Fonts and Typography

Does past advice survive present day design concepts?

“In order to create pleasing silhouettes with our copy blocks, it is sometimes necessary to use conflicting alphabets.” That’s what Mike Stevens wrote in his best- selling 1984 book “Mastering Layout: On the Art of Eye Appeal” (ST Media Group). Stevens, a popular sign artist in the 1970s and ’80s, authored several books on sign design and contributed numerous articles to sign industry magazines. But do today’s sign artists agree with his assessment about the necessity of mixing and matching “conflicting” typefaces? And what would they think about Stevens’ design concepts three decades later? We presented six well-known sign artists with several paragraphs from Stevens’ book to get their takes on these questions – and to find out what they think about fonts and typography in general. Here are their insights, in their own words.

Dallas Griffin, designer, DaVinci Signs, Windsor, CO
Here’s how I became a sign designer at age 6: I was in the most boring hallway on earth with my “Letter- head” father, who was hand lettering a lawyer’s interior glass door in thin-stroke Avant Garde (because the “O” is perfectly round like all O’s should be). I was being quiet and, other than the hallway and my dad, the only thing to look at was a green sign – “EXIT” – at the end of the hall. With pencil and paper in hand, I proceeded to draw a detailed copy of this exit sign, over and over again. I remember drawing it not as letters, but as related shapes. Still today, I enjoy seeing how letter shapes interact and relate to on one another in a word.

I’m always happy with a font-heavy layout, one that either follows Mike Stevens’ guidelines or shatters the concept. I don’t design in- between. In my mind, a layout needs a pleasant flow and rhythm, or total chaos, because I’m either presenting important information or want a reaction.
As a rule, I select a main font and then secondary fonts of less interest and, most likely, better legibility. “I also like fonts that have perfect circles for O’s and even substitute them for zeros [for “0”] from time to time.

If distance and speed weren’t important for signage, I’d focus more on asking “What emotion does this look create?” But because the time-is-money factor is always present in commercial work, I rely on color selection for the emotional aspect.

I’ve learned not to allow my personal style to show up in every design. Instead, I work to produce the best sign layout for my client’s target audience. This start-from-scratch approach keeps my designs unique and interesting. To choose a font, I scan the several-thousand fonts on my computer. I quickly scroll through and select several, and then narrow down. I’ve found that assembling a combined collection of possible fonts makes one jump out as the clear winner. This process also helps in the ultimate goal, i.e., selling the design.

Jim “Dauber” Farr, commercial artist, painter, pinstriper, Cincinnati
I agree with Mike Stevens’ views on size, tonal values and the use of multiple fonts. My views have matured and solidified because of the thousands of design, lettering and logo projects I’ve created over the past 50 years, including my current projects. I’ll start with race-car lettering because when designing graphics for, say, drag-race cars, I want the car’s nickname and race team name to be dominant in character composition and detail. Once I am assured of the prime message position, I usually select a casual script for the secondary information and place any tertiary letters in Spenserian script or another font that will add interest and effect, but not compete with the main message.

With logo designs or signs, a smart designer knows certain fonts cause viewers to react at first glance. In addition, it’s important to think of how the letters or logo will look in various possible applications.

When creating a show-card type sign, I employ several freehand fonts – those that cause a viewer to recognize the relevance of the primary and secondary information. I enjoy older letter styles, especially those with implied character that causes the viewer to think about what they’re absorbing. Many classic letters are not online and, therefore, aren’t in common use because they require hand lettering and remind young designers that one can actually draw letters with a pencil and letter them with a brush.

I am always inspired by the knowledge that hand-lettering artists – and I am one – can trace their professional lineage to the ancient scribes, artists and calligraphers that have both recorded and beautified our world since the beginning of civilization.

Theresa Jackson, graphic designer, Adobe guru, San Diego, CA
I practice the “less is more” school of thought for design. Rarely do I use more than two font families together. I believe negative space is just as important as positive. Today, our senses are digitally bombarded by screens of all sizes, and print as big as buildings. Com- petition for our attention is much greater today than in 1984, which explains the current trend toward clean, simple design. In addition, I prefer working with large font families that include numerous styles. This allows variety without complexity.

Bob Bond, artist, pinstriper, publisher of Auto Art magazine
I agree 100% with Mike Stevens’ comments and wouldn’t change a thing. Applying all the same font is boring. To stand out, you need to customize a font, meaning do something unique with it. Since moving to Missouri, I find myself lettering many antique restorations, those where no computer font works. Sometimes I trace the lettering from a photo and then vectorize it; other times I blow up [enlarge] a sample, resize it and then trace it into place and hand paint it.

Kathi Morrison, ST columnist, designer, photographer, signmaker, Clements, CA
Today, we have a vast array of fonts available online, unlike yesteryear, when wood carvers or sign painters had a handful of alphabets in their arsenal. Is this good or bad? The obvious answer for me is, “It’s not how many [fonts] you have, but how you use them.”

My signmaking designs have evolved over the years, like fashion, in a sense. I came from the photography world with the rule of thirds ingrained in my head, so I instinctively used that theory in page layout. Type can emote in the same way. In my signmaker beginnings, I generally used three different typefaces; in recent years I have adopted a minimalist – less-is-more – approach, meaning I can create a sign with only one typeface by varying weight, bold spacing and special effects (drop shadow, outlining, unique kerning) and a final touch of color blocks for emphasis.

In addition, I have a design and signmaking reference library that has assisted me through the years. Mike Stevens’ book is one of my all-time favorites. I believe his teachings are still valid on many levels, especially when abundant copy is required, such as with show cards, flyers, announcements and the like. Sometimes, however, the less-is-more theory doesn’t sell, so my alternative is to attempt to weight the information but stay true to established design theories.

Chris Morrison, ST columnist, computer systems engineer, photographer and signmaker, Clements, CA
I started out as a computer operator and programmer back in the early ’70s. Output for us was green-lined paper with the line printer or teletype fonts. The typeface was the typeface in the printer, and the term “font” didn’t mean anything to us.

In 1984, as Stevens published his book, a butterfly-wing revolution took place, i.e., the introduction of the Macintosh. In and of itself, the machine was a dismal failure. It was underpowered, overpriced and lacked enough memory to do anything meaningful. Its revolutionary feature was the interface. It looked different. Icons were no longer similar to religious artifacts. You could choose different type- faces; we learned the word “fonts.”

A year later, in March ’85, Apple and Aldus introduced the Apple LaserWriter, and Aldus introduced its PageMaker desktop publishing application, so now the people – not just publishers – had the power of design. This unleashed a shock of second-rate designs. Fonts were available everywhere.
When Stevens wrote his book, people relied on design professionals to graphically convey their ideas. Today, everyone tends to believe they are the experts. This comes back to Stevens’ principles that, in my opinion, are still valid.

Have you noticed the increased use of emojis in communication? Some emojis are now appearing in signage and, in some form, these symbols are evolving into a language. Will we see more? Is it possible that emojis will become more prevalent in signage? It makes sense. The real question is if one can interpret their meaning. If so, are emojis the future of fonts? If so, we’ll need new design rules.

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