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Why Librarian Designers Need to Know about Typography

July 13, 2015

Hello, dear readers! I hope your week is going well and you had a lovely weekend. I can hardly believe we are almost half-way through July, especially with the especially gloomy morning weather we have here in the Bay Area. But no matter, we must carry on with our work and our blogging. Today I want to talk just a little bit about typography and why I think it is so important for librarians and especially librarian designers to understand.

First, what’s a librarian designer? Good question. I use the phrase to denote librarians who have responsibility for graphic design in their library. I’m talking about a piece of graphic design today, typography, which is very important (and fun) for everyone to understand a bit more about. However, it is especially important for librarians who design graphics for their libraries.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot since ALA Annual since I had some really lovely conversations with people during my poster session. I’d been thinking a lot about graphic design in general as I’ve been processing the results of my survey of librarian designers and reviewing what and how they talked about typography in relation to what they’ve designed. I’ve also been reading the book Useful, Usable, Desirable by Aaron Schmidt and Amanda Etches, which is being used by my library’s UX team to look at the over user experience and design decisions at my library. It’s quite a good book and obviously can’t cover everything, but I know a lot of librarians are using the book, so I thought I’d use this post as a starting point to talk a bit more about typography than could be covered in it.

It is difficult sometimes to know what typeface to use when designing a poster, flyer, web banner, etc., especially if there are no guidelines on type at your library. This situation can be made more difficult if you don’t know the history of typefaces or haven’t given a lot of thought about the original uses of various typefaces, why they were created, and what emotions they evoke. So it can be very tempting, as the above book notes, just to pick Helvetica. It seems like everyone is using Helvetica now. But just because everyone is using it, doesn’t make it right for you.

There seems to be a myth that Helvetica is neutral. No typeface is neutral. Every typeface speaks and conveys emotion. That’s why we have different reactions to different typefaces. That’s why we have a different reaction to Uncial than we often do to Comic Sans than to Centaur. San serifs might look more plain than a serif or display typeface, but don’t mistake that for neutrality.

One of my favorite typography blogs, I Love Typography, had a wonderful article on Helvetica, The Last Word on Helvetica?, that I highly suggest reading. It is a great read and reminds us that choosing a typeface is like choosing a tool. A hammer or a pick ax is not always the right tool for the job and neither is Helvetica.

I’m not disputing that a library should have a branding manual that includes typefaces that are to be used in different situations. I’m disputing that Helvetica, or really any typeface, should be considered a default without considering what it is being used for. The same typeface that is appropriate for a webpage content area is not going to be the same that is most useful for a printed newsletter. Nor is it going to be most useful blown up to four inches tall on a poster. We have to consider the content and the format of each project before settling on a typeface. If we don’t take this care, it shows in our designs and they won’t succeed in communicating in the best possible way that we can.

So why do librarian designers need to know about typography? Because it is important. We are visual creatures and we read so much every day. We communicate visually through text and images and if we don’t have thought as to why we are choosing a certain typeface then we are missing out on the opportunity to make that typeface enhance our message. The point is communication and communicating in the most effective way possible. And we can’t do that if we aren’t consciously choosing the type we use, if we haven’t thought of the applicability of the typeface to the product we are creating. That’s why librarian designers need to understand typography, so we can communicate effectively no matter what we are designing.

While obviously this short post isn’t going to get into the history and intricacies of typography, I hope it has convinced you that type is important and shouldn’t be an afterthought. We look at type everyday; it is ubiquitous and important. As librarian designers, it is our duty to understand at least a little bit about typefaces in order to ensure our library can communicate effectively through all our designs. Besides, geeking out over typefaces is fun and we all need some fun in our work.

That’s all I have for now. If you want to learn more about typography, there are any number of wonderful resources available. Obviously the above mentioned I Love Typography blog is a great resource. Right now I’m reading Just My Type, which is wonderful. I loved The Typographic Desk Reference and hope the 2nd edition comes out soon. Thinking with Type is another great reference.

I hope you have a wonderful week. I’ll be back with more thoughts and news next time. Allons-y!

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