Student Answers 01: On Legibility

On Legibility.

I guess first I’d like to throw up the quote by David Carson that informs a lot of my work; ‘Don’t mistake legibility for communication’. I think that’s basically a dissertation condensed down to five words. A quote which I actually began my dissertation with 9 years ago was by Massimo Vignelli who said that ‘[Graphic Design is] the communication of information in an appropriate visual manner’ and it’s armed with both of these ideas that I charge into most of my projects and commissions.

Defining legibility: The dictionary definition of illegible is a text that’s ‘impossible to read’ and I think the word ‘impossible’ is really key there. I’ve done a lot of work which might require a longer look but I don’t think I’ve ever done anything that’s ‘impossible’ to read.

The goal with all of my work is to make the words work harder and to load them with more meaning. I like to peel away the layers and get down to what exactly needs to be communicated and do so in a manner that’s appropriate to the subject. It’s not just making the word ‘cold’ out of ice – though I have been asked to do stuff like that before – it’s more about reading the words and, where they need it, inject more meaning and visual cues as to help convey the idea. It’s never about abstracting and jumbling type for the sake of it and if that’s the case with a piece of work then it’s failed.

I think another problem and misconception is the idea that you should project a style onto a piece of work so people know that it’s yours. I try and approach every brief individually and I’d point anyone back to Vignelli’s quote there and say that, if you’ve received a brief and you kind of know roughly how it’s going to look before you begin – whether you always use these colours or that typeface or a certain kind of grid – then, I kind of think, what’s the point? You’ve already made decisions about something that may not be relevant to the brief so you are now mis-communicating or doing things that may be irrelevant. There’s a video doing the rounds online that a lot of people seem to be falling over themselves about:

…and I’d really argue that nothing he does after 16 seconds in – where the type is set in Avant Garde and left aligned on 4 lines – actually makes the type better. Flashier, yes but better? More communicative? It’s really a very good example of style graphics and people forgetting what it’s meant to be about.

Another thought that underpins my work is the idea that type should make you WANT to read it… If you lay out some type in a clear and crisp fashion that doesn’t attract anyone’s attention then it’s kind of failed. If you, I don’t know, say you grow some type out of vines and a few people pause and squint and then get it then I think it’s a more successful piece of communication than the first example. In a lot of cases it’s better to present information in a way that 25% of passers by will want to read and will take the time to do so rather than put something out there that 100% of people can read but don’t want to and don’t bother. That’s why so much advertising etc just recedes into the background and get’s ignored.

Of course there are instances when type absolutely has to be completely legible and clean and clear. Public information, road signs, writing for the visually impaired; abstracting the type in these cases is inconsiderate and pointless. Theres also a skewed idea of what type needs to be treated. I’ve recieved briefs where someone has wanted an entire paragraph of type treating a certain way and I’ve had to turn them away. A lot of times – most of the time in fact – just the type is enough.

The point at which type becomes an illustration I think can be traced back to either that point where you’ve decided to stamp a style on it that’s not perhaps relevant or have decided to abstract the type beyond being legible and then it becomes just a composition or an image. That’s something I try not to let my type become unless that’s the aim of the brief.