Thinking with Typography, Laughing with Ellen Lupton

As public relations people first and foremost, we value crafting an effective message, but design plays a large role in how we convey that message. That’s even more true today in a world of online communications where symbols often trump text in accessibility and colors and other details hold heavy connotations about an organization’s respectability and relevancy.Typography is one of those details. While it may seem like just a means to an end, the type you choose subliminally expresses quite a bit about your organization—big and bold creates a sense of urgency, thin and understated suggests elegance and Arial or Times New Roman says you didn’t give a second thought to type (and makes people wonder what else you skipped over).

And who better to teach us more about effective type than Ellen Lupton, graphic designer, writer/critic for New York Times and Fast Company and author of “D.I.Y.” and “Thinking with Type”? We caught her typography workshop last Friday at the ETV building, hosted by the South Carolina branch of graphic design group AIGA. Needless to say, we were representing the bulk of the PR set there among some epic visual communicators and graphic artists.

Inside Ellen Lupton’s diminutive frame lurks a slightly salacious, always hilarious ball of fury with deadpan delivery (hard to encapsulate in blog form, so you know it’s the best kind of funny).  Her approach to type was just as irreverent, but she stressed the importance of learning the basic rules, or “architecture” to typography, so you’d know how to break them successfully. Her Power Point was just as graphically beautiful and comically pleasing, but here are the basics:

1) Size and Scale. Your type must create a sense of contrast, and too much of the same size won’t cut it. Recent design trends have also transformed scale into a code for content, like with an HIV/AIDS pandemic poster that correlated type size to infection percentages in different countries. Any chance that your content gives you to create meaning with your design — take it!

2) Mixing Typefaces. “Incest is best,” Ellen says (slyly, of course). Font families offer a lot of range for mixing and matching without creating too much disparity, and most of them accommodate all your needs. But on the same vein, Ellen warns that “you can go wrong doing it with your sister” when the weights of the typefaces are too close to mix well. Mixing can also come from contrasting two “personalities” of type, as well as playing with different typefaces from the same time period. Ellen’s favorite families are Mr. and Mrs. Eaves and Glypha.

3) Leading/Line spacing. Historically, line spacing depended solely on the machine in use (usually a typewriter), but now we can experiment with spacing to add a new texture to the page. Leading plays a huge role in online typography, as crowded paragraphs or sprawling sections connote our websites’ focus points.

4)Alignment. Ellen pointed out how current website technology doesn’t allow much in alignment design, so using color systematically can help ease that ill. Book design, on the other hand, has seen much rule-breaking with flush right paragraphs, deliberate “rivers” of blank space in text and other avant-garde experiments.

For more traditional design pieces, though, it’s best not to stack letters vertically, especially lower case letters with those pesky ascenders and descenders. She showed us some great examples of street signs on winding little alleys in Mexico that transformed type to use space economically with squared off O’s and other crafty mechanisms.

5) Hierarchy. This is where all elements of type come together to create style and emphasize different areas of content. Ellen suggests visiting as an example!

For us, it all comes down to being more cognizant of how the elements of type combine to create more layers of meaning in our messaging, and realizing that “Thinking with Type” is a must-read!