Inside Paragraphs

An Interview with Font Bureau Type Designer Cyrus Highsmith

Knowing typography is the best way to improve as a designer. But the traditional books on typography can be very daunting to those starting. As visual people, an overly detailed or rules approach can be hard to process. Thankfully Font Bureau Senior Type Designer Cyrus Highsmith wrote an introduction to typography book perfect for visual learners. It was a pleasure to chat with Cyrus.


TypeThursday: Cyrus, great to have you here.

Cyrus Highsmith: Thank you.

TT: So, I brought you in to talk because I noticed you had a publication you authored called Inside Paragraphs. The topic of getting people interested in typography and understanding how it’s used is a very broad topic that a lot of designers have a problem with. Could you share with us your motivation behind that project or why you decided to write that book?

Focus on the White Space

CH: Well, at the time I was teaching a beginning-level typography course at Rhode Island School of Design. So it grew out of the lecture series and the material that I was developing for those students. I wanted to teach typography from my point of view as a type designer and, going further, my point of view as a type designer who’s very focused on white shapes and white space. That drives my approach to drawing letters. That’s what the book is about; the space inside a paragraph.

If you can train yourself to see and think about white space in the context of a paragraph, and how all those different kinds of spaces relate to each other, you are off to a good start.

TT: What about your perspective and that viewing of the negative space between shapes helps readers understand something about typography that they didn’t know before?

CH: Well, my hope is that it provides the big picture and a starting point.

TT: Can you clarify that? In what way?

CH: If you can train yourself to see and think about white space in the context of a paragraph, and how all those different kinds of spaces relate to each other, you are off to a good start. When you’re able to understand the white space within a paragraph, a lot of the details and rules in typography make a lot more sense. Understanding the white space is relatively easy. And then you can fit all those details and rules into a context.

TT: So you found that students who were beginners in typography really understood the more nuanced points about typography more efficiently. Is that fair to say?

Teaching in this visual approach, opens typography up to students who might otherwise be turned off by being overly detail or rule focused.

CH: Right. It’s a very visual approach to typography, as opposed to a more detail-oriented approach or a more rule-oriented approach. Rules and details are important, of course, in typography. But being so detail-oriented and rule-based can be boring. As a starting point, I find that makes typography inaccessible. Teaching in this visual approach, opens typography up to students who might otherwise be turned off by being overly detail or rule focused. It gives students another dimension they can add to how they think about typography.

TT: The book mainly focuses on the print world. Obviously, typography is really important in the web and product design for apps. Do you feel what you teach in that book could be applied to those disciplines of design?

While the book doesn’t cover at all that happens on screen, you can apply it.

CH: As I say in the book, it’s a foundation. Typography started with a paragraph of printed text. So I thought, well, we’ll start our beginning-level class with a paragraph of printed text. But obviously, it doesn’t end there. While the book doesn’t cover at all that happens on screen, you can apply it.

For example, a lot of the way I describe paragraph settings for different widths of columns applies directly to making typography that’s responsive to the width of a browser window. The screen may have some things that you do in the details differently than you would in print, but the principles, can apply to any text on screen.

TT: Cyrus, thank you so much for your time. I really appreciate it.


Interested in leveling up your typography? Purchase “Inside Paragraphs” Also avalaible in in Japanese, French, Spanish, and Polish

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