Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Typography For Illustrators: 5. Style

Style as interpreted by illustrators can mean several differing things. For some, style refers to the use of a specific media, such as scratchboard, or pen and ink. For others style can refer to a manner of mark making, while for others, it can relate to a form of compositional arrangement. And still for others, it can manifest itself in an artistic genre such as art deco style, or a cultural genre such as manga. Style can even be classified in reference to a form of message, such as humorous, scientific, or medical.


Now turning the discussion to typography, 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 such as context, function, and association can yield less than satisfactory results. To a great extent, a successful typestyle choice is based on the illustration scheme and environment, the assignment purpose, and a correlation with a verbal message. All of these criteria in combination provide guidance for the selection of a typestyle.

Like context, choosing fonts by style, requires a visually oriented thought process, i.e., a sense of visual connoisseurship. Fortunately, illustrators possess a particularly adept visual sensitivity. Typefaces present all manner of stylistic forms. By present estimates, there are over 150,000 different styles available, however that is not surprising since western language typeface design has been occurring for over 500 years. As such, choosing fonts from digital suppliers such as FontShop, can be a daunting task. A fair amount of discussion on typographic style focuses on the aesthetics of font letterforms themselves, and the functionality of the font as it relates letterform structure. Less discussion has occurred concerning the aesthetic application of typefaces in visual contexts, and particularly in the context of illustration.

Illustration is about two things, (1) delivering a message, and (2) delivering it with flair in particular style. Illustrators should think of typography in the same way, and the selection and application of typography in an illustrated environment should support the natural style of that environment, the illustration assignment, and even the style of the illustrator.

Here are some examples of stylistic type choices with context, function, or association providing the inspiration for the application and usage of typography.

Typographic style by historical and cultural association.
Poster by Victor Beuren.

Typographic style by architectural association.
Poster by Michael Murphy.

Typographic style in context to the illustration.
Poster  design by Jeffrey Bowman.

Typographic style in context to the illustration.
Poster by DXDR.

Typographic style by historical association.
Poster by Emek.

Typographic style based on function.
Poster by Richard Perez.

Typographic style by cultural association.
Poster by Zhen Huang.

Typographic style by context and usage association.
Poster by Melinda Beck.

Typographic style by subject association.
Poster by Gina Kiel.

Typographic style by usage association. 
Poster by Lisa Audit.

Typographic style by historical association.
Poster by Nate Duval.

Typographic style by cultural association.
Poster by Marianne Walker.

Typographic style based on function.
Poster by Doe Eyed.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Typography For Illustrators: 4. Association

When working with typography in an illustrative environment, there are two overriding areas of influence regarding aesthetic decisions and the application of type. The first involves the visual opportunities afforded by the illustration; it’s composition, format, use of media, and stylistic appearance. The second involves those visual possibilities that present themselves inherently in the type to be applied; it’s proportion, weight, size, and functionality. Also incredibly important, is any “association” a type font may have with an artistic or architectural genre, historical or time period, prior usage or over usage, or a specific subject.

In this instance, the word association refers to the native design appearance and attributes that are inherent in the typestyle itself, rather than in the illustration. 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, typecasting, 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. Type selection in this manner takes advantage of former usage and other visual characteristics a typestyle may offer to add to the content of an illustration assignment by capitalizing on any prior associations.

Architectural Association

Typography has often times been influenced by architectural style. German Fraktur fonts and Old English style fonts like Cloister Black bear a strong resemblance to the heavy stone cathedral architecture of the same period. Conversely, fonts like Gordon Heights share a stylistic relationship to an early 20th century urban environment, while fonts like Moderna relate to the use of geometry and clean lines of post-war International Style architecture. As in architecture, letterform structure plays a major role in this form of association.

Historical Association

Curiously enough, in most cases, many typestyles that associate with historical periods were not designed during the periods their look suggests, especially those fonts that associate with ancient Greece and Rome such as Papyrus. Likewise, fonts like Medieval Scribbish and other Celtic typestyles, although inspired by the Book of Kells were not designed until the 20th century. However, many of those fonts that were developed after the popularization of moveable type, document their historical periods accurately, so accurately that they are forever associated with that historical period, like Advertising Gothic, which was styled at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries.

Cultural Association

Perhaps most guilty of stereotyping, typestyles that project a cultural association are quite obvious when it comes to their fictitious appearance. These typefaces adopt an appearance that comes from mimicry of fonts, letters, and scripted styles that belong to another language’s set of letterform symbols. Nationalities whose alphabets are non-European are those typically used as inspiration for cultural association, such as Chinese alphabet forms for Gang of Three, and Hebraic letterforms for their reincarnation into those in English as in DS Shalom. And lastly, with some ingenuity, the English letterforms in Alhambra, were designed to look Islamic.

Aesthetic Association

There are typestyles that were crafted with formal visual aesthetic fundamentals providing artistic inspiration for their appearance. The visual sensibilities, which are related to artistic movements, form the basis for the design of fonts that carry an aesthetic association. Much less obvious than the prior association categories, aesthetic association is evidenced in those fonts that are tied less to a architectural, historical, cultural, functional, or subject based influence, but whose main inspiration is their artistic appearance. Mobius, Saisa Font, and Neues Bauen are respectable representatives of this form of association. Bauhaus is a font (not shown here) that stands as an archetypal example of aesthetic association.

