ASPHALT WITHOUT GESTALT

Part of my job as Senior Art Director, is to be very particular about the visual details of any client work that goes through our agency. Among these details is discerning the subtle (or not so subtle) nuances of good and bad TYPOGRAPHY. For me, this attention to detail with letters extends beyond the “Nine-to-Five,” and manifests itself in everyday life outside the office. Take this image, for example:

Bad kerningI’m sitting at a traffic light, and I happen to glance down at the road and see the word “ONL Y” painted on the road in front of me. Even if you aren’t among those with a keen sense for design, you may notice something troublesome about that “yuuuuge” space between the “L” and the “Y.” It just doesn’t feel right..and that poor little “Y’ looks so lonely. This spacial oversight creates an interruption to the eye and causes the reader to subconsciously pause (especially when reading large fields of text, or a headline or sign). This egregious mistake is called BAD KERNING. As an art director, nothing gets under my skin more than poorly-kerned text. Certainly I don’t expect state road workers to be graphic designers, but good typography is not esoteric, reserved only for those with advanced art degrees. All of us are vulnerable to suffering from bad design as it stirs up an odd sense of discomfort. A well-designed logo, ad or billboard — even painted on asphalt— has gestalt! This is when all the elements are working well together, giving the viewer a sense of completion and wholeness. So…I just had to snap a picture of the road to make my point for this blog post. You don’t have to be Claude Garamond or Hermann Zapf to realize something is amiss with that road “sign.”

When I was in school, there were no computers, and we had to hand set all our text with presstype (you know, those rub-off galleys of type) — frequently even had to draw it out by hand. My typography professor at UGA, Ron Arnholm (who incidentally designed the font used for all the University signage on campus), gave an assignment in which we were challenged to create 50 DIFFERENT book cover designs—for Rand Paul’s Designing with Type—all hand lettered. The trick was that we could only use one font…Helvetica. Talk about a tedious task! However, I do believe working through this project forced me to explore the spaces and shapes in that single typeface intimately, and I gained a great appreciation for what truly well-designed typography involves.

Entire books are written on the subjects of designing with type; and, for design nerds like me, there is so much more to the world of typography than just letters on a page…or pavement. So the next time you are at the mall, driving by a billboard, or looking at a menu, see if you notice how the design of the typography makes you feel. I am sure I’m not the ONL Y one.

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