The type lockup we’re all here for. Photo via https://www.flickr.com/photos/23099953@N00/3914098271

Re-learning how to talk about Design

How a single design decision shapes everything that follows.

Even in low-stakes, self-driven work, there are innumerable design decisions—aesthetic, formal and conceptual—that impact the final result. The following is a synthesis of my process and documents how one foundational design decision informed countless others. I think there’s a lot to be gained by analyzing the micro details in a design, and quick projects like this are a great vehicle for that.

If I’m designing outside of my day job, I am typically looking for excuses to try out new typefaces, and often typefaces that are still under development by type designers. This often means I’m making things quickly and for no one in particular. It’s a good opportunity for me to play with new toys, and the type designers get to see their betas in action and get a sense for what’s working and what might cause trouble down the road. They are formal exercises in design basics. This design was one of those instances.

The genesis of every design decision in this sketch was the “1975” lettering at the top, set in Maelstrom Sans. The goal was to take this in-development typeface for a spin, and it became the fulcrum from which every aesthetic, compositional and content-related decision was made. I often work in this cascading fashion—making an initial decision and letting the rest of the design flow from that. It’s a way to get myself started and avoid designer’s block.

Maelstrom Sans, like its predecessor Maelstrom, is a reverse-stress design. The strokes you expect to be thick are instead thin, and vice-versa. Because of this inversion of expectations, reverse-stress typefaces create a sense of “otherness” and unease that force the reader to consider the formal aspects of glyph construction rather than simply reading the line and taking it for granted. This particular example is sleek, with wispy lines that stretch into ovoid motifs. It feels a little retro-tech (geometric) and a little fashion-forward (delicate strokes and the high contrast).

The more traditional stress in Domaine Sans Display (left) vs the reverse-stress design. Both have huge weight differences in their thickest to thinnest lines, but the stress is on opposite strokes.

When I’m sketching with a typeface this, well, asinine, I focus on finding phrases or short strings that really show off the aesthetic of the typeface. I like to use dates to kick off designs like these, but one flaw with that method is you frequently have to start with a 1. 1s can be suuuuuper boring. Thankfully, in this typeface, the 1 has a prominent flag that draws your eyes in and gives it some healthy width. I chose “975” as the finish to the date after seeing how the three figures interacted with each other. The 9 shows off the lovely round shapes in the typeface, and has a thick “jaw” on its bottom half that anthropomorphizes it in a way I find endearing.

Other dates I tried either created troublesome negative shapes or felt a bit monotonous.

Typically I avoid 7s when I can because they leave so much space in their lower half—they can create odd negative spaces that disrupt the line. However, in this case I was able to let the 7 hug (dare I say it, “spoon”) against the 9 and let the arched back of the 9 fill the triangular void of negative space. The 5 is a nice mirror to the 9 and nicely loops back inward to close off the line. After submitting a request to the type designer, Kris Sowersby, it also lined up with the vertical angle on the 7, which made everything feel more buttoned-up.

Before and after the vertical alignment tweak on the 7 and the 5.

So, you’ve typeset a date, Bethany, congratulations! But what interesting things happened in 1975? Or, more specifically since you are a nerd, what are some rad anime that came out in 1975? What about rad anime that came out in 1975 that have names that are just the right length to be set appropriately proportional in size and weight to the date 1975 without being too long or too short? Coming in at a crisp 13 characters (counting spaces), we’ve got our winner: Getter Robo G! Bonus points for having mecha and a hella rad theme song. RIP Steel Jeeg, someday I’ll come back for you.

The name simply wasn’t long enough to properly balance with the date above, even with an extended typeface (and since the extended face is close in with proportion to Maelsans and has lower visual contrast, it also feels less visually interesting). A longer string allows for smaller text and more hierarchical and textural differences between the two lines.

Typically when I use a typeface as eccentric as Maelstrom Sans (henceforth referred to here as MaelSans), I pair it with subdued typefaces—ones that don’t have a lot of contrast or draw too much attention to themselves. I went against this rule when I typeset Getter Robo G. I tried a few conservative faces at various widths and weights before testing out Mabry. Mabry is a rather eccentric grotesque with oftentimes cartoonish exaggerations in its design, and I found that its personality neatly mimicked some of my favorite details in MaelSans.

