This week I have no rant, only homework.
After I wrote about Columba last month I fell down a rabbit hole and read this excellent post by the designer Lewis Mcguffie called Exquisite kestrels disappear. It’s about the difficulties of designing type, sure, but really—secretly—it’s about understanding scale when working on a big project:
Something will always be in the shadows, or even behind a hill, we may be colour-blind, or a thing may simply be too small to see (the list is endless). To put it another way — things change depending on how big they are.
[…] The design of type requires a knowledge of scale. But with the concession that a typeface will need to be used in a multitude of environments and is effectively a software tool. However, type as illustration does not have to make this concession. An overly ornate letter will likely go no further than the 1080 × 1080 Instagram post it was lovingly crafted for. The letters composing the text you are reading now, is a thing. The other is an illustration, a picture of thing.
Illustrations are drawings but typography is a system—software, even. And to work on a big project like a typeface we need to constantly move around it. I’ve watched book designers print their work out on sheets and hop around excitedly, eyeballing the page up and down, trying to figure out if this or that type size is correct. It’s a trance, a magic act, a ritual.
This is why I often stand up and walk about my apartment to read aloud something I’ve written or switch to a phone to test a website I’m building. But better yet I often walk away entirely. When I return I find that my eyes have reset and I can see the project more clearly than before.
Lewis continues his piece by comparing type design to the oil paintings of Jan van Eyck:
He was able to depict in the series of painted panels for St Bavo’s seventy-five identifiable tree, plant and flower species, a large variety of known birds species (as distant silhouettes in the sky), and clouds so detailed they can be recognised as stratus, altocumulus, cirrocumulus and cirrus. […] Would a cathedral-goer see those tiny details by candle light even sat in the first row of the pews? Hung over the dim altar as they were, Van Eyck’s kestrels would always disappear.
Type design is mostly this: designing details so staggeringly small that no one is likely to notice them. The small details—a jagged edge in a lowercase e, or the ligature of an fl—aren’t noticeable in and of themselves.
But when we put these details together, stand back, and tilt our heads? It’s obvious.
Until next week!