Typography, culture and ignorance

There are many reasons why I don’t usually write letters to Design Week – or, for that matter, any other similar publication. Life’s too short; who cares about my comments anyway; and, in your case, I don’t get the magazine until about a week after it first appears in London.

This time, however, I happen to be sitting in front of my computer, the fax template is already open, and I’ve just read Jane Austin’s piece about signage (I shot the serif, DW 10 March).

Apart from the awful pun (even for a Kraut) in the title, there are two comments I’d like to make:

1. We read best what we read most. Typographic traditions vary greatly from culture to culture, and what people consider readable in Italy won’t necessarily be readable in Britain or Germany. I say “readable” as opposed to “legible” because there are, of course, certain physical requirements, governed by properties of the human eye, which are universal. Legibility can be measured to a point, whereas readability is very much a moving target. Generations who have grown up with Helvetica find that typeface very readable, while there is precious little scientific evidence to say it is more legible than, say, Plantin.

2. When Neil MacCallum says with regard to signs that there are “only about four suitable typefaces in this area”, he gives away the fact that he only knows four of them. I know at least 100 typefaces that are physically suitable for sign typography. But then, I do read specimen books in bed (yes, I’m single). If graphic designers spent a little more time learning their craft, reading books and travelling to other countries with their eyes open we’d have less of this mindless moaning. Type is difficult, but so is nuclear physics. It requires constant learning, looking across the fence into other disciplines, and even memorising specimen books, as scientists have to memorise the Table of Elements. (Did you know they just discovered Element 111?).

Before I digress even further and start complaining about designer complacency and other ailments, I’ll finish, aided by the approach of the last line signal.

Erik Spiekermann, MetaDesign, Berlin, Germany

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