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!”

The Anatomy of Type by Stephen Coles

Are you one of those people who is fascinated by typefaces? Since the days of desktop publishing, personal computers have come with a variety of fonts, and along with those fonts an interest in typography has become a passion for many.

There are many great websites and blogs devoted to the typographic arts, not least of which are Typographica and FontsInUse, both run by typographer and writer Stephen Coles.

Now Coles has published a new book, a beautiful and useful hardcover from Harper Design, an imprint of Harper Collins.

The Anatomy of Type: A Graphic Guide to 100 Typefaces is a treat for any typophile.

As the press material says,

“Obsessively organized into … group classifications, this unique compendium explores 100 typefaces in loving detail, and contains enough information—from the quirky to the factual—to turn anyone into a font geek.

The full character set from each typeface is shown, and the best letters for identification are enlarged and annotated, revealing key features, anatomical details, and the finer, often overlooked elements of type design.

Containing in-depth information on everything from the designer and foundry, the year of release, and the different weights and styles available, The Anatomy of Type is more than a reference guide to the intricacies of type design.

Ever wonder how Clarendon, Didot, and Centaur came to be? Or why Gil Sans proportionally resembles olds-style serif faces, despite its inconsistent weight stress? Or who “pirated” the first font” The Anatomy of Type provides answers to these questions, and so much more…”
The design of this book, by Tony Seddon, shows the typefaces, divided into 15 categories, beautifully. Throughout the book color, size, typefaces and graphics are used intelligently and with great care on each spread.

The result allows you to simply enjoy the amazing variety of letterforms that are so similar, yet so different.

Each typeface has a paragraph about its history that includes suggested uses. First you get an illustrated primer on the anatomy of type:

Coles then introduces his 15 classifications. For instance, serif faces are divided into Humanist, Transitional, Rational, and Contemporary. Each has historical roots and subtleties you can learn to spot from the excellent illustrations.

Then it’s on to the main body of the book, 100 2-page spreads that show each of the typefaces in detail. It’s great fun to see Coles spell out the details that make one typeface different from other, similar ones, and the book is always clear.

Here’s the spread on Gotham:

What’s not to like?

Any lover of type will appreciate and learn from this book. And it’s a great gift for that type geek in your life.

As a book designer, The Anatomy of Type is appealing but incomplete. Although this is an aesthetically pleasing and informative book, typefaces don’t exist all by themselves, as they are shown here. Each is a member of a family of weights and styles.

I kept wondering what the italics for these typefaces looked like. That’s a critical component of choosing type for books; we need at least a roman and an italic, and you can’t commit to one without the other.

But that’s a small quibble when it comes to a book as useful, fun and informative as this one is.

Note that I’ve warned you it’s very easy to get lost in these beautiful pages, only to find you’ve just spent an hour comparing the shapes of the serifs on all your favorite typefaces.

A Long Slog through the OCR Swamp

This post is the third in a series about the creation of a new book. To see all the articles in the series, click “The Journey of a Book” tab at the top of the page.

While contemplating the hours it was going to take to make all the corrections to the files produced by VelOCRaptor OCR—the optical character recognition software I had used to turn the original PDF files into Word files—I started to mentally calculate how long it would be before this sudden “new” book I had discovered was going to take to get into print.

This type of correction is frustratingly slow. If, like me, you are constantly interrupted during your work day by ringing phones, pinging emails, kids who think they ought to have lunch, and dogs who apparently believe that their home comes with a private doorman, it can become so frustrating that it slides toward the bottom of the “to-do” pile and just stays there.

Luckily, I had a friend—Arisha Wenneson of Wenneson Services—who is meticulous and had time to do the job. We soon arranged a fee that was agreeable, and I happily zipped the files and sent them off. Placed side by side on the screen, the PDF showing what should be in the file, and the OCR text in a Microsoft Word document would at least be convenient for correction. As the email progress bar clicked down I breathed a sigh of relief. Now I knew there was one big obstacle that wouldn’t be holding me back.

Sure enough, in a few days the new Word files, clean and shiny, started to show up in my inbox. Here’s the result:

Arisha had done an outstanding job. From the mess of OCR mayhem she had produced beautiful, accurate, junk-free Word files. I began to think this book would become a reality after all.

Of course, while looking over the files (which were now much easier to read) I realized that it would not be possible to publish the book without editing. The words, phrases, interjections, hemming and hawing that fill up our spoken communication had all been preserved by the transcript. But who wants to read a lot of filler? The things you say when you’re standing in front of a room of people trying to remember the point you were making?

There was no avoiding it. I would have to sit and edit every paragraph to get rid of the remaining “junk” that made the lectures tough reading. If I was going to be kind to my prospective readers–a goal all authors should aspire to–I would have to get out the “blue pencil” and get to work.