Usage Association

Usage refers to typestyles that were created for, or have been associated with a particular usage or situation. In some cases it was the intention of the typeface creator to design a font for a specific purpose, but in many cases it happened independently. In either case, for better or worse, certain fonts, will be burdened with an associated use. Eurostyle  (shown here) and it’s twin cousin Microgramma (not shown) represent a class of usage associated fonts that fell victim of “over usage”. Both fonts were nearly universally adopted by the industrial design community, and appeared on a number of automobiles in the 1970’s and 80’s, and their look is still in use now. Other fonts are so “typecast” because they immediately suggest a product or genre. Dunkin Sans and American Typewriter are excellent examples of limitations that are presented by usage association.

Subject Association

Similar to usage association, and arguably even more stereotypical, are typestyles associated with a particular subject. And like usage, some fonts were created specifically to do so, while others were designed to be more general. In either case, these fonts cannot escape an association to the very obvious subjects they were consigned to. However, there are situations where the choosing of subject-associated fonts can aid the personality and communication value of an illustrative assignment. Computer Font, Circus Bold and Western Font, are three obvious examples of fonts that exhibit a subject-based association.

In The Too Much Information Category

“Type casting” originated in the mid 15th century in Europe. The term refers to a process where molten lead and alloy were cast into moulds to form individual letterforms for movable type printing. This practice, known as letterpress printing, is still performed today by custom artisan printers. The alternative term, “typecast”, is generally credited to have originated in the late 19th century and related to an actor repeatedly being cast in similar roles. It now carries several additional meanings, including a couple that relate to our present subject of association, such as “a thing that represents a class or a category”, and “represent or regard as fitting a particular stereotype”.


The images below are examples of various kinds of typographic association. Focus was placed on the style and usage of the fonts in posters and illustrated logos, not necessarily on the illustration style itself. However, in most cases, the illustration style and typographic choice play off each other.

Architectural association. Poster by Anderson Design Group.

Historical association. Poster by TLC Creations.

Aesthetic association. Poster by the Olson Agency.

Cultural association. Poster by The Craft Shop.

Usage association. Poster by Dave Ault.

Subject association. Poster by the Greteman Group.

Architectural association. Logo by Brandon Pickett.

Historical association. Illustrative logo by Mieke.

Cultural association. Logo by widestudio_IT.

Aesthetic association. Designer unknown.

Usage association. Logo by David Howie.

Subject association. Logo by S-de.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Typography For Illustrators: 3. Context

Context has many contexts, how’s that for a conundrum, so it’s important to explain context in reference to typography for illustrators, but first the non-illustrator explanation. To clients and contractors, the “context” of an illustration assignment usually refers to the purpose for the project, it’s distribution and timeframe, the demographics of the intended audience, the personality of the product, and that of the client, it’s marketability, cost, etc., in other words, the pragmatic criteria for the assignment. These non-visual criteria form the frame of reference for the overall assignment.

And now the explanation of context as it concerns an illustrator’s use of typography. When it comes to selecting and using type, illustrators can employ their natural sense of visual connoisseurship to make aesthetic decisions. This is the fundamental rationale behind choosing and applying type in “context”. Illustrators, being highly visually literate, have an easier time with typography by considering its “context” within their illustration. The physical visual attributes inherent in the compositional arrangement, illustration style, and artistic media used, all provide direction for typographic decision-making, and influence the types appearance.


The application of typography based on context involves a close assessment of the native use of form, and the appearance of elements within an illustration. Type should be examined for it’s form rather than read for it’s content; context in this sense refers to visual context. The illustration should also be analyzed for it’s style, composition, and use of color to establish the visual personality and traits desired in it. Mirroring the visual stylistic traits in an illustration, or deliberately posing a contrast to the appearance of the visual elements, can then sponsor the choice and use of type.

Typographic Similarity

Selecting type by choosing fonts that display similar visual traits to those in the illustration is a very practical method for ensuring pleasing results in completed work. This visual approach to the coordination of typography in an illustration, or along with it, is a very intuitive process. This applies whether the illustration will be either pictorially dominant or typographically dominant. Below are some  examples in a few media categories that demonstrate type choices based on a desired stylistic similarity.


Illustrative identity by Full Steam Marketing & Design.
Illustrative identity by Dave Titus.


Illustrative poster by Victor Hogg.
Illustrative poster by Vectorscksprojekt.


Illustrative editorial spread by Melinda Bleck.
Illustrated story spread by Hazel Mitchell.


Illustrative package by Kendrick Kidd.
Illustrated packaging by Quantum Graphics.

Typographic Contrast

The method of selecting type in contrast to the natural style and visual traits in an illustration can be visually effective, but is more difficult to coordinate. Again this method involves an analysis of the pictorial aspects of the illustration. It also involves an assessment of typographic forms for the purpose of discovering contrary form. This is a more difficult decision-making process than that of seeking typographic similarity. Below are some  examples in a few media categories that demonstrate type choices based on a desired contrast to their illustrative counterparts.


Illustrative identity by Steven Noble.
Illustrative identity by Seven Thirteen Creative, Inc.


Illustrated poster by Saeed Younan.
Illustrative poster by Kristine Chatterjie.


Illustrated editorial spread by Bethany Salisbury.
Illustrated editorial spread by Dennis Wunch.


Illustrative packaging by Estudio Clara Ezcurra.
Illustrative labels by Manifesto Design.

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.