Learning to see Type

So it seems well established that a key part of being able to design type is the ability to see type; that is, to see all the optical illusions and being able to judge colour, optical spacing etc. But I was thinking, how do you keep the ability to see these things consistent and what if you begin to overcompensate? 

For example when looking at overshoot, isn't it possible that a type designer is so used to seeing and being aware of overshoot that over time they require more and more overshoot for it to *look* right? Optical illusions are just that after all. And how would this play into catering for the everyday viewer reading type? 

Another example, the theory that we see diagonal strokes—right down to left as thicker than left down to right, is super interesting if it is due to writing techniques. I wonder if this illusion is stronger for people who have experience in said writing techniques or if type design. Am I just overthinking things? 


  • Am I just overthinking things? 
    When I was a student my Schrift professor said to me: you think too much.
    I have been thinking about this (!) from time to time, since then.

    When I was teaching Schrift, I said to my students: link seeing to thinking! For type design (and other disciplines) it is essential to understand what you see. That may sound trivial but it isn’t.

    When you learn to see – overall important, right! – that is not about illusions. It is about visual facts. You mention good examples: overshoot, thicknesses. When you have learned to watch these phenomena properly you won’t demand more of it over time, but you keep the ability to see and maintain the balance of things or effects, which, I would say, is crucial.
  • Chris LozosChris Lozos Posts: 1,074
    Generally, you learn these things and they stay with you.  You may get better at it but this is not overcompensation, it is like getting new glasses.
    The only thing for me that is problematic is after long periods of working only on italic fonts, upright text starts to look strange.  This does not last long so it is not difficult.
  • Antonio CavedoniAntonio Cavedoni Posts: 3
    edited April 10
    Daniel, these are all great questions to think about. In fact, I believe they are central to what we do as type designers. 

    I think the key is being able to see things in the environment they will be used at or at least that they’re aimed at. So for instance, if you are deciding on the overshoot size for a display face, then you should really judge if your initial guess is correct at display sizes. 

    The optical compensations our eyes and brain do are size-dependent, so in my opinion it is hardly possible to make one set of outlines that will look perfectly compensated at all sizes. That can only be achieved with optical sizes—whether interpolatable or not. 

    A good rule of thumb is to start with uncompensated shapes: make the lines / angles /  measurements, etc. actually geometrically correct / aligned / symmetric, etc. 

    Then take a step back and look and see what you feel: does something feel low or light or high or bold? You’ll be surprised when things that are mathematically aligned actually look misaligned! A typical case is the arms of an X. Once you have identified something that feels off, see if you have the same feeling when enlarging or scaling down the glyph. If so, make some adjustments and judge them at the size you care most about.

    It is of course possible to start developing habits and thus overcompensate when there is no need, like you were mentioning. I find it’s good practice for me to ask colleagues if they see the same distortions as I do. In order to second-guess your hunch it also helps to tilt your head sideways, or to flip or rotate the shape to see if the distortions you see are emphasized or removed. (This is also a good way to see if a curve is smooth or not, by the way.)

    Try to focus on one aspect at a time when doing compensations, to isolate it from other variables in your design. Sometimes compensations are related, for example on round shapes the amount of vertical overshoot at the top is often the same as at the bottom, but more often I think the compensations can be done independently. Once you apply them to one glyph then it’s worth going over other related glyphs and seeing if the same compensation is necessary there, too. I find it is generally the case, but you may also find exceptions this way.

    Correct, evaluate & repeat.

    As to your question on whether the corrections are necessary because of how our eyes are used to a specific writing system or not, consider the fact that what native Latin readers world consider “reverse” contrast is considered “normal” by the Arabic readers, and vice-versa. That said, I would also be wary of trusting anecdotes like that to try to explain visual phenomena. The processes that happen between the letters and our brains are very complex and still not fully understood. 
  • Since type design is nowadays a mostly digital discipline, here is one that gets me regularly: Numbers. Yes, you want to measure, and check, and keep consistent, but in the end, numbers are as much your enemy as they are your friend. Just like you might get over-reliant on experience with optical compensations you get over-reliant and over-trusting in your tools.
  • Alex VisiAlex Visi Posts: 39
    edited April 10
    But I was thinking, how do you keep the ability to see these things consistent and what if you begin to overcompensate?
    Have you ever seen a non-amateur overcompensated font? :wink:
    I think it’s the same as musical ears – you learn how to hit the right note, not higher, not lower.
    If you think you overcompensate things, just forget about compensations and put your typeface into context; you’ll see any mistakes if they are there.
  • Not quite, Mark. When a compensation is well done the uninformed layman doesn’t see it. But I do, we do. Yes Alex, the musical ear is a good comparison. You hear the right tuning of a note. I see the vertical compensation of an O, the tiny differences in the 3 bars of an E or, that a, e, s are too small in many typefaces.
  • Mark SimonsonMark Simonson Posts: 915
    edited April 11
    So, you're seeing when it's lacking, which is what I said. (I guess it's two sides of the same coin, depending on how you look at it. I'm not really disagreeing with you.)
  • Vasil StanevVasil Stanev Posts: 122
    edited April 11
    Learning to see the balance between positive and negative space is something you learn with the time, much the same way like drawing a hand, a face or a figure - you need the basic knowledge of how to do it right and the rest is practice.

