Previously I wrote about the importance of design in libraries, the design process and discussed three core elements of design: color, composition, and size. In this post, I’d like to focus on typography. Though not traditionally a design element, typography is more a tool or a language to use within your design to convey the message you are trying to achieve.
As mentioned previously, design elements work together to create a successful design that communicates to your audience if used well, and typography is no exception.
Type is rather complex and has a rich history. There are abundant options available with free and for-a-fee font files available. There are even resources available to have beautifully designed type on your website. Designers still create typefaces from scratch if needed, particularly for decorative uses. But it is perfectly acceptable to use already available font files and most designers do this. To create thoughtful designs using type well does not have to be difficult; with some basic knowledge, you can successfully choose the right type for the job and develop a successful design.
About fonts versus typefaces
As you work in design, it’s good practice to use the correct terminology. When most people talk about letterforms, they use the term, “fonts.” However what most people really mean is “typeface.” Fonts are really the format in which the typeface is available- librarians can understand this distinction easily. As Ellen Lupton states in Thinking With Type, “A typeface is the design of the letterforms; a font is the delivery mechanism…In digital systems, the typeface is the visual design, while the font is the software that allows you to install, access, and output the design.” Lupton’s book is a resource I highly recommend by the way. If you read nothing else about design and type, please read her book. I’ve provided the citation toward the end of the post.
Typography versus design
Typography within design should never be an afterthought. In fact, in many cases the typeface you choose can make or break a design. Every design should be a fluid creation, balancing between the various design elements and type. A designs are being created, it is best to bring the elements up together, tweaking and adjusting each piece as you go while also taking that step back to see the whole picture. As in writing, it can be more beneficial to keep the overall theme and outline in mind as you work on various details and sections of a piece; being too focused in on one small detail may be detrimental to the overall design piece.
There is a lot to learn and geek out over design and typography but rather than overwhelm, I’m going to give some good basics about type that will get you started right away. There are several main type classifications and the main three groupings are humanist, transitional, and modern or geometric.
Ellen Lupton defines each as the following: “Humanist letterforms are closely connected to calligraphy and the movement of the hand. Transitional and modern typefaces are more abstract and less organic.”
For the purpose of this post and for what you really need to know, I’m going to lump them into four categories based on the look of the typeface: Serif, Slab Serif, Sans Serif, and Decorative. There are examples of each one below.
Serif typefaces essentially have feet. Serif typefaces are essentially more organic and derive from various periods in history. You see these typefaces traditionally used in novels and blocks of text. Their use is not limited to that, however. There are many new Serif typefaces being developed that are contemporary based on their more historic predecessors.
Slab Serif typefaces also have feet but their feet are blockier and slab-like, hence the name. These typefaces were developed for advertising and are more contemporary than traditional Serifs. These are used in a variety of ways but are popular for titles, posters, flyers, websites, and logos.
As the name implies, these typefaces do not have Serifs or “feet”. They are generally more contemporary and less organic than Serif typefaces. These are very popular for text within websites, logos, and posters.
Decorative or ornamental typefaces are self explanatory. These are typefaces that can stand alone as an image or illustration. They are highly decorative and should be used very carefully as they can overpower a design or clash more easily with other elements. Not all decorative typefaces are equal and many designers who are really good with decorative type do the lettering by hand and specialize in this area specifically. When done well and with skill, decorative typefaces are a true art form and when done poorly, they can quickly highlight an amateurish design. Decorative type is gaining in popularity as people, designers and non-designers alike, are embracing retro styles again and these typefaces are seeing a resurgence in use.
Bold, Italic, Underlined, Caps, and, and, and….
There is nothing wrong with using these elements. However it’s a good rule of thumb to use them sparingly and not all at once. By using them judiciously, they will have more impact and continue to maintain readability, which is key to design. Use them with caution.
As you design and use type, be aware of what your type may be conveying to your audience and the medium in which you are designing in. Some typefaces are more successful on screen than others and some typefaces are specifically designed for print, screen, etc. A good resource for typefaces on the web is the 3rd edition of The Web Style Guide. There is a section specifically on typography that is helpful and gives insite into where typefaces are today.
Like all design elements and design in general, you are communicating with others. What is the type you are using saying? Does it fit with the message you want to send? Are you going for a modern and sleek look? Do you want to give your design a tactile/print feel or maybe you want it to be an homage to a specific period in design history? How does the typeface fit in with the rest of your design? What kind of mood might you be setting with the type and design elements you’ve put together? Type has a personality so be sure to choose a typeface that assists and hopefully conveys the message you want to give.
