TYP 5.0 - Peter Bilak: Illegibility

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Nothing is sacred; everything is available for questioning and criticism. This ensures that graphic design and typography will keep developing, resisting preconceived ideas and dogmas. This also protects graphic design from all the trained graphic artists. Young designers leaving schools are full of preconceived ideas; they are educated only in formal expression. Formal style can not become predominant.

Legibility is concerned with the optimal legibility of print that is achieved by correct typographic arrangement. Typographical factors that affect readability are: character of the typeface, size of type, leading, line length, kerning, paragraphing and the relationship between the color of the text and the background. If we would strictly follow those suggestions, as typographic manuals require; we would end up using 3 or 4 fonts (one of those would probably be Helvetica), a size of 10 points and leading about 14 points. Print would obviously have to be black on white surface, void of any distracting images and decoration. We would reach optimal speed and ease of reading with perfect comprehension of text.

Jan Tschichold, Frederick W. Goudy, Stanley Morison or Emil Ruder were undeniably excellent typographers. However, they were so strongly convinced about their truth and the only possible way to design things that they have become too dictatorial and dogmatic. In their works they fanatically preach what is right and wrong design. For Jan Tschichold in 1966, the greatest enemy of typographers was still 'self-expression.' In his Treasury of Alphabets and Lettering he writes:"It's far better to keep one's hand off and not be lead astray by the false notion that lettering calls for 'self expression.' This error is largely responsible for the ugly lettering which surrounds us. Even some acknowledged masters among recent lettering artists have succumbed to this error to a regrettable extent. The essence of good lettering is precisely the opposite of what, until recently, has been widely preached: it is not self-expression, but compete self-negation in the service of correctly understood task" 1.

At the Type Directors Club conference in New York 1959 we could hear: "Even dullness and monotony in the typographic sense are far less disturbing to a reader than typographic eccentricy or pleasantry[self-expression]" 2. There would be even more boring imitations of Times or Helvetica. Why should all books and typefaces look alike? This means a uniformity for a book, a book that always meant something special. The quest for the ultimate legible typeface led us nowhere. Furthermore, no single typeface can serve all purposes. Ultimate legibility would also result in limiting our language, stylizing it in order to get one versatile model. Reading is based on emotion and in typefaces we should feel that emotion.

All those rules we are supposed to follow were developed 20-400 years ago. They were developed at a time when people had not even dreamt about cable-TV, interactive media, CD-ROM, Internet and graphic applications. Human beings were not stupider than today. However, media have dramatically changed. When media change, men change. We are not the same anymore. "Originally, letters were adaptations of natural forms employed in picture-writing, but by a process of evaluation, (actually degradation) they have become arbitrary signs with little resemblance to the symbols from which they are derived" 3.

We have forgotten that not only letters evolved, people did too, confronted with new inventions. With all the innovations and information, we have acquired abilities to read complex images. Humans, when they are facing a new problem, apply their experience from the recent past. Experience from solving a problem will soon be the past that will affect us in the near future. Many of those problems we have to solve exist just because we are still using "yesterday's" tools. We have mistaken readability and communication. No longer is communication passive entertainment. A misunderstood notion of illegibility make men accept archaic rules.

There are actually no rules like in architecture or surgery. With the constant denying of rules one could say there are no rules in graphic design whatsoever. Young aggressive designers keep rejecting old rules, and nobody creates the new ones. The most powerful ideas probably become the new rules. Yet, there is still a natural process of questioning. Creative individuals always strive to resist all the rules, break them, go back to the place when they were established, and analyze them. Only then they can reject them, revise them or defend them. Accepting the rules without investigation means to stagnate. This investigation is uneasy now because with changes in technology rules are unstable. No one can call it design rebellion; before someone breaks the rule he must know what it is. As always, some people break rules better than the others. Graphic design does not have to be highly experimental to be good. However, it is impossible not to notice the unexpected. New solutions always attract a reader's attention, and this is a goal of Jan Tschichold as well.

Nonetheless, is it not wonderful idea to spend more time with books? Books deserve a longer time to look, to read. Deliberately slowing consumption of information may get reader more involved in the process of reading. Maybe this is what make books survive in this hectic world. To preserve the special character of a book, and not to degrade it to the level of street flyers that we take in our hands with the intention of trashing it at the corner.

Right and wrong do not exist in graphic design. There is only effective and non-effective communication. Every one can complain about advertisements in the magazines, but clients are only interested in whether it attracts possible costumers or not. Typographers have a wide variety of design devices to choose from. They choose specially prepared strategies for different targets. "I agree with the fact that if you are setting books and other things that just need to be read and understood easily, you need to use something other than Oakland. In those cases you need to use something that is not necessarily intrinsically more legible, but something that people are use to seeing. This is what makes certain type styles legible or comfortable. You read best what you read most. However, those preferences for typefaces such as Times Roman exist by habit, because those typefaces have been around longest. When those typefaces first came out, they were not what people were used to either. But because they got used, they have become extremely legible. Maybe some of my typefaces will eventually reach this point of acceptance, and therefore become more legible; two hundred years from now, who knows?" 4.

This lengthy quotation expresses Emigre Graphic's attitude to typographic design. Zuzana Licko and her partner Rudy VanderLans created Emigre Graphics in Sacramento, California in 1984, in the year zero for the Macintosh generation. They have established the first independent type label. Their award-winning magazine "Emigre - the magazine that ignores boundaries" was one of the first platform for "new" typography. I know that the adjective "new" has always sounded like a cliché, but this is right in the sense of a new way of making typefaces. Emigre magazine is one of the most controversial and influential design publications presenting graphic design experiments and essays in the U.S..

"Typefaces are not intrinsically legible. Rather, it is the reader's familiarity with typefaces that accounts for their legibility. Studies have shown that readers read best what they read most. Legibility is also a dynamic process, as readers' habits are everchanging. It seems curious that blackletter typestyles, which we find illegible today, were actually preferred over more humanistic designs during the eleventh and fifteenth centuries. Similarly, typestyles that we perceive as illegible today may well become tomorrow's classic choices" 5. Licko has chosen unexplored kinds of digital typography, and she has found her own aesthetics in it. She recognized the limitation of the computer, and she was working with coarse bitmapped letters. A few years later she quickly responded to improvement in the technology, and Emigre Graphic released their first PostScript fonts.

Emigre was not the first paying increased attention to the expressive quality of type. For years, the monotonous dullness of lay-out of lengthy books had no relationship to the content of the book. Guillaume Apollinaire, Lewis Carroll, Charles Baudelaire and others discovered the expressive nature of letters. Because they were the authors, they were the first ones who noticed that their poems could be more powerful, and could have a greater meaning supported with expressive graphic forms. These writings have been inviting a reader to reflect on it, to make a passive reader an active participant.

1. Jan Tschichold, Treasury of Alphabets and Lettering, 1966 Reinhold Publishing Corporation 2. Excerpt from a speech by Louis Dorfsman at the Type Directors Club conference, Typography USA, 1959 3. Frederick W. Goudy, The Alphabet, 1922 Mitchell Kennerley 4. Zuzana Licko, Émigré Graphics, Graphic Design into Digital Realm, Van Nostrand Reinhold New York, N.Y., 1993 5. Zuzana Licko, Émigré Graphics
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©1997 TYP/Typografisch Papier and the author