Why Not a Tool Book for Peers

The story of creating a typography guide that passes through major bubbles in California College of the Arts.

Free PDF Version

What Starts It

I’m a graphic design student, and I live in a bubble. In this bubble, I spend most of my time with other graphic design students. This bubble lives in California College of the Arts (CCA), alongside many similar bubbles.

I remember I signed up for an ‘interdisciplinary’ learning journey when I applied to CCA, and I dreamed about it during my freshman year—to become a graphic designer that can do a variety of other creative practices. It’s a tragedy that most people set off into their own bubbles after their freshman year. Friends remain interdisciplinary but the knowledge that obtains degrees is not. Most students introduce themselves by saying “I’m a blah blah(major) student at CCA,” rather than “I’m a student at CCA.” I’m not proposing that students shouldn’t have specialties; I’m just saying that we, as students at CCA, have been neglecting the fact that we are all makers, and our artistic practices are connected in multiple ways. After all, art and design were not born with specialized categories that they developed into.

Majors live in their own isolated islands on the sea of CCA, and never have they tried to bridge with one another. Studying in such an interdisciplinary environment, I rarely see knowledge being shared between majors. Although we have a few classes that are designed for interdisciplinary practices towards the senior year, there is no such platform for students to mutually share what they’ve learned in their bubbles. No platform for graphic design students to help industrial students with layout; no platform for industrial students help interaction students build 3D models…you get what I’m saying.

That’s sad and weird.

This was a project in my Type 3 Class. Inspired by one of my classes called Design and Culture, where interdisciplinary moments happen, I decided to do something in order to break the bubble phenomenon. Instead of attempting to tackle social problems that graphic design alone can’t really make a difference for, I focused on the community that I live in. I wanted to empower knowledge sharing between majors. “How can I help?” I asked myself. I wondered what power I have that can be applied to many other majors. “Typography,” I realized. It’s type that lives on various projects across disciplines. College papers, posters, flyers, boards, presentation decks, you name it, all has type.

I should probably do a typography guide specifically for CCA students.

How It Started

One of the survey posters. I have 20 posted around the SF campus.

I shared my idea with some of my friends from other majors. Many of them were excited about my idea and encouraged me to initiate it. I then posted posters that contain a link to my initial survey where I asked a few questions. Luckily, 28 students responded, even though they had to manually type in the link to their laptops and cellphones. The survey consisted of the following questions:

  1. What are their majors?
    Survey participants consist of 10 industrial design students, 6 interaction design students, 4 graphic design students, 3 individualized students, 2 illustration students, 1 animation student, 1 architecture student and 1 film student.
  2. Are they interested in Typography?
    All of them were.
  3. What are some of the common contexts in which they need typography?
    Poster was the most popular medium.
  4. If they had any existing type book, what were some of the contents they wish could’ve been better?
    They wanted less useless text and content, more open-ended guideline, and examples. They also wanted it to be able to quickly referring to.
Thank You cards.

Although there were only 28 students that responded, those were all valuable insights. I deeply appreciate their participation, and I made a thank you card for them as an analog feedback. Their responses proved that this is a valuable project to continue.

I also asked students to submit any type work they were not satisfied with that could be used as examples in the book. Unfortunately, people were too shy to create such learning opportunities.


+ Interviews

With the instructor’s suggestions, I further interviewed a few instructors that have insights from majors other than graphic design. Because of that, I gained a variety of perspectives of typography in terms of the way they are being perceived and interpreted within the major and the student body. Of course I noted them.

Notes from the conversations.

+ Content

After gathering insight and feedback, I stated to think about the content of my book, how it should be different from the existing books on the market, and how could I make it CCA-specific.

Existing books about typography.

Based on my observation, the majority of the existing books that focused on typography talks about what typography is, gives tons of historic background, and introduces concepts with giant chunk of text. Even though they have some pictorial examples, the way they organize content through categories makes it hard to relate. In sum, too much or too generally.

The book I designed, on the other hand, focuses on the journey of using type from a CCA student’s perspective. It emphasizes on the process:

  1. Know the Context
  2. Choosing Type
  3. Placing Type
  4. Improve Type
  5. Text & Adjust Type

In this way, students can easily to refer back the book. They will know which step they are at, and go to that chapter.

I tried to filter out the knowledge that are graphic-design-oriented such as the history and the anatomy of type and leave the most useful and practical typographic knowledge that can be generally applied to many majors. Instead of introducing a bunch of concepts at a time, I sliced them into pieces and inserted them into corresponding steps.

I really aimed at cutting out the bullshit and showing the most useful information to my readers.

Since posters are the most popular medium and no one was willing to share their work in the survey, I photocopied some of the existing posters around campus, and use them as specific examples for type evaluations.

I understand that I’m not an expert when it comes to comprehensive knowledge. Therefore, I’ve included resources that were created by type experts if the reader wants to dive in deeper.

To be more practical, I also include an InDesign Practice in my book for those who know nothing about InDesign.

+ Design

How do I make a book that is lovely and people love to carry around? I thought about that quite a bit.

Go: A Kidd’s Guide to Graphic Design. Source: digitalartsonline.co.uk

I am not a hardcore reader, and I dislike long-text, unless the content is rather intriguing. One of my favorite books and probably the most memorable book is Chip Kidd’s Go: A Kidd’s Guide to Graphic Design. Resembling a children’s book, I never get tired of this masterpiece. I love the language and various visuals in this book, and it makes me feel like I’m a child again. I borrowed this book from the library multiple times, just to get a sense what is so good about this book. I remember my conclusion was: big type, interesting yet straight-forward language, examples, and vivid color.

I also recalled a few other books that were engaging, such as Understanding Comics and The Best Interface is No Interface. They all have elements that keep readers engaged with the text and help understand the content well.

Therefore, I decided to make my book look ‘cute’ and easy to approach. I wanted to make every thing on my book look fun and easy.

I added a character—an illustrative hand.

I sketched some hands.
I created hands in Adobe Illustrator.

I used two different typefaces: 
FF Unit Slab and Whitney, and kept important text as big as legible.

I explored some typefaces.
I also tested the sizes of type.

I used pleasant color scheme, and color coded my book, so that my readers can easily find information they need.

I decided my color palate at coolors.co.
An inside spread from the book.

I made the cover very noticeable by using—the enthusiastic color—red.

As for the book size and quality, imagining students carry it around and use it a lot, I made it pocket-size (5'x8'). Hardcover is durable, however, it’s too expensive to make, and softcover is lighter and cheaper.

+ Behind the Scenes

It was ambitious and crazy to make a typography book in one month. However, I made a promise, I had to do it. Due to the time limit, I had to optimize all of my skills and save as much time as possible. I’m glad that I raced all the way to the end and the book was 100 pages in total.

Where to Get a Physical Copy

I printed this book through blurb. If you love what I shared, you can choose to support me by buying a physical copy!

Cheap Soft Cover

Collectable Hard Cover

Both physical copy from the first test run are available to check out at CCA Simpson Library.


Easy Type Guide filters complex sources, bundles the most useful typography knowledge, and practically guides readers, step by step, through the usage of type. My hope is to help improve readers’ work by elevating their comprehension of typography.

If you are a student at CCA, I hope this book can help you to achieve success in your projects. If you really appreciate my book, shoot me an email and tell me how you feel! You can also reward me at any figures though Venmo @ BillChien if you think it’s worthy.

Most importantly, remember to break the major bubble if you can.