Typography and Communication

Typographic decision-making begins when children start to write, although most children today also encounter DTP software from a very early age at school as well as in the home.

The use of DTP in schools as part of the writing process has the potential to provide emphasis to typographic organization. In “publishing” their documents, children are already being asked to consider how it might be used and by whom, to write with a specific purpose in mind through a process that includes drafting and editing. They are also asked to consider what would be an appropriate appearance for the finished document as it is commonplace for children to be asked at school to produce newspapers, magazines, leaflets, advertisements, etc., as a means of exploring various ways of organizing text.

The problem is that for children (and teachers) their general awareness of typography stems from what they are conscious of seeing: what attracts their eye in the environment of the street and shops, on advertising boards, shop fascias, and on packaging, rather than the typography they read every day in newspapers, magazines, and books. For a child looking for ideas to help in the design of, for instance, a newspaper much of what attracts the eye is inappropriate. And even if newspapers were available in the classroom (and one must assume that in such circumstances they would be), these would require a considerable amount of detailed analysis to be of any real benefit. Teachers are given very little guidance about the potential of visual organization to enhance the meaning of text, let alone the finer points of typography.


On the community bulletin board of every village, there will be homemade notices and posters. Most amateur community notices and posters today are produced digitally, and yet, despite the dramatic change of tools and processes, the design of such notices remain remarkably similar to the hand-drawn versions of the 1960s or 1970s: the use of underlining, prodigious use of capitals, important words set at a diagonal, and emphasis provided for key points by the use of speech bubbles or boxes.

The persistent use of underlining is particularly interesting because of its evolution through handwritten, typewritten, and digital document making. In handwriting, it is an almost universal convention to underline headings as a means of providing hierarchic structure. This is easily achieved and will often be done as an afterthought.

For the typist, underlining was one of the few options available to provide emphasis within a typewritten text. Underlining was also used as a convention in copy preparation informing compositors to set type in italic. However, underlined characters were never part of the metal letterpress stock, although it became a possible (but rarely used) option with photo-composition. But in the 1980s and 1990s, it was a far more common sight in printed matter because it was a typing convention and many typists transferred their skills from typewriter to word processing and then to DTP software where underlining is an available option.

The practice of centered arrangements for amateur bulletins and posters has also remained almost universal. Up to (and beyond) the 1960s, amateur guidebooks on lettering would suggest that typographic organization was, above all else, about balance and symmetry. Looking at advertising work up to the 1940s, there was a surprisingly high proportion of material which was essentially symmetrical, but, after World War II, the international advertising industry took America’s lead, and was transformed by more flexible asymmetric arrangements. Today, and since the 1950s in commercial poster design, asymmetric arrangements have been entirely dominant, and yet centered arrangements persistently, and perhaps appropriately, remain the norm, generation after generation, for the traditional, slower pace of life represented on the village community bulletin board.

DTP has also meant that a large amount of material for public display that would previously have been produced by the jobbing printer is produced in people’s homes and offices. However, the technology has not had as big an influence on the actual appearance of local bulletins as might have been expected. With any new technology there is a period of time when the new mimics the conventions of the previous technology. It has, however, rendered the skill of drawing letterforms and applying color unnecessary, and, of course, multiple copies mean that more information can be included.

Last Words

Typography is now something everybody does, although only typographers call it “typography.” For everyone else it is now considered a very common, everyday practice—a manual task requiring virtually no thought whatsoever. Thus, the fundamental significance of typography as an intellectual discipline and as a personal accomplishment has become, and probably always was, something of an enigma. But whereas, in the past, typography and printing were genuinely mysterious activities (commonly referred to as “the black art”), today everyone has access to the same tools, the same hardware and software.

Typography is so familiar, so matter of fact, that most people fail even to acknowledge its existence. In some ways, of course, this is the successful result of its invisible application by generations of printers/typographers. The proof of good typography has nothing to do with technology; it can be judged only in the reading.


Great article, thank you for sharing this…


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