How can Flexible Typesetting make YOU a Better Designer

An Interview with Author Tim Brown

Designing for the web is getting more complex. Are you prepared to thrive in this new marketplace? Learn how a better understanding of typography may be the key to thrive in this interview with author Tim Brown.


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Thomas Jockin: Tim, it’s great to have you back to speak about your new book, Flexible Typesetting just published from A Book Apart. Congratulations on the release.

Tim Brown of Adobe

Tim Brown: Thanks Thomas! I appreciate you having me back, and thanks for your kind words about my book. Feels great to have it in the world now.

What most differentiates these three categories of typography is the prioritization that we designers give to how they flex.

The Three Categories of Typography

TJ: I’ve seen many words of praise about the book! I had the privilege to preview the book and was very impressed by the scope and method you used to discuss typesetting. Early in the book, you have a diagram showing three jobs of type; Arrangement, Calibration, and Setting. Could you expand how you define those three jobs?

Tim’s diagram of the different jobs in typography

TB: Yes! I have lots to say about this wheel diagram. I guess the first thing to say is that this, like much of the book, exists as more of a question than a statement. These words I’m using are not traditional terms — I made them up. I mean, typesetting has always been used … and designers talk about “arrangement” in lots of contexts, but I’m using these to mean specific things that they may not always have meant. I wanted to use the book to put forth some rough terms, to help us build a vocabulary. We need more words for describing flexible design.

The other thing to mention briefly is that this is the first of two times that the diagram appears in my book. In Chapter 3, each wedge of the diagram is labeled with a specific typographic job — things like body text, display text, tabular data, and more. This first instance of the diagram is labeled with broader terms for categories of jobs. Both diagrams need discussion and revision.

What most differentiates these three categories of jobs is the prioritization that we designers give to how they flex. So, think of these core, fundamental properties of a text block: its font size, measure, and line spacing. Typesetting is about reading, and reading is all about focus, flow. You want a reading experience to feel so familiar and comfortable that readers become absorbed in the process of reading. A solid font size is critical. So you lock that down and allow the other properties (measure, line spacing) to flex.

Contrast that with type that is arranged. Its purpose is to catch people’s attention, to call them to action in some way. Often, arranged type sits in special graphical ways with other elements like illustration and photography. When it flexes, it must maintain a careful arrangement. This is a different kind of flexibility than typesetting; here, you might prefer that font size flex somewhat, but line length not change at all. Or you might mix it up. The priorities are different. Same goes for calibrating type — the specifics and nuance of these typographic jobs require yet another kind of prioritization.

TJ: It makes sense Arrangement, Calibration and Setting are all in the context of Flexibility. The title of your book is Flexible Typesetting after all! I sense for each of your broad categories both the degree of flex and which properties are flexible vary between one another. Is that a fair summary?

TB: Yeah, although when you consider the whole continuum of a composition, the same properties are present and changing in each kind of typography. What varies is the degree of change, as you said, and the rate of change — and also the reason for the change. That’s actually one of the most interesting things to me about all of this.The real endgame for design work in this new era is to articulate our reasoning.

TJ: Yes, you did mention different priorities between arrangement, calibration and setting before. Is that included in your belief in the endgame for design is articulated reasoning?

Sample spread from “Flexible Typesetting”

Design as Articulated Reasoning

TB: Very much. I mean, it helps. If you know why a chunk of content exists, you know how to design it. Designers have been doing this for hundreds of years. It’s just that now, we have to take stuff that existed only in our minds — our decision-making processes, the reasoning of our prioritization, our mental inventory of techniques — and bake them into the actual artifacts we create. Articulating reasons is part of that future, and probably the most fuzzy part. Creative people don’t always have reasons. Sometimes you backfill reasons. :) But typography is more reasonable than a lot of creative work, so in addition to serving as a structural foundation for layout, typography can also serve as a foundation for looser aesthetic choices.

TJ: Is it fair to interject we’re speaking about the web? In particular, how the fluidity of the digital canvas means the need for a more dynamic design process. I’m thinking of responsive web design with media queries and all.

TB: That is fair. The web has catalyzed the change we’re talking about. But it’s also worth clarifying what “the web” is. The web is not just today’s screens and devices and browsers. The web represents an evolutionary step for all media. When I talk about the web, I’m talking about the existence of designed experiences in multiple formats simultaneously, as well as readers’ abilities to participate in shaping those experiences, and also the web’s underlying philosophy of universality and resilience. This dynamic design process, with its fluidity and flexibility … that’ll soon be part of what we consider physical or non-web reading experiences. It’ll be on actual paper, on our walls, on our road signs, etc. What we’re talking about here isn’t about “the web” as we think of it today. It’s about everything. All reading experiences. This is the beginning of a new phase in design history.

Fluidity and flexibility mean that reading experiences can fit in more places and people… we need ways of talking about what doesn’t seem to be working well.

When to Adjust Your Typography: A Sense of Pressure

TJ: How does your concept of “pressure” relate to this? I have an impression this focus on fluidity and flexibility have some relationship to the concept of pressure you discuss in Flexible Typesetting.

TB: Pressure is uncomfortable. I wanted to try using this word to describe the things we see in typeset web experiences that make us uncomfortable, because the alternative is to call those things we see “wrong”. Fluidity and flexibility mean that reading experiences can fit in more places, and fit more people, which is great! But we need ways of talking about what doesn’t seem to be working well, as text reaches all these new places and people.

TJ: Reading the book, I was intuitively struck by how accurate the idea of “pressure” was to my work and teaching as a designer. Sometimes the text is too crowded, sometimes too small, sometimes too bare, etc. etc. Is the idea to address points of pressure by using formulas or proportions in media queries?

TB: Yes! So, media query breakpoints, relative and flexible units, and to some extent calc equations, are the tools that web designers and developers have available today for dealing with pressure. Variable fonts are an emerging tool. In the future, we may have more (and better) tools — and we need them, as designers and as readers. I like the way Mark Boulton put this years ago: sensors and preferences. Media queries are a kind of sensor about reader conditions, and preferences are information readers are providing explicitly. I like to talk in abstract concepts like these, because the technology of the day will change more rapidly. Our raw materials will also grow, in number and in nature.

For the foreseeable future, I believe [Designers] should code because it is the only way to express with clarity the newest concepts of this era…

Should Designers Code?

TJ: I recall from the beginning of this conversation, you see your framework of thinking as a question rather than a statement. What desired outcome do you wish to see from people reading Flexible Typesetting? I am getting the impression it is to contribute to the conversation regarding design’s future.

TB: First of all, I want readers to feel relief. This work we do, it is difficult. I wrote this book to describe exactly why and how it is difficult, so that we can share that with others. I also want readers to recognize how historically important this moment in time is for our practice — and that they are part of this moment. The work we do today will both break new ground and establish conventions that last hundreds more years.

Related to that all, I wrote this book so that toolmakers (including my employer, Adobe) would take web design seriously. We often hear arguments about whether designers should learn to code — and for the foreseeable future I believe they should, because code will be the only way of expressing clarity about the newest concepts of this era — but we also need much better tools. I’m happy to report that my plan is working. :)

TJ: Adding fuel to the heated debate if designers ought to code! Tim, it’s been a pleasure to have you join us again here on TypeThursday.

TB: Thanks so much for having me, Thomas! I love what you’re doing with TypeThursday, and I was so happy to hear that you’re also a teacher. We need teachers who understand both the significance of this moment in history and the actual work today’s designers must do. You are killing it. Keep up the great work.


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