Letterforms are Complex

Book Review of The End of Average

Weaving science, history and his experiences as a high school dropout, author Todd Rose brings to life the untold story how we came to embrace the scientifically flawed idea that averages can be used to understand reality. The assumed validness of averages had ingrained themselves in our education and business structures for the last century.


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Rose proposed three conceptual alternatives to averages; jaggedness, context, and pathway. Reading the book, there are parallels to working as a typeface designer.

Jaggedness means two things:
• Objects consist of various qualities. 
• Those qualities must have a weak correlation to one another.

Francis Galton created the statical method of correlation. Correlation expresses the strength of the relationship between two different qualities like height and weight.

Correlation can be a value between zero and one. One is a perfect correlation. Zero is no correlation at all. A correlation of .8 is considered strong. A correlation of .4 is considered weak.

If the correlation between all the qualities in an object are strong, then a one-dimensional approach is warranted. That object is not jagged. However, if the correlation is weak between the qualities, there is no simple way to summarize the object. Each quality in a weak correlation relationship means each factor is relativity independent of one another.

There are trade-offs to flattening qualities for the sake of simplicity. Mass produced items follow one standard. Something like a shirt can be produced inexpensive and on a large scale for many people to wear. But with no great fit for any single individual wearing that shirt.

Something designed for the average is designed for nobody. We can relate this to producing retail typefaces. Type designers can do their best to plan for all possible usages of our type. But it’s not as effective when compared to a custom typeface project where the planned usage is known upfront.

Important qualities are not one-dimensional. Various factors contribute to readability in type. No one factor makes type readable. Proportion, weight, contrast, spacing all play their individual role in readability.

Google Fonts Improvement Project. TypeThursday’s Thomas Jockin contribution to improve Quicksand. Subtle adjustments to contrast, spacing and proportions yield significant results.

Complex objects are consistent within a given context. What works in one context, may not be the case in another context. This contextual dependence is true just as much as people as typography; A complex object cannot be explained or predicted apart from a particular situation; they emerge out of the unique interaction between qualities and situation.

There is no single pathway or solution to complex relationships. Many equally valid solutions may reach the same desired outcome. The particular pathway that is optimal depends on the unique context and jadedness of an object.

Amy presents work in progress lettering to attendees of TypeThursdayNYC. Hosted at The Type DIrector’s Club

It’s for this reason that critiques at TypeThursday are often suggestions on the conflicts or issues in the design, rather than prescriptive commands to change things. Changing one quality of the design will have compound effects on the other qualities. That change may not be desirable, especially if it invalidates the overall goal of the project. It’s up to the creator of the project to resolve the unresolved tension in the project. How she does this is ultimately up to her.

Having a dedicated community to develop work as ragged, contextual and variable as letterforms is critical to success. Join us in New York City or San Fransisco to participate, contribute and develop as a designer.


Like to learn more? Check out “The End of Average”

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