At this point, you have the type basics and I hope that this gets you thinking more about the typefaces you see and perhaps use in your designs. I highly encourage reading Ellen Lupton’s book, Thinking With Type: a critical guide for designers, writers, editors, and students. She goes over a good deal of design basics and some design history and it’s a quick, enjoyable, informative read.
The best way to learn type and design is to just start. Things change so quickly and what was once right can become wrong or out of style very quickly. In design, you learn much more quickly by designing and making work. So pick a project and begin!
Previously, I wrote about the value of design in libraries, and others, including Stephen Bell and Aaron Schmidt, have written and presented on the topic of design in libraries as well. Now I’d like to focus on and delve specifically into what graphic design process may entail. For librarians who design regularly, I hope this helps to articulate what you may be doing already or perhaps add a bit to your tools and tips. For those that don’t design, I hope that this might give you insight into a process that is more complex than it may seem and that you might give designing a try yourself. For some ideas, try any of these are great library design projects: signs, webpages, posters, flyers, bookmarks, banners, etc.
What Is It Like to Design?
People might wonder why design needs to be a process. The very basic process of design, like many processes, is to solve a problem and then create a solution. Jason Fried, founder of 37signals and co-author of Rework, tweeted recently, “Your first design may be the best, but you won’t know until you can’t find a better one.” He later added this image from The Intercom blog as an illustration to make this important point. Striving for an elegant or best solution is something librarians and designers have in common. Librarians often share best practices and examining this process may not only assist us in terms of design, but perhaps we can apply these concepts to other areas of librarianship as we create programs, outreach, marketing, and more.
Design is a process.
Designers work hard to develop a successful design and it doesn’t always come easy. Here are some of the basic steps designers take in the development phase of their work. Every designer is a bit different, and not all designers follow the exact same process. However, this is a pretty good foundation for beginner designers and once you get good, you can incorporate or modify pieces of the process to make it work for you and the project at hand. Design is subjective and there are few hard and fast rules to follow, however, in future posts I’ll be talking more about design elements and details to help you create stronger designs that will speak to your users.
Design has constraints.
Before you start laying things out and jumping into a design, you want to understand what the “specs” or specifications are. These are the details of the final piece you need up front before you begin any design. For example, is the piece going to be printed or is it an online piece? What’s the budget? Is it black and white, color, how many colors? What size? If printed, what paper will it be printed on? Will color bleed to the edge or is there a border? Is there folding or cutting involved?
All of these considerations are going to be the rules you must work under. But most designers like to think of them as challenges; many times if the specs aren’t too restrictive they can actually empower the designer to drive harder to make it more creative. You really don’t want to start designing before you get this all worked out because once you’ve jumped in it can mean starting over if a critical spec is missed. If you have designed for a set of specs and then try to modify it to fit all new specs later, it almost always compromises the strength of the design to work this way. Better to know those specs up front.
Design requires an open mind.
Sketch like crazy. You may think you have the best, most original idea ever once you get your assignment or have your specs, but please do yourself a huge favor and sketch some ideas out first. Do at least a page of sketches if not much more. Take notes, do some research on the topic, do word associations and mind maps and draw stick figures and doodle. Keep an open mind to new possibilities. Observe the world around you, daydream, and collect inspiration. You might still stick with that first idea but chances are you come up with something even better and usually more original if you push yourself to think in new ways and explore.
Design step by step.
Depending on the complexity of the piece, whether it’s print or web, I might do more or less of each step below. If you’re designing or reworking a website, this is a good method to get a powerful, thoughtful design. And of course, you can go back and iterate based on feedback given, changes to the design that impact design elements. If the design structure is strong, changes should be fairly small.
Basic Design Development Process:
1. research the topic, take notes, ask questions, doodle, jot down ideas, simmer
2. series of thumbnail sketches
This is an extension of step 1. Do as many as you can muster…do it until you are sick of it. Here is a great presentation I recently found on sketching.
3. build wireframe
Stay abstract/block in composition. This is going to be larger than a thumbnail but try to keep it free from detail.
