Type I love to hate & hate to love


Image: Frank Chimero Slide
Frank Chimero Slide

I first heard of Frank Chimero reading this impactful article on his site The Web’s Grain. Above is an example of one of the more typographic title slides from one of his talks, What Screen Want at the 2010 Build conference.

Founded in New Zealand, Klim has produced many of my favourite typefaces to date. Above is an example of one the most complex slides in regards to the number of changes made to the type. Tiempos Headline set 3 colours, 2 styles, 1 weight. I chose this to illustrate the versitility of the layout system Mr Chimero has created.

Black nor white has been used as a foundation. Rather, a shade of a colour that has been described to be the ugliest in the world (Pantone 448C). A shade of brown. Yet, in this layout, this type is beautiful. Frank managed to create gold just through the harmony established in the proportions of the colours used. A theme of harmony is continued as the brown is carried through onto the jacket he wore on stage to the logo of the conference. The speaker should always be the shining star of a conference, and it shows the genius of this slide resonates layers deep.

Back to the type itself, the length of the copy and the flare of the letterforms, again, create harmony. It’s easy to have the length of the copy create too much distraction or choose a typeface with unnecessary swashes and aesthetic features, that push the type to scream rather than the content. The strong character of this typeface and short length of copy allow them to complement one another.

I probably have a positive bias towards this design due to the influence this designer has had on my understanding of digital design, but I think we can all agree this is a gorgeous slide.

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Before I begin, I need to preface this with: there is nothing wrong with this signage system, I was tasked with bringing type I hate. Thats emotional. Emotions are often irrational.

Image: Room sign at the LCC
Photograph of room sign at the LCC

What did the 1 do wrong, why does it have no love. The other characters are backing away from it.

Before I naively criticize the work of the world renowned Pentagram and LCC, I should at least discern a meaning, a pattern to these numbers. Immediately my eyes are drawing a relation between the characters only by their physical proximity. With no change in colour or point size, it’s the only attempt I can make to understand (what, at first sight to me was madness).

Image: Grouping room number characters
Grouping the characters forming room number

Glancing at any of the other signs, it becomes obvious fast — the first character defines the block (Workshop), the 1 in this case is the first floor and them the room number follows.

Maybe only two groups would have been better. It feels broken, though it is absolutely not.

I am by no stretch of the imagination an expert type designer, however, without losing my mind too much I made an attempt to kern this to my ideals.

Image: Alternative kerning options
Comparing kerning options

This image illustrates the difference in readability and more importantly, inference, that is made from this seemingly trivial alteration.

Think anyone would have dared set the university logo creatively kerned like this? Oh, because the logo matters, and wayfinding doesn’t. Functional type that people need to engage with their environment doesn’t matter as much as the pretty facade painted atop everything today.

Image: UAL tote bag
UAL tote bag

Could you possibly live with the iconic tote bag looking like this. Although it seems totally facetious, remember each of the four characters has a distinct meaning, and a grouped one, just like the room number.

Image: Simple sign
Simple sign

Enough of that tangent. Facing it on the reflecting wall is this dimly lit sign. This flips the themes of the room signage. There is no genius in the adaptability a scalability of the sign system, but it’s simple, and still works. Where one feels at home in a workshop, the other in a primary school. Keeping things simple is one of the hardest things I have found a during a creative process. Saying no to an idea I become emotionally invested into, to prove my worth, and feed my ego, to the detriment of my output.

Let me be clear, this is not bad kerning, just a bad implementation to improve readability. It creates distraction. People are smart they don’t need all these tricks to understand room numbers.

The colour coded and versatile impermanent nature of this system is certainly admirable, however, the perceived inconstancy from this consistency creates sense of unbalance through unnecessary typographic aid.

The grid system that forms the base for the signs creates a balanced asymmetry, whereas, due to the natural unbalanced nature of letterforms that type designers need to account for, the spacing develops inconsistency. This is a proportional typeface being shoe-horned into a design that pleads for a fixed-width one.

To quote Pentagram Helvetica has been used to create a consistency”. But Helvetica comes with its own consistency without the need for an additional system plowed atop. Doing this disrupts the strong character the Haas foundry gave it.

In closing thoughts — now I’ve had a chance to sleep on this — the system works, it communicates what needs to be, and whether I love it in a year, it will always snag in my peripheral vision, a trait I believe should not be evident in functional typography.