especially letters that are doubled) can have an alternate to make the title look hand-written. It would also be excellent if all the capital letters had alternates so that it's easier to ground that all-important baseline with something that will enhance the rest of title. I suspect that if I want a book title with Asian-inspired typography, my best bet will be to contact a brush calligrapher and commission a custom piece. Otherwise, I'll have to stick with calligraphic fonts with no brush-style elements but which have Asian architectural influences. There are some fine Asian-influenced brush fonts out there, but sadly they are very rare.

That about covers it for now. Thanks for reading!

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