4. sketch comps
Take steps 2 and 3 and flesh out 3 comps. These should not be final but should follow specs and be close to finished in terms of look and feel for the major design components. You may use lorum ipsum text if you wish. This technique helps to keep people from giving feedback about the content over the design. Of course there are times the content may absolutely need to be there but use your own discretion and know that this is an option and may help in moving forward.
5. finalize comps
Usually 3 choices are offered to a client, but if you are your own client obviously just do your favorite.
The design is done, let’s celebrate!
Well, not exactly. This process is merely just one phase of a much larger process that includes steps including: initially meeting the client, negotiating a contract, presenting your designs, more testing and usability, iterative design adjustments, possibly working with developers or print houses, etc. Design is a process that requires study, skills, schooling, and knowledge like many fields. I’ll be talking about more design topics in the future, so what is not covered here I’ll try and cover next time. Luckily, I gathered some great…
Design resources to get you started:
This is not a comprehensive list by any means but highlights of a few resources to get you thinking about design.
- Non-Designer’s Design Book: One of the best beginner design books out there (overlook the cover- it really is a great book!).
- Smashing Magazine: Really good stuff on this website- including freebies, like decent icons and vector artwork. Covers typography, color, graphic design, etc.
- a list apart: another great site that delves into all kinds of topics but has great stuff on graphic design, UI design, typography, illustrations. etc.
- Fast Company Design: relevant design articles and examples from industry.
- IDEO: design thinking, great high level design examples- check out their portfolio in selected works.
- Thinking With Type: title says it all- learn about the fine art and science of typefaces. You will never look at design and type the same way again.
- Stop Stealing Sheep and Find Out How Type Works: another must on typography
- Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain: seriously. even if you think you can’t draw. try it. anyone can draw, truly. Drawing helps you think in new and creative ways- it will help you be more creative and help in problem solving anything. Even those small doodles are valuable.
Enjoy and thanks again!
What is the importance of design in libraries?
Libraries have users, and those users go through an experience, whether they walk through the doors and into the building or use the library’s online website and resources.
Why should we care?
- Design can give users a good experience or a bad one.
Think about when you go to a store. Any store. The experience you have can be improved by design, or hindered by design. For example, if you go to a store in person and you are trying to find a particular item- signs have the potential to help you find that item. But what if you had too many signs? Or what if those signs are unreadable?
Think about when you are at a restaurant. You certainly want to have an enjoyable dining experience. From the time you walk through the door to the time you leave, everything you encounter and experience has an impact on you. When you sit down to the table and open the menu, you want to be able to easily read the menu items. Have you ever been to a restaurant where it was hard to decide on what to order because the menu was difficult to read? This seems to be a common occurrence, yet a simple well thought out menu can change that experience entirely. And great design can even give people an emotional experience that they remember deeply. Think about a time when you went to a restaurant and had a great experience; think about what details made that experience great.
- Now take these concepts and redirect them to libraries.
When a user walks into the door of the library, what is their experience? Put yourself in the users shoes. Are signs unfriendly or hard to read? Is it difficult to find what they might be looking for? Think of design as a way of providing service to users. Good design takes training and study, however, within a relatively small timeframe, anyone can understand design basics and fundamentals to create decent design that communicates. Librarians are good at organizing things and within design lies organization. Designing is simply organization and choices about elements such as typography, composition, contrast, and color to name a few.
- Design is also about restraint; what you don’t do.
This is an important distinction because often people get excited when they explore elements of design and want to put everything they love all into one design. Often this doesn’t work very well and it comes back to making good choices and sometimes leaving out an element you really love but doesn’t work in the overall design you are building. It’s okay though- designers collect like librarians do and we just save that good stuff for another design that it will really work well in. Keeping a little library and saving elements and inspirations are part of being a good designer. Whether online or in paper- both practices are good to get into. The tool Pinterest serves this purpose well but any tool or method for collecting design elements and inspiration is good practice. When you are looking for ideas- don’t forget to go to that tool to give you new ideas or to help get you thinking in new ways.
- Good design in libraries leads to a quality user experience.
This concept of design can extend to all kinds of user experiences in the library, including layout of a room, the library’s web presence, the building’s architecture, furniture choices, marketing materials, and more. But let’s start simple- start in your library and examine what you have for signs. Ask this: what does this sign communicate to our user? How does it look and feel to you? What if this sign were in a store where you were making a purchase, how would it communicate in that scenario? Ask users what they think of your signs as well. Developing an understanding of what works and what doesn’t, will only lead to better design and thus better user experience.