Words matter (or so I’m told). Some of my favorite typographic pieces are the ones that use typography not only to deliver a message but to serve as the compositional foundation that a design centers around. Letterforms are just as valuable as graphic elements as they are representations of language, and asking type to serve multiples roles in a composition is a reliable way to elevate the quality of your work.
It’s a tool you will always have available to you, no matter the project or medium. Regardless of if you have imagery, regardless of how good the copy is, and regardless of the typeface, if you force yourself to think of type as a structural tool, you’ll always be able to add depth to your designs. It forces you to go beyond the fundamentals of typesetting to seek new opportunities for interaction and storytelling with typography, and to consider the formal qualities of every typeface you choose in the hunt for connections between its graphical design and the message you want to reinforce.
I’ve pulled out a few of my favorite designs that use type in this way and grouped them into shared themes so we can analyze the range of techniques different designers have used to let typography guide their work. Let’s dive in!
Type Informing Grid
Using one typographic element to influence other pieces of the design
Let’s start with a great, obvious example. Jessica Svendsen’s poster for Exhibiting Architecture: A Paradox? is one of several breathtaking posters she created for a series for the Yale Architectural program (we’ll be speaking to another one of those posters in a moment).
If we abstract and diagram this design, we can see the way Svendsen lets the vertical lines created from the 3D extrusion of the display type establish the grid that the supplementary text is aligned to. This approach brings a sense of order even within the sweeping lines of the question mark—you can see that the question mark itself hits many of the same grid lines that are organizing the lower section. This structure unifies the two halves of the design despite the massive difference in style, perspective and scale. This modernist style of poster quite often has “hero” graphical elements or typography and gridded type above or below, but I haven’t seen many examples that build connections between the primary and secondary elements to the degree Svendsen does with this piece.
The interplay between dimensional space and the flat-plane type below adds a sense of movement, space and scale to the design that would be lacking if the hero type was also flat.
Lessons to remember
One object can be the fulcrum for your design’s structure
Design can often be tackled in a cascading fashion. If your design is best served by a single focal point, solve for that, then decide how your type and secondary elements can relate back to that focal element.
It’s not just the type you choose, but the way you present it
Type doesn’t have to exist on just one plane, or be rendered in one dimension or in one texture. Seek ways to add variety to the aesthetic elements in your typographic work, and don’t forget to build bridges between the different styles you use.
Eric Hu is masterful at combining typefaces and there’s often more order in his compositions than might be evident at first glance. This poster showcases two typefaces — the spindly, italicized Glossy Display, and an awkward grotesque (note how short the numerals are compared to the letterforms) that’s typeset in a way to exaggerate its awkwardness. There are several ways that Hu uses the italics here to establish structure and connect the two styles of text. Starting at the top half of the design, we can see that care is taken to match the leading of the italic to the full height of the grotesque, and in the bottom half the numerals are placed in the space that is create alongside the descending “g” in “Virginia.”
Abstracting the type can help us see the underlying skeleton of the composition. The dots in the italic are perfectly round and feel overly mechanical and precise compared to the liquidity of the rest of the lettering. Because they bob up to the cap line they feel almost completely disconnected from the petite lowercase characters sunken below. They confuse the eye — which typeface do these belong to? — and bridge the two layers while serving as both letterform elements and points in space to unify the composition. It’s also a cheeky way to introduce geometry to a strictly typographic design, alongside the “+” and the squared colon. It’s a valuable reminder that typefaces contain a great deal of symbols that can serve pure graphical purposes.
Working in this way allows you to focus on one grouping of text to begin your design, and then trying to play against it as you build out layers of complexity. Because Hu already has same-color text overlapping in this design, he very easily could have chosen a more chaotic approach and embraced that interplay and tension, but instead he chose to use the positive as well as the negative spaces created by the italic phrases to complete the design. The result creates a clearer foreground/background relationship between the two typefaces and feels polished while still having the “mistakes” and messiness that prevent it from feeling overly formal or precious. This is an excellent example of “Making and Breaking the grid.” The areas where the type clashes and overlaps are more impactful because of the restraint shown in other areas of the poster.