The tight counters and emphasis on circular curves—even in characters like the t—give the design a lot of friendly geometry. Circles are more inviting than triangles, as a rule of thumb. When you look at the other options, which lack that detail, you can see how much connection gets lost between that line and the date.

They look like they are chewing on a wad of tobacco with those clenched jaws.

The lower serif of the Mabry G cuts in so far it feels like a tongue depressor, and its exaggerated length echoes the off-kilter proportions of the date above it. See how it nearly splits the bowl in half, creating an egg shape like we see in MaelSans? It’s also got some extended horizontal lines which echo the construction of MaelSans. The e’s have an underbite, where the stroke extends wider than the bowl above, which cheekily refers back to the “jaw” on the 9 of MaelSans.

The typefaces changed, but the tight tracking was universal.

I set the line with extremely tight tracking to mimic the typography trends in PC ads from the 70’s and 80’s as well as continuing the cramped letter-spacing I established with MaelSans. Another detail of note was that I started the second line of text at the vertical stem of the 1, rather than the absolute width of the text, due to the “dead air” under the flag which would simply be trapped and uncomfortable if left unfilled (we’ll speak to trapped space more in a moment). Doesn’t it feel as if you’ve literally been led into a trap—like you’ve stepped into a haunted murder cave and there’s no escape?

Setting the line under the date aligned to the left edge of the flag would trap the negative space in the 1. Your eye is drawn in then has to jump back out to the start of the next line.

By letting the negative space on the left side stay open, we’ve “activated” it and given it a use instead of trapping it with a crowded design. Now the flag serves as the awning that draws your eye from the far left and into the rest of the design, and the empty space sets the stage for the text that follows, lending the design some asymmetry and preventing it from feeling like a formulaic, fully justified composition.

The typeface I ultimately chose (bottom right) has some similar characteristics of Mabry (bottom left), but with much more detail, sharpness, and a visual contrast that helps it stand apart from the line above it.

The large “39” placed under the anime’s title allows for some contrast in scale against the smaller type that surrounds it, as well as giving me a chance to toss in another strange typeface I’ve grown rather fond of, which I’ll call €urobüng. It felt damaging to use MaelSans again at this point in the design (see example above, top left). Every additional time you use an intricate typeface in the same composition, you risk it feeling overplayed or uncanny — the specialness of seeing it really sing is dampened by seeing it repeated over and over again in slightly different scales and scenarios. It feels less bespoke to the original use and more a motif that’s being used repeatedly, and with diminishing returns. Mabry didn’t have the visual contrast or scale of weights to hold its own here. €urobüng is an eccentric, slicing design beautiful details (the 3!!!)It’s of a similar aesthetic without distracting from the rest of the design.

Trips though Wikipedia helped me find names and information to sprinkle throughout the bottom of the design. Most of it is set with a wider sans called Söhne Breite—something more controlled and “full” than Mabry and clearly differentiated because of the width difference. Mabry can feel splotchy—like it’s spattered on the page. Söhne Breite is an Akzidenz Grotesk ancestor with an extended width and repeating shapes that give it a sturdy, even tone. At large sizes, this monotony could grow stale (see STEEL JEEG above), but for smaller type it creates consistent lines that stabilize the design.

Notice how loose and expressive Mabry (left) feels compared to Söhne Breite, whose lowercase letters fill the space more evenly.
Starting with “Mecha Oni,” you can see how Mabry reads more as points in a row than as solid lines in situ.

As I started composing the lower half, my biggest concern was making sure I didn’t “trap” space in the middle of the composition. Trapping space occurs when you leave empty spaces in your design that are surrounded by all sides with other elements. A general rule of thumb is you want the eye to be able to follow the negative space in a design as much as the foreground content, so isolating negative space should be avoided.

Think of negative space like water—it should be allowed to gently drift back and forth down the design, until it ultimately trickles out. We don’t want stagnant puddles! Trapping space often leads to your eye being confused about where it should go next, because all directions are given equal prominence. You’ve drawn them to a cul-de-sac in typographic hell and there’s no way out without bloodshed and judgmental stares from behind the curtains.

In the middle example, the negative space in the center of the composition is “trapped” — It feels like something is missing. When the bottom of the composition has a gap in the center (left), it destabilizes the entire design, making it feel as if it’s wobbling on stilts. In the final version (right), there’s a channel for the negative space in the center to flow out of and into the margin, releasing the tension.