    One thing that we type designers tend to overlook is the size of the shapes. We focus too much on the design part while there is also the legal and the coding side. We work at great magnification (e.g. 700 pt) and tend to believe everybody sees type as we do, when in reality when we set the product in to the wild the type is so small (10-18 pt) that all the kinds of optical compensations get completely lost. It is much, much more important for the code to be right than for the design to be impeccable, same goes for licensing. I am always reminded of great actors or musicians that write a book or draw a painting. Did you know Viggo Mortensen (Aragorn) is a painter? He painting are less perfect than his acting (which I highly praise), but they got sold for a pretty hefty sum. Paul McCartney fancies himself a painter. He's not by any stretch, but made a buck or two from his work, as far as I gather. My point is , if Aragorn and McCartney can sell rubbish subperfect products, there is no reason for us to let an anchor point slip under the rader here and there if the type sells and deadlines are kept. Most people wouldn't know good from bad type if you educated them for hours.

    To summarize: 1. get the basics right (which parts should be thicker then others, which thinner, don't set the type too tight, know these-and-these pitfalls, etc.) 2. polish your skills with many fonts and learn the details. The eye will get trained, no worries. ;)
  •  or, that a, e, s are too small in many typefaces.
    Such as? You mean you make them wider, or taller as well?
  • slightly larger (hor./vert.).
  • Thanks for all the helpful comments everyone, I guess it's just a matter of experience and getting rid of some self doubt.

    I often find when coming back to something I worked on for a while with fresh eyes, new issues arise and issues I thought I resolved are still there. I wonder, is it generally a bad idea to work solidly on one single issue? 

    I'm sure eye fatigue plays a role in all of this. I'm curious if anyone have any insight into general workflow in regards to keeping your perception "fresh". Do you make small incitements over lots of different glyphs over a period of time? How often do you switch between digital work and physical proofing? How often do you take breaks? etc.  
  • Chris LozosChris Lozos Posts: 1,074
    I always find that what I thought was quite finished 2 weeks prior, has become just another step in retrospect.
  • Ben BlomBen Blom Posts: 228
    Daniel Veneklaas: I often find when coming back to something I worked on for a while with fresh eyes, new issues arise and issues I thought I resolved are still there.

    This is a characteristic of many creative endeavors, and is usually considered to be a good thing.

    For instance, when writing a text, a usual advice is to stop when you feel you are (nearly) done, and then look at it again after a while with fresh eyes—because then you may see a lot of things which can be improved.

  • AbiRasheedAbiRasheed Posts: 143
    edited April 17
    I've run into this issue numerous times and still do. What I've learnt is it helps to have some degree of skill to see this by merely eyeballing but more importantly training your eye to see it by studying material is even better. I think if you did some lettering that would help too because lettering more often than not is less calculated and more free-form. Training your eye to see unusual type helps a lot too, like ornamental type, even escheresque like. Unsual looking type helps in a lot of ways where you can learn kerning, odd negative spacing, weighting, all sorts of things. If you draw up a specimen of your own it makes the exercise even more challenging because you're not gonna find answers in a book specific to your design so much of what you do will rely on your eye. You could try this exercise with unusual looking numerals because there's only 10 glyphs there so you don't feel overwhelmed. Other things I do that help to see illusions or jto check anything wrong with the type are just zooming in and out, squinting or blurring your vision to look over printed text, mirroring text, applying a gaussian blur, flipping text upside down, sideways, etc. Also I've noticed that things like grids or geometric shapes make it harder to train your eye to see odd visual imbalances and so I personally remove all that just to see the type on it's own and it kinda helps if you ask me. Other exercises that come to mind that help are working on odd alignments? Like say centering the letters 'AT' in a circle, or just any odd alignment where it relies on visual balance and less mathematical. And as always just taking a break and coming back to it helps a ton or just getting a second pair of eyes to look at it and give you some feedback.
  • Alex VisiAlex Visi Posts: 39
    I found myself overkerning things, is it the same problem or is it just a lack of experience?
    For example, when the kerning is correct there’s still more space between AV or LT than between HH, which sometimes confuses me.
  • Kent LewKent Lew Posts: 739
    I found myself overkerning things, is it the same problem or is it just a lack of experience?
    Context, context, context. (And experience.) Try not to kern in a vacuum. That’s my advice.
  • Thomas PhinneyThomas Phinney Posts: 1,006
    edited April 27
    Overkerning is mostly a lack of experience, yes. It is a very common beginner (and sometimes even intermediate) problem.

    The simplest beginner mistake is just to kern too tightly in general, so that kerned pairs look tighter than combinations that didn’t need kerning in the first place. Not everyone makes this mistake, and if they do, they usually get over it pretty soon.

    The next error is to kern the "weird combinations" too tightly. LV, LT, AV, WA, Vo, Wa, To etc. The general rule of thumb is that the more of the glyph lengths that are close to each other or intertwine, the the more you can back away from making them mathematically the same distance apart as, say, the simple verticals. So because "AV" has a longer distance close together, those two lines should not be as close as with "HH"; leastways, that’s how I think of it.

    But how much looser? It depends on whether the typeface is optimized for text sizes, or very large sizes. I am still sometimes surprised by how loosely these latter combos are kerned in text typefaces by master type designers! In display (very large) sizes, they can be close to as tight as you might have been tempted to do. In text sizes, you might be kerning half that much. Or something like that.
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