Great typography is equal measures maths and magic.
Let’s start with the math… When we observe letterforms as a designer rather than a reader, we see the alphabet is built using a set of prefabricated geometries, with capacity for dis-assembly and reuse. Each typeface has anatomy and weight distribution that repeats throughout different letters. These shapes form the DNA from which we flesh out cohesive typographic systems.
I learn about typography by deconstructing letters. I search for shapes that repeat to unlock the alphabet’s secrets. I find this visual interrogation method the best way to get to know a face intimately and to understand the subtleties and mechanics of each letter. The process has taught me the ‘shape grammar’ of typography. By observing and deconstructing letters in this way we learn what makes typography legible, what makes some letters uncomfortable on the eye and even what makes a letter a good citizen (as part of its wider typeface community). We begin to de-code how elegance, expression, tension and tone are all contained in the geometry of a glyph.
Type designers use maths and modularity as foundation to construct letters. But the best designers train their eye to deviate from the rational, repeatable module to achieve balanced and beautiful letterforms. This is where the magic happens… The reason pure maths (or ‘engineered geometry’) in typography is hard to get right visually is because what you measure is not what you see — mathematical equality does not equal optical equality!
Have you ever heard the thinking that people look heavier wearing horizontal stripes, or that people look taller wearing vertical stripes? The same principles apply to typography. In Western society our eyes are trained to sweep along a parallel line of type in jumps, darting back and forth as our eyes search for word recognition. These erratic horizontal movements are called saccades. The conditioning of our eye to these movements is one theory behind why we perceive horizontal lines (and weight) differently to how we perceive vertical lines and weight.
Mathematical concepts are implicit in design practice. But great design moves beyond the methodical and measured conventions to compensate for the optically-distorted way that we see (and feel) things.
With these revelations in mind, I encourage you to start interrogating typefaces and letters. Discover your favorite fonts ‘kit of parts’. The more closely you observe letters the more you will learn about the visual logic, shape grammar and optical illusions at play within the typefaces and fonts we use every day.