Q&A With Allan Haley, Monotype

Allan Haley is Director of Words & Letters for Monotype, the global typeface designer and provider. He’ll be a featured speaker at SEGD’s Exhibition & Experience Design WorkshopAugust 21-22 in Washington, D.C.

He spoke with SEGD recently about type, brand, and the user experience.

What do experiential graphic designers need to know about using type across various platforms, from print and exhibit text to interfaces and display screens?

Choose the type first. Illustrations, colors, images, and sound are all very important elements, but in graphic communications they really are ancillary to typography. Pick the right typeface first.  

Does type on screen “behave” differently than in print or on a sign or display?

Yes. Type on screen won’t pick up the nuances that print will.

A number of typefaces have been redesigned specifically for on-screen use, primarily for e-books. Helvetica E-Text has increased lower-case x-height, and the character spacing is more open. Design changes were made so that it overcomes some of the drawbacks of on-screen reading. 

Mobile devices are really where everything seems to be going right now. There is more advertising—a huge amount being done for mobile devices. So designers need to pay attention to that platform.

So how do designers pick the right typeface?

There are two parts to this equation: the typeface and the font. Fonts and typefaces are very different things, even though people tend to use the terms interchangeably. Typefaces are designs like Bembo, Gill Sans, or Papyrus. Type designers create typefaces, using software programs to shape the individual letters. A few still draw the letters by hand and then scan the drawings into a type-design application.

Whether a set of metal letters or a set of electronic files, fonts are the things that enable the printing of typefaces. Type foundries produce fonts. Sometimes designers and foundries are one and the same, but creating a typeface and producing a font are two separate functions.

Ideally, you’ll choose a typeface design that has been specifically engineered to work well across a variety of screen environments. This criterion really limits the number of typefaces available to you.

Depending on the screen platform, you are dealing with 1) less physical real estate and 2) varying resolutions. You need to plan for that and look at typefaces that will perform well in less than ideal on-screen environments.

Those would be typefaces with large X-height and moderate contrast in stroke thickness. If creating hierarchy is important, not all typefaces are created equal. There are subtle but important differences between medium and bold or semi-bold. Sometimes this can be pretty subtle. That works fine for print but on a low-resolution output device, screen logic may kick you up to the next level, so that medium and bold look pretty much the same. These are the differences you need to know about.

What other factors should designers consider in choosing typefaces across various platforms?

You won’t choose the same way you would for print. You may be in love with thin or light fonts, but they don’t transfer well to screen environments. This is why there was such a flap about the Apple Mobile OS using Helvetica Thin.

There are lots of typefaces that do work well across the spectrum. Again, pick the medium weight. Sans-serif typefaces translate well to on-screen environments, but you do need to test the typeface on each device that it will appear on so you’ll know.

If you want to use serif typefaces, look at robust ones that don’t have a lot of thick and thin contrast, like Rockwell or Officina.

Is this issue going to get easier or harder for designers?

As screen resolution becomes higher and higher, there will be less need to be ultra careful in choosing typefaces…it will become more like print and designers will have many more choices.

But the principles of good typography still apply, no matter how much technology is involved. In any environment, a good graphic communicator is going to want to choose a typeface that carries the brand, is legible, and is conducive to a good user experience.

Monotype has designed many custom typefaces for digital interfaces/screens, including applications for vehicle screens, radios, etc. Can you tell us a little about this work?

We’re a unique company in that we make traditional fonts, we create new typefaces, and we do custom typefaces for branding. We’re also a large engineering and technical company.

We provide the fonts in just about every e-reader out there and our fonts are in automobile displays and white goods….just about anything that has an electronic display. If there is a contextual interface in a device or appliance these days, chances are, they’re using our fonts.

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