Do You See What I See? The Illusion of Typeface Mechanics

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After 24 years in the type business, Tobias Frere-Jones founded his own practice this January, Frere-Jones Type, where he has kept busy working on new releases and commissioned work.

Although Frere-Jones’ business is new, it’s built on a stellar, longstanding reputation forged working with clients like The Wall Street Journal, Martha Stewart Living and The Whitney Museum among many other impressive companies and publications. And he has created some of the world’s most widely used typefaces, including Interstate, Poynter Oldstyle, Whitney, Gotham, Surveyor, Tungsten and Retina.

In his May 7 “Typeface Mechanics” session at HOW Design Live, Frere-Jones will offer a crash course on an essential but undocumented aspect of the design process: In typeface mechanics, what you see is never what you think you see. Attendees will learn:

  1. Why logic and optics—what the type designer intends and what the reader sees—hardly ever agree

  2. Why letterforms must accommodate the eye’s constant misapprehension

  3. How typefaces designers present one shape to suggest another

Here, he touches on some of the points he’ll expand on during the talk:

Our eyes are stubbornly irrational, especially when reading type. We will see conflicts in letterforms where none should exist, and find noise in balance. Type design must therefore include a kind of stealth and stagecraft, where shapes are made different so we will believe they are equal.

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For example, one of the most counterintuitive aspects of type design pertains to vertical position and size, which we expect to be consistent among letters—but it’s not. Square shapes like H have a simple and stable relationship to the baseline and cap height. Their upper and lower edges coincide with these boundaries and stay put. But only a narrow sliver of an O is the full height, and the rest of the shape falls away. The parts that are too short greatly outnumber the parts that are big enough, so we conclude—wrongly, but very reliably—that the round shape is too small.

If the “correct” height appears inadequate, “too much” will look right. So the O is made taller and deeper than the H, even if the most stringent mathematical reasoning would declare it incorrect. That’s because we read with our eyes, not with rulers. Typefaces from any period will demonstrate this compensation, often called “overshoot.”

In addition, with all visual aspects, but especially weight, the designer needs to work at several scales simultaneously. White and black need to be balanced within a single letter, and then across an alphabet, and then again across an entire family.

There are no precise formulas in type design. Every letter is pushed and pulled by multiple forces: size, weight, contrast, spacing and so on. All those variables can’t be covered by one tidy equation.

If you want to brush up on typeface design and much, much more, it’s not too late to register for the 25th HOW Design Live event. Start building your customizable program right now then join thousands of your fellow creatives in Chicago May 4-8.