Violating Optical Principles for Typographic Effect

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Last month, I wrote an article that observed that effective typographical hierarchies tend to follow the same principles artists use when simulating depth on canvas or paper. An artist will traditionally paint closer objects with more detail, more vibrant and darker colors, and greater contrast than distant objects (as well as follow a few other rules). These correspond to the eye’s decreased acuity with range due to both visual resolution and atmospheric haze. All of these rules also apply to type. For example, a font printed in black will command greater attention than the same font printed in gray, at a smaller size, or against a low-contrast background. That entire article can be read here.

Of course, typography tends to be a rule-driven pursuit, but most careful typographers are also keen to figure out when those rules can or even should be violated. If most good typography follows the rules of linear and atmospheric perspective, it’s worth asking what happens when you throw those rules out the window. It turns out that violating rules of perspective can result in both some of the least and most visually aggressive design work.

The youth-oriented design movements of the hippie ’60s and punk ’70s, produced work that, at face value, appear to have little in common visually but are united by a typographical vocabulary that often violates perspective rules. In the trippy Fillmore posters of the San Francisco ’60s, type is variously complex to the point of poor legibility and printed in dark type on a dark background, resulting in minimal value contrast—and pushing both type and background forward in space. Additionally, letters are sometimes sized and shaped to fit a swirling design rather than to serve linguistic meaning.


Punk posters relied on a far grungier vocabulary, but similarly often brought all information to a single far-forward level of hierarchy. Recycled, sometimes reversed printed letters made into hard-to-read word collages, Xerographic distortion, busy backgrounds and hierarchically dominant red herrings are typically used to obscure if not entirely mask what is, in essence, sales copy—band X will appear at club Y on Z date.

In both decades, concert posters subjugate the goal of publicizing a musical event to the more urgent goal of conveying a tribalism as dependent as much on exclusion of the squares as inclusion of targeted music fans. In the case of the ’60s, the exclusionary vocabulary included drug-inspired imagery, typography and overt sexuality, starting in the late ’70s the exclusionary language of punk was a studied typographical ugliness, visual noise and sometimes violent, distorted, sexual or gross-out imagery. But in both decades, the typography of music publicity is often visually immediate, and at odds with optic rules of hierarchy.


Since the rules of perspective, as they apply to typography, are often ignored to convey a brash counter-culture youth aesthetic it might seem counter intuitive that they are also violated in some of the most soft-spoken design work.

Related: Check out a showcase of 73 award-winning poster designs.

Advertising posters that are intended to be seen multiple times and are required to harmonize with the background of public or branded environment often use weak optical hierarchies to tone down an advertising message because the function of the printed piece is decorative as well as promotional. Type is visually sent to the back of the stacking order through the use of light colors, low-contrast backgrounds and relatively diminutive point sizes.


The fundamental difference between the aggressive youth-movement signs of the last decades and more subdued applications throughout the history of signage is in the distance. The youth posters tend to undermine optical hierarchy by signaling closeness—dark colors high contrast and complexity all visually indicate that an object is closer in the physical world. A poster intended to blend into the scenery at a Starbucks (as well as move a few Caramel Lattes) might use reduced contrast or smaller point sizes than is typical in advertising work, all of which signal greater distance visually. Punk design (which I confess to loving) comes across as aggressive because all the elements visually read as close. It doesn’t just seem like it’s all up in your grill, it is.

Learn more about typography in poster design in Show Posters: The Art and Practice of Making Gig Posters.