When to break the rules

Only after learning the rules of typography should you be allowed to consider breaking them, but Tim Rich is worried that even the basics are being flouted

I find the world of typography rather forbidding. In the pages of the typozines, and at meetings of the typoscenti, experts argue the very finest of points with admirable rigour and passion. But I’m still bewildered by the basics. What is a transitional face transiting from and to, and why? Should people still be put in the stocks for using a display type for body text? Whither the brace?

I’m confused, but I know that these things matter. Poor typography can mutilate a beautifully written piece (as many of my fellow design copywriters will testify). On the other hand, excellent typography promotes the writing, doing all it can to attract and retain the reader and convey the spirit of the words.

Yet, judging by the literature, posters, websites, signage and other graphica we see each day, many designers are typographically challenged. Perhaps learning about type seems a bit of a chore at college. The detail, the exactness, the history, the rules – it must be tempting to bunk off double typography after a heavy night out. But undergraduate designers aren’t responsible for the mess out there; you can blame the graduates for that. This is a professional competence issue.

‘Rules can be broken, but never ignored,’ writes David Jury in the introduction of his book, About Face, published by RotoVision. Jury, head of graphic design at Colchester Institute, sets out to demonstrate the continuing value of good typographic practice, hence the book’s sub-title, Reviving the rules of typography. He organises our journey into 13 sections, moving from Classification to Rhetoric via the likes of Readability, Manipulation, Electronic Writing Systems and Language.

I have some reservations about Jury’s writing style (About Face reads like a transcript of an eloquent lecture, not a written piece) but the content is enlightening and its message punctual. Actually, About Face could prove a prophetic title, as the word ‘rules’ on its cover may put off the very people most in need of its erudition. In many studios rules are considered an obstacle to innovation, rather than a platform from which to innovate. Rules are unfashionable, limiting, old-school.

But isn’t the truth a little more complicated? Surely, some rules restrict, while others inspire – it depends on the designer, the context and the rule. The challenge is to judge which help and which hinder. Asking why a rule exists can help. What does it seek to prevent and – crucially – why? Ignore a rule simply because it’s a rule and you end up rebelling against yourself.

About Face is designed by Frost Design. The same group is responsible for another work that exemplifies the value of rules, the 2001 D&AD annual report. Its cover depicts one of the famed pencils and asks: D&AD – What’s the point?. Vince Frost and illustrator Marion Deuchars then use handwriting in pencil to present Howard Fletcher’s excellent copy. Every character and figure is in pencil; even the accounts section is drawn, not set. And yet, it’s a delight to read, there’s a clear and dynamic relationship between serif and sans serif and there are no horrible line-endings. The report is excellent design judgement made manifest.

Another relevant work is Banging your Head against a Brick Wall, a hand-grenade of a booklet by graffiti artist Banksy, with layout by Jez Tucker (excerpts are at www.banksy.co.uk). Both booklet and website advance a powerful case for the legitimacy of graffiti art, with suspicion of authority firing Banksy’s urge for public displays of agitation. In Don’t Believe The Type, he writes, ‘It’s those who follow authority blindly who are the real danger’.

You may not agree with his arguments, but you have to admire the power of his work. He has a point to make and doesn’t allow second-rate design to get between him and his audience. It’s a case of using rules to subvert other rules.

Despite the design community’s obsession with newness and fashion, it seems to me that the best, most unusual, most challenging, most exciting and most genuinely innovative design work is often created by people who have invested time in thinking about what’s gone before. And so they’ve developed an understanding of when to evolve something and when to invent; when to apply a rule, when to break one. The words of the martial arts poet Zu Zo Mi are ringing in my ears: ‘First know your opponent better than he knows himself, then you have the power to destroy him or befriend him.’

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