The Great Debate: Legible vs. Expressive

It’s one of the biggest dilemmas designers face: How much legibility are you willing to sacrifice in favor of achieving a certain effect? (Also, do you brush the cheese puff crumbs off your shirt right there at your desk or do you at least attempt to get them into a trash can?)

Friend of IBD Phil Sexton came to us with this question (the design one, not the cheese puff one) in regards to one of his projects, a poster for Eagle Theatre in Old Town Sacramento. The building, the first structure built specifically for use as a theater in California, was in use during 1849 and 1850.

For inspiration, Phil and colleague Robert Mistchenko looked to playbills appropriate to the period, like the one pictured here, the famous Boston John Wilkes Booth playbill from March 18, 1865. Of course, there was a problem, which Phil describes:

One of the great and fabulous things about old handbills is their total disregard for any design sense; indeed to our 21st century eyes, they are nearly impossible to read. If we were to be absolutely true to those times, our information would be nearly impossible for some people to decipher, and probably be seldom read. If we objectively meet good design standards, it would conflict horribly with our mission, and would stick out badly.

Designers love these old playbills, with their slab serifs and their wood type, precisely because they violate every rule in the book, but they are truly terrible at conveying information.

The most obvious rule these playbills violate is that you should limit your compositions to two typefaces, typically a serif and a sans serif. We encourage designers to select two typefaces carefully according to their specific needs and what they intend to say about their site or organization, then stick with those typefaces as part of a larger identity system. (There’s some leeway here for a third typeface, if it’s decorative and used more as an image than for conveying information.)

The intent of this rule is not to prevent designers from having fun, but to prevent interpretive media from looking like those placemat menus at diners (like the one from Uncle Bill’s Pancake House in Ocean City, New Jersey, below).

As with all design rules, this one can be broken effectively. This spin wheel at the New Belgium Brewery serves the dual function of conveying a sense of fun and confusing visitors who have exceeded the limit of four free samples in the tasting room.

Of course, none of this answers the question we started with. While there is no simple answer, I say you should at least attempt to get the cheese puff crumbs in the trash can, but if a few miss, don’t worry, the cats will get them.

In regards to that other question, I think it’s the designer’s challenge to achieve balance between legibility and appropriate, pleasing aesthetics, but we should err on the side of legibility. I believe our first obligation is to the information we’re meant to convey, our second to the aesthetics.

That being said, truly effective graphic design does both well. The solution Phil and Robert came up with maintains the aesthetic of the old-fashioned playbills, but uses only two typefaces. Of course, this poster does a lot of things that we discourage (using all caps, skewing type, and centering, to be specific), but all of these rules are broken in the name of achieving a certain aesthetic and conveying a certain meaning, so in all cases they are justified (well, they’re actually centered, but you know what I mean).

Phil reports that the final product will be printed on parchment paper with weathered edges. He first indicated that budget constraints were preventing them from printing on specialized paper, but Phil is a tormented soul and caved to the little design devil on his shoulder.

Ever since Phil asked me about using 19th-century playbill typography in contemporary design, I’ve been noticing around town this poster for the Fort Collins Winter Farmers’ Market. It uses the old-school playbill aesthetic, but with contemporary twists like color and peppermint mocha splatters. (That last part may be related to the fact that this particular poster was found in the Dazbog coffee shop near my office.)

While I think the Farmer’s Market folks have done a nice job with this poster (though the bright colors seem a little incongruous), I’m a little skeptical, because I doubt they’ll have cheese puffs there.

Get to Know a Typeface! Minion

Normally, on this site, we write about expressive typefaces that evoke strong responses. And since Shea and I are bitter, unhappy people, we write about typefaces that are easy to hate like Comic Sans and Papyrus.

Minion, designed by Robert Slimbach in 1990, is one of those typefaces that only a typographer could love (not that other people dislike it; they just don’t notice it). If Minion were at a high school dance, it would sip punch with its back against the wall trying not to make any sudden movements while Curlz MT and Mistral breakdanced in the middle of the floor. Meanwhile, Comic Sans would try to make his friend Marker Felt laugh so hard that milk came out his nose and Papyrus would be smoking in the girls room. (This metaphor may be starting to break down.)

The Elements of Typographic Style by Robert Bringhurst is one of the most influential books on typography. It discusses everything from the anatomy of individual letterforms to how to choose and combine typefaces, from the basics of effective composition to the history of the field going back more than 500 years. Some designers call it the Typographer’s Bible, and it’s set in Minion. (The cover pictured here is from an old edition of the book; I used this one instead of the newer one because it’s the one I’ve had on my shelf for about 10 years.)

Minion is a serifed typeface designed in the “classical tradition,” which is designer code for “It was designed to look like pretty much every other serifed typeface out there.” What makes it so great is its flexibility. If it played high school sports, it would never make the football team, but I can guarantee you it would make varsity running cross country. (Meanwhile, Comic Sans would play sousaphone in the band and Papyrus would smoke in the parking lot and make snarky comments about how people who play team sports are such conformists.)

There is nothing to dislike about Minion. Sure, typographers who like to argue about the tiniest of details will say things like, “The slight upward angle of the cross-stroke of the lower-case e is too whimsical,” but it’s expertly designed to maximize legibility, and the practical advantages to most designers are immeasurable.

