by Peter Biľak and Satya Rajpurohit
This is the first in the series of articles centred around typography and its use. Typography itself is centred around language, technology, craft and history, so all of these subjects will be followed up in future articles.
To start with, it might be useful to talk about what typography is, as the word is often used in many different ways. Traditional dictionary definitions (for example, ‘The style and appearance of printed matter.’), are outdated and perhaps too restrictive, since typography is no longer confined to the realm of print, can unfold in space and time, and can transcend the layout and style of type.
Language is ephemeral and immaterial, and it is typography that captures it and gives it a more lasting form. The aspiration of good typography the same as that of language: to communicate an intelligible message. And just like language, typography is a multifunctional tool: it is both functional and expressive, both the humble servant of the language as well as an active component of how we interpret its message. Phil Baines and Andrew Haslam observed in their excellent book Type and Typography that it is an anomaly that language and typography are taught separately in completely unrelated educational institutions. So: typography is the graphic embodiment of language, it is to your eyes what speech is to your ears, with all its expressive nuances and potential for communication as well as confusion. Good typography balances its functional and expressive sides as it shapes the experience of communication. In this text, we are going to focus on the utilitarian role of typography, as this aspect is perhaps easier to understand. Or to put it differently, the artistic aspect of typography is perhaps too subjective for a short text such as this.
Above: road sign, Ahmedabad, 2011; below: redrawn version using typefaces Kohinoor Latin Medium and Kohinoor Gujarati Medium
Let’s examine typography’s utilitarian role in a simple experiment using two practical examples, a road sign and a film certificate. (Typography is as pertinent to such mundane items as cinema tickets and tax forms as it is to posters and book jackets, which is why we chose these particular examples.) In both cases, the image on the left is an actual photograph of type as we found it, while the image on the right has been reinterpreted using principles of good typographic design. When you compare the two versions of the Guajarati road sign, you see that on the right both languages are given equal status, rather than making one superior to the other. Also the use of type is more consistent, and the stretching of letters is avoided. The well-designed typeface produces more legible text in spite of the fact that the actual physical size of the letters is smaller! Perhaps surprisingly, bigger type doesn’t automatically guarantee higher legibility here. Similarly, comparison of the two versions of the bilingual Hindi/English film certificate shows that the original suffers from a lack of typographical hierarchy; although the actual typefaces are legible, the resulting layout is chaotic. Reorganising the information and drawing the reader’s attention to important points by the systematic use of type sizes and weights (as well as white space) dramatically improves the certificate’s readability.
Above: current version of the official Indian certificate for video films; below, a redrawn version using ITF Classic Devanagari Bold, and Kohinoor Devanagari and Latin
Good typography communicates a message and invites the reader to engage in that communication. This can happen on many levels. In the case of a book it means that the text is simply legible and doesn’t get in the way of the reading process. In the case of posters or other uses of type where readability is not the only factor involved, good typography helps to organise information and communicate not only the facts but also the emotions connected with them.
Poor typography, on the other hand, is not just unattractive, but usually fails to communicate. It distorts the content and alienates the reader emotionally.
We are surrounded by typography in the thousands of messages we read every day. Therefore it makes sense to pay attention to typography, since it plays an important role in the content it communicates.
Peter Biľak and Satya Rajpurohit are type designers and founding partners of the Indian Type Foundry.