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Know Limits

While most of my design time is spent for on-screen endeavors, occassionally I'll take on a print project or two. I almost always find that there are such clear differences between the two, differences that make me believe that a great web designer can be a terrible print designer, and vice versa. The biggest difference for me is the limitation that each medium holds.

The ability to understand and design within the technology is what separates the superstars from the fanboys. For instance, print design offers the designer a much wider typographic range than the web does. Sometimes I get a bit overwhelmed by the sheer volume of typefaces readily available for use. One of the most cruicial and rigorous parts of a project for me is choosing an appropriate set of typefaces for the job. Notice that I didn't say “the right set”. I'm a firm believer that a large selection of faces can be appropriate for a project; choosing from the pool is just a matter of preference.

So how do you narrow it down? One approach that I sometimes use is to embrace the limitation of the technology. That is, let the direction be dictated by what is capable. The web is the perfect example. Because of the nature of it, only a handful of typefaces are guaranteed to be consistent. While this may seem discouraging, it actually opens the doors for controlled experimentation. Typographic variation within one family is not only a skill, but it’s also encouraged by many seasoned designers. There are enough CSS properties supported that allow for a visually rich experience. Experiment with variance through case or small-caps, simulated kerning through letter-spacing, or various leading settings with line-height. Garrett Dimon has just written a great article for Digital Web about CSS Typography. A List Apart has a handy section devoted to various aspects of typography on the web. Strangely enough, the site itself is a testament in typographic precision. Richard Rutter is also steadily adding to The Elements of Typographic Style Applied to the Web, a site based on the book by Robert Bringhurst.

What if you're working in print? Unless you're under some corporate style-guide regulations that dictate exactly which typefaces are to be used, your font choices can be virtually endless. So where to start?

One technique that has proven useful for me has been using typefaces and typeface combinations that have worked well countless times for other successful designers. Many design educators support the idea of a base set that you're comfortable with. Whenever you're in a jam, you can always revert back to these and know everything will work out. My education in type was based on classic and historical type, so my standard set includes ITC Franklin Gothic, ITC Century, Trade Gothic, Mrs. Eaves, Bodoni Std, and Adobe Caslon Pro.

Dependable type never goes out of style. Herb Lubalin's Avant Garde was über-popular in the 70s, but FontShop just re-released Lubalin's beautiful Avant Garde ligatures. If you stick to a sturdy set, it'll just be a matter of time until the trends catch up with you .

Another great technique is to force the limitation upon yourself. I often employ a self-imposed requirement that I only use one typeface for the entire project, and changes in type are only open to using different weights and variants within that family. Choosing a robust family that has well-drawn small-caps, italics, and bolds can produce some visually stunning results. Subtle changes can work just as well as dramatic ones. In his book, The Elements of Typographic Style, Robert Bringhurst says this about typographic contrast:

Change one parameter at a time. When your text is set in a 12 pt medium roman, it should not be necessary to set the heads or titles in 24 pt bold italic capitals. If boldface appeals to you, being by trying the bold weight of the text face, u&lc [uppercase and lowercase], in the text size. As alternatives, try u&lc italic, or letterspaced small caps, or letterspaced full caps in the text weight and size. If you want a larger size, experiment first with a larger size of the text face, u&lc in the text weight. For a balanced page, the weight should decrease slightly, not increase, as the size increases.

Limitations aren't terrible things; they're just challenges to overcome. The practice of recognizing those limits, devising a way to get around them, and executing that plan successfully can only hone your skills and make the end product that much better.


jordan said:

Limitations are half the fun when designing.

I generally have a harder time getting started on something when I have a lot of freedom, because I don't have anything to work from.

Posted on January 23, 2006 12:17 PM

Lautreamont said:

I have the same problem, Jordan. I guess it's all about creativity. It's hard to start from scratch.

Posted on June 14, 2006 11:11 PM

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