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Beatrice Warde, in her famous 1932 essay “The Crystal Goblet (or Printing Should Be Invisible),” contends that the ideal vessel for wine is one that shows the liquid’s virtues. According to Warde, the best typography should likewise be invisible—the unseen carrier of information.
By Allan Haley, author, lecturer and expert on all things typographic
While this might be true for some cases of textual content, the metaphor doesn’t stand up when it comes to big type—especially really big type. And out-sized typography is often an important tool for experiential designers. Like most things typographic, there are best practices when it comes to big letters.
- Letterspacing should be tight and even.
- All caps content should be limited to no more than a few words.
- Humanistic sans are the best choices.
- Serif designs—unless they’re square—are generally not good choices.
Tightly Knit Spacing
Typefaces are generally designed to work best between 8pt and 72pt—not nearly big enough for most experiential design projects. At very large sizes, out-of-the box letter spacing is almost always too open; kerning alone doesn’t do the trick—overall character tracking is called for, in addition to kerning. How much will depend on the typeface and size of the type.
Words should be tightly spaced blocks of letters that don’t touch, and word spacing should be tight enough that the eye captures four to five words at a time. This speeds up the reading process and aids in comprehension.
There are no fixed rules for how tight letter and word spacing should be. It will vary from typeface to typeface and application to application. Best practices call for not being satisfied with just setting the type and being done with it. Look no further than Pentagram’s solution to the City Point branding project: You’ll see that the letter and word spacing was carefully crafted.
Nix All Caps
All caps may make neatly aligned blocks of information, but they are also difficult to read and take up more space than words set in lowercase. If you’re dealing with more than just a few words, consider setting the information in caps and lowercase. In addition, if you have to set all-cap signage or wayfinding, keep lines short and line space open. The Makara Peak Mountain Bike Park wayfinding system is a great example of cap and lowercase typography.
Humanistic designs, like Neue Frutiger, Burlingame and Stone Humanistic are the most legible and easily read of the sans serif typefaces. Based on the proportions of Roman inscriptional letters, their subtle contrast in stroke weight and calligraphic influences aid the reading process. Generally, humanistic sans also have a slight squareness that allows for relatively tight letterspacing, while maintaining even typographic color.
If you choose not to use a humanistic sans serif design, the next best choice would be a grotesque like ITC Franklin Gothic, Univers Next or Neue Plak. These are updates or revivals of the first commercial sans serif designs. Stroke contrast is less pronounced, and much of the squareness in curved strokes is lost, but they still perform admirably at very large sizes.
Last on the hit parade of large display sans serif designs is geometric sans. These are typefaces like ITC Avant Garde Gothic, Futura and Gotham. The problem is that geometric sans characters are less legible and lack the readability of humanistic sans or grotesques. Creating tight, even letterspacing is also more problematic.
Most serif typefaces, except for square or slab serif designs, have roots in text typefaces. While serifs can be an aid to readability at small sizes, they’re not compatible with the snug spacing that’s best for out-sized typography. In addition, serif typefaces are drawn to have thick and thin parts at small sizes. Used at very large sizes, these parts become thick and thicker—not necessarily difficult to read, but clearly not aesthetically pleasing.
Square serif typefaces, however, share the underlying structure of sans serif type. And no matter how large they are set, the serifs keep their distinctive shape and clear-cut structure.
If you really need to, want to or have to use a serif typeface at very large sizes, try to use designs that were drawn specifically for the job. A growing number of typefaces have been drawn just for very large sizes. All the major font providers offer a selection. Look to designs that have “Banner,” “Display” or “Tall” in their names. You’ll find that there are even a few script typefaces in the bunch.
Beatrice Warde’s metaphor may be great for continuous text, but not so much for the big stuff experiential designers often wrestle with. Save the crystal goblet for toasting a job well done.