One way we can “let the water out” of this design is to simply leave a gap on the left side. You could also add elements into that negative space to negate the tension, but in this instance I felt it was important to have some air in the design to reduce the overall density. I wanted this composition to feel a bit organic in the way it was structured instead of feeling like a solid block that needed to be stuffed full of goodies.

The TOEI animation logo that was in use at the time brings in a nice geometric shape to break up all the type surrounding it. It’s a nice moment of visual rest, and sets apart the bottom line of the composition as more tertiary and “other.” I intentionally sized the elements on this row to fill the entire width and to be spaced so they didn’t align with any of the content above. It’s meant to feel like the floor of the design, and any large gaps underneath the negative space in the center would split the composition in half. As you can see in the example above (far left), when the bottom line is broken, the design feels like it’s balanced precariously on stilts, making you subconsciously feel a bit uneasy. It’s also just dumping the water of the negative space down and out of the composition, which seems a bit crass, no?

The final result lets you drift across the expanse of empty air and quickly latch onto the large “39” before sliding down to the bottom line, which feels naturalistic and not too matchy-matchy with what lies above. It’s amazing how easily you can wreck a composition by adding and removing simple elements!

I could probably write another 500 words about the cropping of the manga art in the background, but I’ll spare you and just say the giant fist grabs your eye at the top left, which is typically what you want, and frames the mecha’s face wonderfully. The lines from the face then lead you right into the type composition.

So, why bother going through all of this?

Over time, most outlets of creative expression has been supplemented by in-depth analysis by those in and surrounding those fields, and from the creators themselves. You’ll find endless examples of criticism of art, film and writing on the internet, in books and in videos. But that doesn’t exist for design. On the rare occasion that designers talk about their work or the work of other designers, what they want to talk about is rarely the work itself. They want to discuss the meta narrative of how the work fits into the overall design landscape, or regurgitate the glossy pitch that was made to the client to sell the work in the first place.

Perhaps the reason why we don’t see more design-focused discussion about design is that designers are either unwilling or incapable of talking about their work in a way that honestly reveals their process or intent. I don’t think enough people talk about their design work in a way that frames their design decisions as though they want to be held accountable for them.

In agency work, UX design and beyond, design is “pitched”—gussied up and smothered in bullshit and a fake aura of rationality in the hopes we trick people into believing we’re good at our jobs. As if we don’t actually believe that our work has any value if it’s not propped up with these extracurriculars. I’m tired of it.

I think we’ve bought our own bullshit for so long that we’ve forgotten how to actually discuss work. We’ve atrophied to the point where we don’t even know how to self-evaluate the qualities of our own work, much less thoughtfully critique the works of others. This article is an attempt to jumpstart the rebuilding of that dialogue by limiting the scope of the discussion to something hyper-specific.

There’s immense value in retracing our steps as we work—seeing the shatterpoints that frame the end result, and questioning if we’d do it differently now. Design is often a series of dominoes, with one decision cascading down to impact countless others. Making each decision as intelligently as possible is vital.

Mindfulness—being aware of the decisions you make and why—is extremely important in design. Designers who coast on instincts, aesthetics and salesmanship will have short lifespans. The ones who stick around and create work that impacts people are the ones who consider every action and reaction they make as they work and learn from them.

A benign 800x600 pixel image populated with Wikipedia information about a long-forgotten cartoon series is still a priceless opportunity to learn about yourself and teach others. Every time you make something you are flexing a muscle, expanding your repertoire of skills and sharpening your point of view. No matter what you do, do it with intent. If I can demonstrate this amount of rationale for a one-off, low-stakes design, you’d better come prepared with more for the work you do in service of others.

I hope you found this helpful. My intention wasn’t to be self-indulgent, nor to imply that my decision-making process is flawless. I find it extremely valuable to learn about the nitty-gritty decisions that shape the things I care about, and I know other designers are starved for this as well. So, I hope others will find this framework useful and start doing more retrospectives on their work, framing it in an honest way that shows their conviction in the end result. I plan on doing this on a regular basis, and have already found myself being a little more conscious about my decisions as I work. There will be more of these articles coming in the future, and I might branch into focusing on work from other designers as well.