Part 3: The Typographic Law Paradigm

This post is part three of three in an attempt at explaining where our culture stands with type and where I think it yet has tremendous room for growth.

Friend and frequent collaborator, Trevor Christensen, recently asked me to help with his logo. I really wanted to compliment his taste for design (which can be summed up in three words: black, white, and serif) while still representing his personality (also three words: J.Crew, compassion, and commitment). As addressed in the last blog post, I always begin my typographic pursuits (in this case a logotype) by sketching characters that have the appropriate rhythm, then I digitize the characters and continue from there. In some of the early stages of the logo’s development, Trevor forwarded one of my drafts to a friend who gave this rather appropriate evaluation:

“Hmm. I like the st ligature and maybe the vo one. I’m not sold on the rest. Granted, the st ligature is the only traditional ligature in the group, so maybe I’m just conservative with regard to my ligatures. […] Plus, ligatures are rare enough in modern typography that I’d say even a standard ligature indicates a degree of thought and care. I just think there are so many of them it makes the logo look like weird half-cursive.”

This concern regarding standard or traditional ligatures echoes many of the sentiments I mentioned in The Revision Paradigm in regards to typographic creativity. Modern typographers do, certainly, look backward as they include glyphs in their typefaces but by no means limit the appearance or selection of them based on what has been done before them.

In fact, the st ligature Trevor’s friend referred to is not standard, but discretionary. One of the only ligatures, widely, recognized as standard (today) is the ampersand (and even it comes with massive, sometimes on the side of ridiculous, variation). One of the most opportunistic characteristics of ligatures is that the standard ligature has almost lost its purpose. Standard ligatures were born out of a need to save time, and occasionally enhance readability. Nowadays, with letterpress becoming a fine art, it not only doesn’t save time but, more often than not, takes extra time.

Traditionally, If you were a typesetter, a ligature could drastically reduce your workload. Instead of reaching for two pieces of lead type, you only had to reach for one. Using a ligature now requires looking it up as a glyph or (when using a program that supports ligatures) allowing it to adjust automatically as you type the two letter-pairs in a word. The latter may require more work, in the end, if you wish to adjust the tracking.

The Uncanny Valley

So, as the logo developed, Trevor’s friend, who’s previous advice was certainly not wrong, offered another comment regarding the logo’s progression.

“Huh. I actually like it with even more ligatures. Maybe you just hit the ligature uncanny valley, before.”

This friend, without realizing it, was pointing out the chief, noticeable, difference between a traditional/standard ligature and a discretionary ligature. I’m a discretionary ligature kind of guy. I don’t typeset; I’m not trying to save time by using a single glyph instead of two; rather, I’m trying to develop a logo that has a self terminating rhythm. I’m the perfect candidate. I only use ligatures in an attempt to create a logotype that feels like it ends where it began.

Much like any artist I certainly look for inspiration as I try to find a good rhythm for an identity, but let no rules or standards impede on my ability to produce. As mentioned before, more important than following every rule or guide is ensuring that each design begins with a clean slate. Guides and grids will come in handy later (don’t get me wrong), but not until a good rhythm has been established.

Conclusion

Genres, revisions, and ligatures are just a few of many things that ensure the depth and future of typography. I hope these concepts can provoke a paradigm change from assuming type is stiff, done, or old into being excited for what type has yet been unseen, unread, and unappreciated. I’m not completely convinced these three articles exclusively apply to typographic art.

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