VisComm: Rights of Man typesetting crit 1

The first assignment for my Visual Communications class was to typeset 10 versions of Article 4 from the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen. The first 5 versions were to be kept simple: one size of font, and formatted as simple paragraphs. The second set of compositions could be more elaborate: multiple typefaces, different font sizes, and we were allowed to play with the structure of the text in less traditional ways.

I found this assignment to be really fun, but also challenging. Since stepping into this new role as a “designer,” I have been frequently reminded of just how little I know about design. I’m taking it on faith that recognizing that you don’t know is as good a place to start as any, but that didn’t really help me much when I actually sat down to format a paragraph.

I decided to start simple and just play with it a bit. I started off with just one font, and messed around with size and leading, and played with margins and the balance of white space on the page. After that, I just listened to my instincts and let my eye decide where things belonged (I was reassured to note that this usually resulted in something that came close to the underlying document grid). When I had something I was happy with, I changed the font, and played around some more.

Again, I found the crit session to be extremely helpful. It confirmed my instincts in some things, and completely contradicted them in others. I had one or two pieces that were reasonably strong (strong enough to need only minor revisions, anyway), and a couple to discard completely and start over. My pieces were neither the strongest in the class nor the weakest, and I really enjoyed seeing my classmates’ take on the assignment.

Ernesto looked at 130 compositions in just under 3 hours, and he found something constructive and useful to say about almost every one of them. He pointed out the strong points as well as the weaknesses, and as a former teacher I was really impressed at how good he was at balancing his discussion of the two. Several times during the session I found myself thinking that this is why I came to grad school – it is so helpful to get specific and direct feedback on your work, and to see how an expert’s mind solves the same problems that you have wrestled with. For me, school is much less about certification than it is about apprenticeship, and I am really looking forward to this direct-criticism aspect of my classes this semester.

Some things I learned about typography this week:

  1. Justified text is not required in a short paragraph (this was a relief; I don’t really like fully justified text most of the time, anyway).
  2. I should leave more white space. (This is not a surprise, considering that I am used to reading scientific journals. Any font over 6 point feels huge, and any white space at all feels like a luxury.)
  3.  If I’m going to do something “risky,” I should do it 100%, and not hesitate.
  4.  More than two font sizes muddies the text, especially if there’s a small, medium, and large version of the same font in the same paragraph. In a continuation of point 3, if I’m going to do contrast, I need to use bigger contrast (sans serif mixed with serif, or bigger differences in size).
  5. Text is text, not pictures. Avoid shapes (even unintentional ones) in your text.
  6. Rag more dramatically!