The Elements of Bad Typography

Typography of one sort or another is all around us. And that’s why bad typography is also everywhere. I see this often on the book covers submitted to our monthly Ebook Cover Design contest.

But to be honest, because I’ve been designing with type for most of my life, bad typography has been irritating and, in some cases, downright confusing.

One of the principal uses of design—and typographic design especially—is to solve communication problems. That’s why we want to eliminate confusion, get rid of ambiguity, and create clear, concise messages.

Bad typography stands in the way.

Elements of Bad Typography

When looking at typographic design, there are five elements where you can potentially go wrong. Any one of these, if not handled properly, can create confusion where there should be none.

kerning which refers to the way specific letter pairs fit together
letterspacing or tracking both of which mean spacing applied to all letters
word spacing is exactly what it says, the spacing between whole words
font choice can help or hinder attempts at clear communication
typographic errors can sabotage even the best designs
Making bad decisions or outright mistakes in any one of these five areas can result in bad typography. The best way to understand the problems that await the unwary or inexperienced type designer is by seeing them in action.

Let’s look at some examples.

Bad Typography In the World

You can find lots of examples of mistakes in typographic communication online, and I’ve linked to a whole bunch of resources for you to pursue at your leisure.

Here’s a classic example of bad word spacing. At a glance, what does this store sign seem to say?

How about an example of a typographic error that’s just plain embarrassing—or should be. Does the word “Signs” need an apostrophe? I think not.

How about an example of terrible kerning? Remember, kerning involves the spacing between specific letters. In this sign for a massage therapist, the space between the “E” and the “R” is way too big, leading to an unintended ambiguity about what is actually being offered, and shows that these kinds of typography errors can create serious misunderstandings:

These examples are frequently cited in online articles, and for good reason. Here are some examples from closer to home.

I just received a new AARP membership card, but when I opened it, I wondered if it was really for me, since I’m not known as “Joe L. Friedlander.”

Last week, during our promotion for the Book Launch Toolkit, we gave away a special bonus. But when I saw it, I initially thought it was something “Grand.” This also makes clear that when you’re choosing fonts, it pays to set up your own title to make sure that the characters you’re going to be using meeting the requirement for instantaneous recognition:

Here’s another example of poor letter spacing or tracking. These letters are so squashed together, the words are in danger of becoming “blobs” instead of clearly defined shapes that carry meaning:

Another, more subtle, example of uneven kerning. Authors who design their own covers should watch out for this, too. Here, the spaces around the “O”s appear much larger than other spaces, especially the space between the “E” and the “P.”

These two might be more accurately called layout mistakes, but the problems are clear. First, a pretty gratuitous use of color in both the gray panel and the confusing “color breaks” of the type itself. This completely disrupts the natural reading order of these words, which almost seem to say “Excellent and Alterations Tailoring.”

Here’s one I’m at a bit of a loss to explain. There’s nothing particularly bad about the font choice, letter spacing, or kerning. But how do you end up with this hand painted sign that’s inexplicably bleeding off the left side (where you assume the painter started, right?):

How about television graphics? This one, from a feature on Seth Meyers’ show, creates confusion where none is needed. Note the very strong element that seems to spell out “ALL” reading vertically. This was created by lining up the “A” on the top line and the “L”s below. This is responsible for creating an unneeded and unwanted word right in the middle of the title. Why did they do that?

A Request

I hope you’ve learned something from these real-world typographic disasters and mistakes. Picking an appropriate font, making sure it is spaced properly and clearly communicates shouldn’t be that big of a challenge.

Do you have examples of “bad typography”? I’d love to see them, and if you send them in we’ll publish them in a future post with full credit to you. Use our contact form to send us the URL for your example, it’s that easy.

Here’s a submission from writer Joyce Peterson, who says, “This is supposed to say “Hello Sunshine!” but the yellow “o” fades into the background (more so than this photo suggests). The point of this bracelet is to change color when it (and the wearer) are in full sun as a reminder to wear sunscreen. So it’s not that big a goof after all!”

Southwest Sweet Potato Tater Tot Hotdish

How to love yourself in November: put sautéed garlic, poblanos, mushrooms, peppers, black beans, and corn in a skillet with a cheesy queso-fundido base and top with a layer of sweet potato tater tots. Me, blanket, sweatpants, this skillet.

It’s called a Southwest Sweet Potato Tater Tot Hotdish.

Oh, yes. You heard me correctly.

