Saturday, February 29, 2020

A Visual Approach to Typography 1: Intro

Visual artists are being asked to deal with typography more and more, whether it is incorporating words into our images, selecting font(s) to accompany a visual, or actually designing an entire project for a client. For many graduates of art and illustration programs with curriculums devoted strictly to pictorial concerns, having to deal with typography in any capacity on a professional level can be daunting. However, there are ways to overcome whatever typographical challenge an artist may be faced with. This article is the first in a series of articles that will provide advice on two complex subjects: (1) typographic integration, type used within a work of art or an illustration, and (2) typestyle coordination, type used to accompany a visual.

For many people words, reading comprehension, and literacy are what visually inexperienced people call “left-brain” activities. Dealing with visual aesthetics, pictorial literacy, and visualization is known as “right-brain” activities. Surprisingly, even illustrators and artists subscribe to this worldview, however, graphic designers and typographers don’t. So it is important for illustrators to know what designers know that they don’t.

Most simply put, designers have learned how “not to read”. Instead of reading for content, designers have developed the ability to look at letterforms as pure form, the same way we illustrators look at the human figure as pure form. In other words, a graphic designer's figure study is the study of letterforms. A designer’s awareness of a letterform proportion, style, weight, tone, etc. are the equivalent of an illustrator’s understanding of figure form, posture, musculature, expression, tone, etc. in a figure.

By thinking of type purely as a pictorial element, it’s possible to learn to choose and coordinate type with the other subject elements to be incorporated into an illustrated composition, or to apply type to accompany an image.

There are a number of considerations that form the basis for a decision concerning typeface choice and application. In reference to illustration, the coordination and integration of typography depend on the conceptual direction, the subject content, the compositional layout, and the purpose of an illustration project. These components form the frame of reference for the application of typography. Bearing that in mind, there are some fundamental, or central criteria, that can influence an illustrator’s selection and application of type.

The following criteria categories may be the used individually or in combination to choose and execute an assignment solution. Those categories for making typographical decisions are: context, function, association, and style. For this introduction, these central criteria will be discussed briefly.


The application of typography based on context involves a close assessment of the native use of form and appearance of elements within an illustration. Following along the lines of not reading type for content, context in this sense refers to visual context. The choice and use of type based either on mirroring the visual traits in an illustration or posing a contrast to the form. The first two examples below demonstrates a contextual type use by similarity, and the third example displays contrast.

Contextual type integration.
Contextual type integration. For the Australian New Years Day 
Music Festival.
Contrasting type selection. Illustrative design by Dannygdammit.


Obviously, type included in, or accompanying an illustration has the purpose of fulfilling a function. The intended function of the text forms the basis for decisions concerning type. One instance would be when type included in, or associated with, an illustrated logo must be legible when reproduced at very small sizes. Another instance would be when type is used in an illustrated billboard ad on a motorway and must be must be seen and read quickly. Below are examples of type used in these two extreme situations.

Functional type selection. Illustrated logo design by Seven Thirteen 
Creative Inc.
Functional type selection. Illustrated billboard by Helena Garcia.


Association refers to the native design intent and attributes that are inherent in the typestyle itself. Every font design was motivated by, and based on, a specific purpose. Certain fonts have been able to transcend their original purpose to become “versatile”, while other fonts remain stagnated by a narrow functionality or a stereotyped association. Use of a specific font may be for the purpose of creating a visual association to an historical or cultural form of style or usage. Below are some examples that demonstrate the use of both highly adaptable fonts and stylistically limited, stereotyped ones.

Stereotypical association type selection, western. Illustrative 
design by Tuck Industries.
Stereotypical association type selection, circus. Illustrative 
design by Michael Doret.
Versatile non-stereotypical type selection. Illustrative
design by Lucie Rice.
Versatile non-stereotypical type selection. Illustration by
Cailtin Kuhwald.


Style is what most illustrators believe to be the most important criteria for creating or selecting type to be used with illustration. However, style choice without the support of the other decision-making criteria mentioned above can yield less than satisfactory results. To a great extent, a successful typestyle choice is based on context, function, and association, which then are shown to be evident in the visual appearance of a typestyle.

Stylistic integration emphasizing context. Illustrative design
by Kerian Massey.
Stylistic integration emphasizing association. Illustrative
design by Tuck Industries.
Stylistic integration emphasizing function. Logo design by
Scott Whitehouse.

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