Typography: Subliminal Art
© 28 Dec 2011 Luther Tychonievich
Licensed under Creative Commons: CC BY-NC-ND 3.0
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Artists who try not to be seen.


Aa I explore typography (see my recent post), I find three worlds of type: logos, notices, and texts. Logos are mostly images with text embedded; readability is an afterthought. Notices are mostly I used to think notices were only about words. The remarkable 2007 film Helvetica changed my mind. about the words alone. Texts, though, by which I mean pamphlets and books, are almost entirely about getting out of the way.

That said, there are dozens if not hundreds of widely-used typefaces for both notices and texts. If all of them are striving simply to get out of the way and let the user sense the words, not the type, why so many?


Typesetting, like every other artistic and engineering activity, includes fundamental trade-offs. If you want the text to be maximally legible you want unadorned, wide glyphs each standing surrounded by plenty of white space. But for readability of text you want the glyphs to be close together so that the eye sees words, not letters; you want them to have a regular rhythm of vertical strokes and white spaces to help the eye scan across the text; and you want serifs as a guide to help keep lines of text together.

And it’s not just the typeface and the font that matter. Switching lines of text takes time and effort, so longer lines can often be read faster but short lines more easily because each line switch is easier. A ragged right margin keeps the rhythm of each line constant but can increase line switching cost and distract from the flow compared to a fully justified presentation. Hyphenation can reduce the cost of justification choices, but at the expense of splitting individual words, interrupting rhythm. How much should you indent paragraphs? Should punctuation hang outside the margins? Can you break a page after the first line of a paragraph? How different from the man text should the italic face be? Etc.

There are some choices that are pretty clearly wrong; there’s pretty much no advantage to lines several hundred characters long, etc. But the trade-offs assure there are many right choices possible.


With all of the freedom that comes from not having a single optimal choice, someone must make the typograhical choices for each printing. And that choice is not just about picking a point on each trade-off spectrum. Some typefaces “‍feel‍” older, or cleaner, or sterile, etc. Compare a random novel to a random textbook and you’ll find the typefaces differ. Textbooks generally want something clean and modern with a no-nonsense feel; novels more often prefer something a bit more human, trading a little legibility for readability. Magazines often want to feel new and hip, while newspapers often go more traditional.

The best typography, at least for text and usually for notices as well, is a subliminal message. Even while you are staring right at it, you don’t notice it is there; and even while you can’t see it, it is flavoring and supporting the message behind it. I would hazard that over 99% of book lovers couldn’t name a single type designer or identify a single typeface. Few artists have work that is so widely viewed with such total anonymity.

That’s one of the things that fascinates me about typography. How does such a vibrant, influential part of our daily lives remain so thoroughly invisible? What artist choses a field where no accolades exist to be gained? Will type ever become an accepted class of artistry?

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