Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Typography For Illustrators: 2. Function

Typography is often looked at as a standalone specialization that doesn’t relate to illustration, however illustrators will often be called upon to incorporate names, titles, and other forms of text in their illustration assignments. Even when they don’t actually apply type themselves to an illustration such as a logo, editorial spread, book jacket or illustrated story, illustrators have to possess an understanding of how typography will be used to complete a published illustration. In some cases the illustrated image becomes a template that guides a designer for the placement of type, and many times it is the illustrator that determines the position and scale of the available area for the type to be added by the designer.

Whether an illustrator actually selects and applies the type to an illustration, or has to leave an open area to accommodate the later application of type, it is important they understand how type must function. Typography is a complex and fascinating area of study involving visual theory, design practice, historical rhetoric, behavioral studies, and scientific investigation. And, when it comes to typographical function, there is a wealth of great information available, however not all of it relates to the disciple of illustration. Even so, there are some bare bones fundamentals that can be of great assistance when the responsibility of handling type is part of an assignment.

If you have read the introduction to this series, “Typography For Illustrators: 1. Intro”, then you are probably aware that I haven’t touched upon font classification, which is normally the way type is introduced. I will in a future post, but for the purposes of learning to make aesthetic decisions about the selection of typeface style and application of type to an illustration, classification is much less relevant to an illustrator’s way of thinking.

Legibility, Readability and Visibility

If asked, what is the single most important thing type must do? Every client would say, “be readable”. And in typography, for text to be readable, there are three important functions that are needed.


To function well, a font must first be legible. Legibility refers to the measure of clarity that presents itself in the design of individual letterforms within a font. Letterforms must be designed to follow prescribed forms and relative proportions and be easily distinguishable from one and other. Legibility is a measure of recognition, i.e., how easily a letterform is recognizable. All fonts must exceed the threshold of legibility in order to functionally convey a message. Quite a bit of debate and argument has ensued over which fonts are most legible, however the evidence of legibility is in a font’s readability.

Distinct letterform structure aids in better font legibility than those
where the letterforms either mimic each other's shape or are indistinct.


Beyond legibility comes readability, which denotes the effortlessness with which text in the form of words, sentences, and paragraphs can be read, and even more importantly comprehended. It sounds simple and obvious, but it is not. Among audiences reading type, cultural background and age are primary influences of stylistic preferences regarding the readability of font styles. Among illustrators and designers using type, the design function and message intension become the primary influence for the choice and application of font styles.

Fonts with traditional letterform structure are more readable than
those constructed with non-traditional forms.


Often confused with legibility, visibility has more to do with luminosity and scale than form or typographic structure. Visibility is greatly influenced by properties of tone, color, and the characteristics of the surrounding environment the type has been situated in. The environment in which an audience will encounter text also influences visibility. As anyone who has tried to read a well-designed menu in a darkened candlelit restaurant will attest to.

Even highly legible and readable fonts can be impeded by altering
their visibility by application.


How type will function relates directly to the kind of environment it will be displayed or reproduced in, and the nature of the assignment it will be used in. There are many forms of media used to communicate messages to an audience, and each form has it’s own visual requirements based on functional needs. Also, the choice of font style and the relationship of type to image vary in each category of media.


Media refers to the different types of publications that use type. For illustrators, the media represented here are those that use illustration along with typography, and they are the source for a great majority of commissioned assignments.


Logos, emblems, and corporate identities must be legible at very small sizes, so the type area must be larger in proportion to the image area. They must also be legible on signage to be recognized quickly. You may have noticed that I have used the term “legible” instead of readable. That is because a logo or identity is actually recognized rather than read, once it has been established with a viewer.

Illustrative design by Image Fire Design.
Illustrative design by Image Fire Design.


Most viewers will not spend any more than three to six seconds reading the headline of a magazine or web displayed ad. Therefore advertising type must be visible and easily readable to convey a message very quickly. Headlines and text should be readable at a distance of arms length. Studies show that the smaller body text that appears in a print ad is read by only 6% of the audience viewing an ad.

Advertising illustration byJason Brooks.
Advertising illustration by Monsieur Z.


Typography on posters and announcements serves a dual function. Like ads the title information must be highly visible at a distance and quickly readable, leaving an attractive first impression that is easily comprehended. However, these forms of media also have a secondary function, a sort of hidden agenda, they must be interesting enough to invite viewing for extended time periods, and attractive enough for repeated viewing.

Poster illustration by Olly Moss.
Poster Illustration by Mike Kasun.


Much more akin to ads when it comes to function, billboard, outdoor advertising, and banners are seen from a distance and usually read by viewers who are in motion...on the run, so to speak. The audience is either in a car, on mass transit, or on foot, so billboards and banners encountered in an active environment must be read the very quickest of all media. To facilitate this, less words are used and type is displayed at larger sizes, even disproportionately so.

Billboard illustrative design by Fellow, Inc.
Billboard illustrative design by Gavin Delint.

Point of Sale Displays

A point of sale (POS) display is like a billboard and a poster at the same time. POS displays are environmental media. They must function both up close and at a distance for a viewer and be quickly comprehended. Like billboards, in store sale displays contain fewer words, and like posters, they may be looked at for an extended period of time.

Illustrated sale display by Steve Parkhurst.
Illustrated sale display, artist unknown.

Books/Book Jackets

There are many types of books in the marketplace, both illustrated and non-illustrated. The one thing they all have in common these days is the addition of a highly visual book jacket to attract attention and differentiate the author and subject of the book’s contents. The functionality of a book jacket can be a complex one, owing to shelving placement and limitations. Although much smaller in size, book jackets function very similarly to point of sale displays. They must be read clearly at short distances and hold the interest of a viewer for an up close inspection.

Turning to the inside of books, and for our purposes, illustrated books, there is an entirely different relationship that can be created with a viewer. The pace of comprehension can be slowed down considerably to allow viewers to read, pause, and reread at their own pace. In fact, there is aesthetic license to use type to slow down the progress of a reader, as long as comprehension is not impeded.

Illustrated book jacket by Adam Stower.
Illustrated book jacket by Bob Marshall.

Magazine Articles

A cross between illustrated books and ads, editorial typography must be attractive and efficient time-wise. Viewers want readability and easy comprehension for narrative material presented to them. Magazines and other periodical publications tend to be more disposable than books. It is less common for a reader to reread a magazine article than it is for them to reread a book.

Illustrated magazine spread by Cliff Scorso.
Illustrated magazine spread by Tracy Walker, design Pam Fogg.


When it comes to function, brochures encompass aspects of all the above media. They have to be attractive, quickly read and comprehended, seen from a distance and close up. They can be primarily informational and non-illustrated, or highly visual and story-like. Brochures are read like magazines and like ads, they are displayed like book jackets, and like point of sale displays. Most commonly, visibility and readability override aesthetics.

Brochure illustration by Lou Kinard.
Brochure illustrative design by Holdren Design.


Typographic functionality for the web involves a broad spectrum of situations including those categorized for print. Publications on the web can be divided into two general classifications: (1) those works created for other media and “republished” in the web environment; and (2) those works created specifically for publication in the web environment.

Illustrative design for the web by Vicky Wong and Michael Murphy.
Illustrative design for the web by Monkeytag.


Like Point of sale, packaging demands visual attraction. It also requires quick recognition, high readability, and visual product distinction. Imagery and type must be visible at the distance of a shopping aisles width. Additionally, the visual aesthetic of a package must project personality and value for the product. 

Illustrative packaging design by Steve Simpson.
Illustrative package design by Tommy Perez.

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