The Three Phases to Improve Your Typography: An Interview with Wenting Zhang of TypeDetail

Cultivating an eye for typography can be challenging to designers first learning. TypeThursday sat down with Wenting, creator of TypeDetail, to talk about the steps in improving your typographic skills.

(PSST! Ready to see your own work jump from the lower to uppercase? We’re growing — find out if TypeThursday has a chapter near you.)

TypeThursday: Wenting, I really appreciate you coming in for this interview.

Wenting Zhang: No problem. My pleasure.

A Cultivated Love For Typography

TT: Well, great. So, looking up your history and what you’re about, I can tell you have a really deep love and appreciation for typography, especially on the web. Can you share with us what got you interested in it?

WZ: Interestingly I was not into typography at all at the beginning of my career. I went to undergrad for industrial design in China (in Zhejiang University), where typography was not part of the curriculum, mainly because of the culture difference, eastern language vs. western language. So I never got the proper introduction to typography early on, even though I was a design major from the beginning.

When I came to the US to go to Design and Technology for MFA at Parsons the New School For Design, typography was again not required in curriculum because it was grad school level. When I showed my work, people constantly pointed out that the typography was not so great. I tried to look up some resources but it is not until I took a class in Motion Graphics that I really get into the type world. The teacher, Ken Tanabe, is one of the best teacher I had while at Parsons. He pointed out a lot of bad choices I made in my piece and he really emphasized on typography in his motion graphics lectures. One of his classes was solely about typography and where to find good typefaces. Starting from there, I got a sense of what good typography looks like and where to find then, and started my journey in this exciting new world.

When I showed my work, constantly people pointed out that the typography was not so great.

After graduation, I took a job at Comedy Central, part of Viacom Inc. Comedy Central has an amazing brand, working on CC stuff is always exciting for me. All my awesome coworkers are also type nerds. They further introduced me to how to use good typography on a professional level. One day, I was looking at Designer News, and found an article written by Medium designer Marcin Wichary: Crafting link underlines on Medium. Reading about the attention paid to details in the article really open my eyes and broaden my horizon. I was inspired by it, continued to work on my own project underline.js and the process of finishing this project helped me really get into typography’s deep water. Later on, I continued to read more and more about type design and typography, online articles and books. The book by Stephen Coles: Anatomy of Type and 100 day project inspired to me do

TT: That became the impetus of Type Detail. A chance for you to really understand what typography is.

As I worked on Type Detail, I have found typography skills develop in three phases.

Phases of Typographic Skill

WZ: Yes, the reason of doing Type Detail was an exercise in self-study. As I worked on Type Detail, I have found typography skills develop in three phases.

Phase One is what I called the “Over-Dramatic Phase.” In the very beginning we tend to pick those typefaces with exotic features. Those display fonts that really stand out and shout. It is a phase almost every amateur designer, like myself, who didn’t get proper training went through. Looking back, I just want to burn everything I did during this phase and die! It is overdramatic because my eye was not trained to see the detailed difference, but only see the big difference. The more dramatic a typeface is, the more I like them. I think they are unique, and ignore the subtle uniqueness in details. In Over-Dramatic Phase, I have to admit I used to be a visitor of Ken Tanabe once asked me where the typeface in my motion graphics piece comes from, I said, and I honestly thought it is a good answer. Then I was told never ever go there!

The reason why at the time I thought is a good answer is another point. Ken Tanabe taught us to be very respectful to art work’s licensing. Stealing a premium font and use it in our piece is another felony crime in our motion graphics class.

Phase Two is about being safe, professional, knowing the rules and following them.

Phase Two is what I called the “Classic Phase.” After Phase One, one day I just woke up realizing “Oh, that actually sucks. I’m so ashamed of all the work I did before when I chose all this crazy but not appropriate display fonts for all kinds of stuff including body copy.” I transitioned to Phase Two and became more rational about my typeface choices.

I went to very classic options and start to follow very strictly to fundamental typographic rules. This Phase Two can be a long phase, with a designer staying here forever and still be a very good designer. Massimo Vignelli’s famous “5 Essential Typeface” theory works perfectly. He is a master of designer himself, which is the best testimony for this practice. You pick your favorite typefaces pairing and or pairing rules and stick to them. For example, I used to only pair Serif and Sans Serifs, mostly from the same foundry or same type designer to avoid big mistakes. You can’t go wrong with these rules. Phase Two is about being safe, professional, knowing the rules and following them. The problem of Phase Two is that one still can’t see the subtle difference between two very similar and good quality font. For example, I wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between Akzidenz Grotesk and Univers. If I picked one over the other, it is not serving any particular typographic purposes. But, toward the end of Phase Two, you start to realize, “Well, actually I have a preference for this sans-serif over that sans-serif because X, Y and Z.”

In Phase Three, one should be able to make intentional considerations when you pick from very similar typefaces.

Phase Three is what I called the “Master Phase”, and TypeDetail is my attempt to enter this phase. I wanted to note the subtlety in different fonts and be able to recognize them. Typefaces all have very unique characteristic features, especially in serif typefaces. In Phase Three, one should be able to make intentional considerations when you pick from very similar typefaces. One might consider if two typefaces come from the same period in history or they have the same vibe or they have the same x-height, or simply this curly leg R works better with the other typeface. You’re definitely more aware when you make those typographic choices and design decisions.

Resources to Learn More

TT: For people who want to learn more about typography, what are really good resources for them that would help them move from a phase two to a phase three?

WZ: That’s a really good question.

Anatomy of Type is a really good book to study the detail of typefaces.

Jessica Hische is a big inspiration in Typography, Lettering field. Follow her work and lectures. Type Wolf is THE blog to follow if you are into typography.

Andy Clymer’s lecture on his process of Designing Obsidian is awe-inspiring. It will bring a brand new perspective of type design to you.

Do-Hee Kim’s inspiring 100 day project #100DAYSOFFONTS is the lead that makes me check out 100 day project and did my own. She is a much more regulated 100 day projecter than I am. Her work is stunning beautiful, and unbelievably achieved with using google fonts.

Follow the work of Village Type and Hoefler&co, it is the high standard of our industry.

Over the years I accumulated a more expanded list of good typographic resources, including inspiring project, interesting type talks, books and articles. Recently I went through them and organize them into an indexable resource page.

TT: That’s great. Wenting, it’s been a real pleasure talking to you. Thank you so much for this.

We’ll help you dot your i’s and cross your t’s

TypeThursday attendees love letterforms. Big-time. This means you’ll get detailed advice, delivered with care by fellow creators who know how much time goes into crafting crisp characters. Your work will emerge refined … no dots left behind. Submit your work to a TypeThursday near you.

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