Lessons to remember
Make cascading typographic decisions
I love that this design shows how you can work in this fashion without needing to have that “hero” element in a design. Sometimes it’s just as simple as deciding on the rough placement, leading and color of one phrase in a design and letting it be the first in a series of small decisions that ultimately lead to your end design.
Seek out ways to blend typographic elements to unify different typefaces in the same design
The way Hu uses the dots in Glossy Italic to interplay with the grotesque is really wonderful, and it’s a good reminder that many typefaces of disparate styles have little details that blend from one typeface to another. Remember what a powerful device that can be when you are mixing typefaces.
Bigger isn’t always better
Type can inform grid and structure even with imagery present, or when two typefaces of similar hierarchical importance collide. Don’t assume this can only be done with monolithic display type.
No designer practicing today uses type to inform composition more often and with greater skill than Jessica Svendsen. If you read the Font Review Journal, you’ll know I’ve already written a great deal about this example, which is one of my favorite pieces of typographic design. Svendsen is using Maelstrom — a reverse-contrast slab-serif — as the spine of the design, but she didn’t settle for what the typeface gave her out of the box.
The poster is peppered with subtle edits to the typeface to reinforce a grid both within the display type and also to inform the type elements cascading around the edges of the design. Before we get into that, let’s start by discussing an even more foundational decision: to right-align the text. If you take Maelstrom and stack the letterforms in the same way as the poster, but left-aligned (below, far left), it doesn’t feel particularly satisfying, does it? It creates a lot of trapped space—like to the left of the A and under the arm of the Y. Swapping to right-alignment allows for much more interesting areas in the margins, driven by the “scoop” created by the Y pulling the left edge in and the A expanding back out a few lines later. This sculpting is also likely what led to the choice of pulling the last two lines of text away from the right edge—it’s the only way the A could have a clean transition from the L above it.
Svendsen lets the shaping of the display type guide the composition around the edges. “2014 FALL” fills in the negative space under the spread arms of the Y, and the A is used to seal off the bottom edge of the left half of the composition.The circular Y badge tucks into the H and prevents another instance of trapped space.
I spent some time overlaying “out of the box” Maelstrom against Svendsen’s final design so I could get a sense for the modifications she made to polish the design, and it’s a master-class in how much sweating the small stuff can improve an idea while also solving practical issues (my recreations are only meant to serve as approximations of the original piece, they are sloppy and imperfect in comparison). The red is Maelstrom, the blue is Svendsen’s version, and you can see the differences in the overlaid version where there are hits of either color.
The leg of the R has been pulled in to alleviate the fact that this is the widest pair of characters and to bring it in alignment with the CH, creating a solid base for the scaffolded type. The outer edges of the slab serifs have been subtly sculpted so each line has a clear relation to the one above and below it.
She removed or repositioned many of the “flag” details that Maelstrom boasts in order to create more negative space and maximize the air flowing through the design which prevents it from feeling overly dense — a different typeface would have the effect of creating a wedge through the middle of the design and remove any possibility for a relationship between the two halves.
The line breaks in the tertiary type that drips along the margins are occasionally informed by the display type, most notably in the top right, where the LECTURES subheading pivots off the serif on the A (this is more noticeable in the abstracted diagram). This is a particularly serendipitous decision, because that subheading is important for setting the context for the poster—it introduces half of the scheduling for the series. The way the A’s serif juts over guides you to the subheading and prevents it from getting lost in the wash.
Lessons to remember
It’s not enough to choose the right typeface
It took a lot of work to make Maelstrom successful in this poster. So much of typographic work is getting intimately familiar with different typefaces and giving yourself the space to try unusual things with them. I used the term “sculpting” a few times to describe this poster, and I think that’s a great way to describe typography in general. Every typeface, even the ideal one, is just a starting point. It’s up to you to optimize it.
Use display type as the scaffold for the rest of the design
If you’re committing to large, display type in your design, let its form guide the rest of the composition. Take what it gives you then figure out how to work within the creative limitations it leaves you with.