While I've never had any formal education on typography (or perhaps, because of that absence), I've always had a great amount of respect and admiration for the discipline. And just as a skilled driver can win a race without understanding the physics of internal combustion engines, the vast majority of us can write effectively without comprehending the physical details of the particular letters we are assembling.
But my interest in typography has recently grown due to my exposure to two leading practitioners. Michael Beirut and Oded Ezer are very different kinds of designers. Beirut, who I enjoyed seeing lecture a few weeks ago at a Philadelphia AIGA event, is an expert at applying typography to design projects. His encyclopedic knowledge of type history can be seen in this video from Atlantic Magazine:
On the other hand, Oded Ezer is a true typographer who creates letter forms. An Israeli, he works primarily in Hebrew type, both in applied and experimental forms. I am currently reading Ezer's just-published The Typographer's Guide to the Galaxy, a visual review of Ezer's body of work ranging from relatively simple and direct treatments (like the image at the top of this post), to unconventional 3D treatments of letters and "Typospermatoids" (pictured below) - a hypothetical half sperm/half letter, "whose typographic information has been implanted into their DNA." For more information, see Ezer's web site.
This emphasis and exposure to typography has caused me to re-evaluate my own perspective on the field. For the usability or human factors practitioner, typography is generally considered in very functional terms. Whether it's road signs on a highway, warning labels on medication or data captions in a software application, the focus is on the appropriate visual clarity, legibility and structural hierarchy.
But Ezer's unconventional, even anthropomorphic treatment of typography has me thinking of letters as actors with characteristics, rather than inert symbols. More specifically, I realized that some of the basic principles of ergonomics could be mapped to typographical elements, and that typography and anthropometry (the study of human body measurements) are curiously related, at least metaphorically.
The fundamental principle of anthropometrics is that although people need to conduct the same types of behaviors and tasks, they vary greatly in their physical characteristics. The same is true for different type faces - while they vary greatly in their physical characteristics and appearance, each must represent and allow the assembly of the same sets of characters into words. That is, any font (English font, more specifically), is a variation on representing the 26 letters of the alphabet, etc.
But a more striking similarity between ergonomics and typography arises when one considers the rules that govern fit. In my series on Ergonomics for Interaction Designers (part 3), I discuss the four key factors - reach, clearance, posture and strength. These four inputs can be applied to assess the ergonomic fit of any person in any context. But they are also metaphorically comparable for assessing the characteristics of a type:
- Reach can refer to the size of the typeface. For example a taller type would have a greater "reach" or expanse than a condensed one.
- Clearance is physical space, or in the case of type, white-space. A type with more space around the letters has greater clearance.
- Posture is the degree of alignment, such that a very slanted type would have a greater postural deviation than a a more linear type.
- Strength is the visible impact of the type as conveyed by the contrast of line thickness and boldness.
As a basic example, we can visually compare Arial Black with an italicized version of Times New Roman. While both examples are at the same type size (13 pt), Arial Black clearly has greater reach and strength, while Times New Roman has a slanted posture.
Perhaps an interesting mental exercise, but anything more to it? I've just begun to examine this interrelationship, but I think there may be inspiration here for typographers. Gaining an understanding of human physical characteristics, and how they vary, could influence the design and application of typography, not for functional purposes as much as creative and exploratory endeavors. Conversely, my interest in typography may lead to new ideas for addressing ergonomic issues - but if not, I will have gained a better understanding of an intriguing, ubiquitous design niche.`