This is everything we love about Tex-Mex food meeting up with our meatless goals and taking the shape and form of a beloved comfort food of Minnesota winter: the tater tot hotdish. But made new.

I grew up eating the occasional non-ironic tater tot hotdish (#proud), so I feel justified to give you the 411 on this staple midwestern casserole: tater tot hotdish usually has a ground beef and veggie mixture, made with some gravy (and by gravy I mean likely a can of condensed soup) and is topped with tater tots and ketchup. I know I know I KNOW, but for surely you need ketchup if you want to eat your tater tot hotdish like a true midwesterner.

Tater tot hotdish is one of those foods that actually so strange and borderline gross that somewhere along the way it becomes, in fact, really really good. I do not know how this works, but I embrace it.

Today, though? Tots be getting a modern makeover.

We’re swapping the ground beef for meaty portabella mushrooms, and trading peas and carrots for the spicy crunch of poblanos and bell peppers and corn. The gravy is getting replaced by a pepperjacky-queso-esque situation that is every bit as magical as you might image, and those sweet potato tots? YASSSS. Just the right amount of salty-sweetness to offset the heat.

Important things to consider: Will you swish Tabasco over the top? Sprinkle with more cheese? Decorate with colorful herbs and fresh jalapeños? These things that are up to you, my friend.

One of the keys to this recipe is the cast iron pan, which is why we use (and love) Lodge cast iron for all our heavy-duty, stovetop-to-oven recipes.

I’ve had a love affair with the enameled Dutch oven for as long as I can remember (um, how about that one time I wrote a post called 10 EASY RECIPES YOU CAN MAKE IN A DUTCH OVEN). Now might be a good time to mention that these make EXCELLENT Christmas gifts for the foodies in your life. One in every color? I’m not opposed.

It also is worth mentioning that the true cast iron star here is the standard 10.25-inch cast iron skillet – we got this as a wedding gift seven years ago, and while it took me an embarrassingly long time to get over my fears of cast iron usage and maintenance (which were all just completely in my head), now that I’ve found my stride with it, I am totally hooked. For people who are trying to clean-and-green their home life a little bit, this is an amazing natural alternative to nonstick. Plus, like the Dutch oven, it’s versatile enough to go in the oven. Boom! No more worrying about plastic pan handles melting off.

I have two rules for cleaning my beloved cast iron skillet:

Rinse and dry.
(If you’re ambitious) Rub with an oil-soaked paper towel.
The end. Nothing fancy. Natural nonstick and affordable high quality cookware is WITHIN REACH for the normals!

Easy Halloween 2017 Costumes

Once again, ‘tis the season of crunchy leaves, haunted hayrides, and overstuffed candy aisles. Amid all the autumnal excitement, time flies by faster than a witch on a speedy broomstick, and some people (read: me, myself, and I) inevitably wind up scouring the internet for easy Halloween costumes they can throw together in the two hours before nightfall on Oct. 31. Then, with the clock’s countdown ticking louder every second, they end up grabbing the same tried-and-true costume hanging in the back of their closet and dashing out the door. Sound familiar?

If you’re tired of showing up to Halloween in the same increasingly-dingy ballerina costume while everyone else’s costumes get more fabulous with every passing year, it doesn’t have to be this way. I guarantee that anyone with a reasonably-sized closet has the materials to make a clever, easy costume right now. It might not be worthy of entrance to Heidi Klum’s famous Halloween bashes, but I’m going to be real here: None of us were going to get invited anyway. (Whatever — it’s Hollywood’s loss.)

But I digress. Getting into the spirit (pun obviously intended) of Halloween doesn’t mean you have to sew your costume by hand in a candlelit room. Some of the wittiest costumes are actually the simplest. Here are 22 simple, easy ways to dress up this Halloween.

Carmen San Diego

Every ’90s kid will swoon over the appearance of the ever-mysterious Carmen Sandiego this Halloween. I suggest organizing a game of hide-and-seek.

Rosie the Riveter

Who wouldn’t want to dress up as a feminist icon for a night?

Dancing Pumpkin Meme

You already know and love the meme. Now it’s your turn to become it.

Wednesday Addams

Goth kids both former and current, your time has come. Put on your best sociopathic face and channel Wednesday Addams all Halloween.

Morticia Addams

If you’re not feeling the schoolgirl look, go for Wednesday’s mother: Morticia Addams. Better yet, grab someone to be your Gomez.