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The Art Of Typography

Posted on July 31, 2004 and read 14,465 times

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The art of typography has fallen off the face of the earth. Or have you noticed?

Recently a fellow creative director and I were lamenting the sameness of art directors’ portfolios these days. It would appear that there is now officially only one way to solve a creative problem: with a visual metaphor.

Last week I queried yet another young art director whose portfolio offered solely the one-trick pony that is the visual solution. She told me the CDs at other agencies “didn’t want to see anything that doesn’t resolve itself with a picture”.

Oh a plague is upon us.

Maybe I shouldn’t complain. It gives us writers plenty of time to shoot pool, drink or read food magazines instead of worrying about coming up with compelling, pithy headlines that require pesky typesetting.

But man, is it getting boring out there. Reviewing an AD’s portfolio renders one into a coma.

There was a time when typography courses were mandatory for aspiring art directors in order to graduate. No longer, and it shows.

When the infrequent ad actually does require a headline (Oops! An accident?) most young ADs call “typography” finding a Mac font and slapping it on an ad. Macs are such a mixed blessing, they fill art directors with false typographical hope. Just because they know how to operate a Mac doesn’t mean they know a damn thing about type.

These ADs don’t understand the contribution kerning or leading can make to the equation. Scarier still, they don’t know what kerning and leading are. Oh sure, a few of them may dabble with italics and caps. But that’s as far as it goes.

Typographical illiteracy reigns.

What really puzzles me is this: typography is the voice of your print ad. In the words of a colleague: it’s part of the Holy Trinity: Type, Illustration (or photography) and Design. If you can’t master all three, that empty page has you by the short and curlies.

Juniors, being at the bottom of the food chain, more often than not will get the lowest-budget projects to work on. No budget frequently means no money for photography and system work (or only enough money for really bad photography and really bad system work). So you’d sure as hell better know how to use type.

Years ago at Cossette, they had a Type Designer on staff. He’d come from England and a local type house helped offset the cost of his salary. Martyn was incredible with typography. He taught us the magic that can be woven with the right ascenders and descenders. The critical emphasis that can be created by making key words different sizes. The power of juxtaposing different fonts. He was a wizard when it came to kerning and leading.

He taught us that font choice was just the start, not the end point.

Great typography is what separates the men from the boys, to dust off an old

Recently CA magazine profiled Kohne Hanneken, the Milwaukee agency. Their masterful stick-handling of a typography is awesome. Headlines for YMCA ads are found printed on T-shirts. In others the headline is part of a record label or a casino felt. All serve to pay off the idea, a headline, typographically-driven idea. The effect was tremendous. Every ad had its own distinctive voice.

I used to work with an art director who was a complete horse’s ass. His people skills were non-existent, his arrogance and ambition were blinding. But that guy knew type. He had the magic touch.

That talent is rare, and becoming rarer still.

No one can deny the staying power, and the stopping power, of the typographically-driven ad done well. Think of the Economist campaign. Simple, smart and elegant, right?

So what to do? We’re all to blame. Art colleges, agencies, art directors and creative directors alike. Let’s study at the feet of the typographical masters. Let’s take time to hone the craft. Let’s stop sweeping headline-driven concepts under the rug.

And for God’s sake, let’s all stop using the inch mark as an apostrophe.

Karen Howe is CD at Due North Communications. She’s worked at some of Canada’s most respected creative shops (Cossette/BBDO/Harrod & Mirlin/Scali). Karen has done award-winning work for such clients as Goodyear, Sony, TVO, Bell Mobility and Apple. She just completed a new campaign that hit the streets in big way for

  • Luis London

    It is so amazing when you see a campaign or promotion that uses custom typography, even better when the typography is an important part of the design. Sadly, not all clients have the time and budget for designers to come up with a creative typography. Of course, when you see an exception to this, then that brings pure joy!

  • Maria Pena

    Speaking of typography, it would be nice if your blog’s text wasn’t reversed out of dark gray… I finished reading this post and I have white lines imprinted on my retina. Not very comfortable, I tell you. 




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