In short, the advantage of Minion, specifically Minion Pro, is that it contains more characters (called glyphs) than most other fonts. A small fraction of Minion’s glyphs are pictured here; you can see that it has a lot more versions of the letter O than you’re likely to ever use. When I laid out an article in Legacy magazine that required unique characters from the Hawaiian language, Minion Pro was the only typeface on my computer that had characters with the diacritical marks I needed. The cover of The Elements of Typographic Style pictured above pays homage to the importance of glyphs by featuring 11 of them based on a lower-case a in a row in red.

Minion Pro has multiple weights (bold, semi-bold, medium, roman) plus old-style letterforms and small caps. Most typefaces simply use small versions of upper-case letters for their small caps, while in high-end typefaces like Minion, small caps are upper-case letters specifically designed to be read at smaller sizes.

Beyond the practical benefits of a large character set, there are aesthetic applications as well. Suppose you were setting the word “Phlegm” at a display size and wanted give it that extra bit of flair we all know it deserves. Most classical typefaces don’t give you many options, but among Minion’s many glyphs are traditional characters that contain swashes. The swashed m in the top “Phlegm” is just that much more elegant than the traditional version underneath.

Another important feature of Minion is ligatures, where certain letters in sequence are joined. Most classical typefaces include “fi” and “fl” ligatures, but Minion Pro includes many more. The top example of “Office” here features an “ffi” ligature, while the example underneath does not. (Most of the time, your computer will default to any ligature included in the font you’re using when the appropriate letters appear in sequence. I had to trick the computer into not defaulting to the ligature on the second example.)

Some interesting typographic trivia (if there is such a thing): The ampersand (&) derives from a ligature of the letters E and T (et is Latin for and).

Like many who were scared to talk to girls and who were not that great at sports in high school, Minion found a niche in the grown-up world where it is appreciated for its strengths. These days, Comic Sans thinks about those high-school glory days while it goes to work on take-out menus and garage sale flyers, and Papyrus begrudgingly tries to make a living promoting massage therapists on business cards on coffee shop bulletin boards, but that nerd Minion is the one that finds itself on the pages of the book typographers call their Bible.

Don’t stack type! (Okay, maybe just this once)


donutsIt is a commonly understood rule of typography: Don’t stack type. “Stacking” type is the practice of aligning letters vertically one on top of the other, as with the “Homemade Donuts” sign found on the Ocean City, New Jersey, boardwalk seen at right here. Letters are meant to be read side by side, and stacking them severely inhibits legibility. (It does not, in fairness, make boardwalk donuts any less delicious.)

As with any rule, there are exceptions, and we came across one at the Navy Pier in Chicago tonight. The photograph above shows a work of typographic public art found on the pier. We searched for a deeper meaning, but ultimately realized that the sculpture spells out the call letters of local radio station 91.5 WBEZ FM (perhaps not quite the same level of social commentary as Robert Indiana’s famous “LOVE” statue in Philadelphia, but at least it’s a public station). Obviously, this is not “stacking” type in the traditional sense, but it gives us the opportunity to think about reasons to break the typographic rules that guide our compositions.

harry_carayWe wrote yesterday about the elegant type in the ticket line for the Sears (Willis) Tower observation deck. The photo here from that site shows the solution for those tempted to stack type. You can still set it vertically, but you’ll be happier with your composition if you turn the type on its side so that the letters are next to each other instead of on top of one another.

Writing on the water?

As interpreters and designers we are constantly searching for the latest and greatest way to express our themes/concepts in a way that will be memorable and provoking. Malcolm Gladwell in The Tipping Point calls it the stickiness factor. We want our messages to stick to visitors, though not necessarily in a literal way.

IMG_0164At the Field Museum today we saw a unique way of allowing visitors to interact with type. An entrance to a new exhibit about water had projected text on what else but water. The effect allowed visitors to walk through a wall of water (ultra-fine mist) that was also emblazened with the word water written in many different languages. Since the wall of water was not a perfect canvas, a well-chosen, clear, bold, sans serif helped improve legibility. The cool blue lighting also added to the effect. Paul and I were intrigued by it so much that we didn’t even notice when my youngest child (William, age 2)  found his way on a nearby elevator with strangers. The doors closed and they quickly returned him. Paul and I were immediately placed in “time out” by our wives and separated from each other for 15 minutes for lack of focus.

After seeing the entrance and walking through it, there is no doubt in my mind that you would not forget what that exhibit hall is all about. It was also very warm in Chicago today so it was a nice opportunity to remove some of that stickiness.

Ask a Nerd: Are Script Typefaces Legible?

Dear nerds,

I have been thoroughly enjoying the many discussions about different typefaces. I’m wondering what your thoughts are about scripted type (type that copies cursive handwriting). Some coworkers of mine and I have had some interesting discussions about using scripted type for subtitles on interpretive signs. Althought it might “set a mood,” my concern is that it might be difficult to read for certain audiences. I know studies have been done on the effect of all caps on reading speeds. Have you encountered similar studies that look at the effect of scripted fonts for interpretive panels?

Thanks for your continued help, Cal


There has been a lot of research on typography, much of it contradictory or too specialized for general usefulness. Also, as my grad school roommate Kristy Pennino points out, most of the research is done by behavioral psychologists and not typographers. Still, there are certain points of agreement, like the fact that upper- and lower-case letters are more legible than all caps, as you point out.

Here’s an important point researchers agree upon related to your question: Regular, roman (not italics) type is more legible than slanted, italics, or oblique type. Typically, these studies relate to italicized versus roman type, but since most script typefaces are slanted, you can draw your own parallels. You can find a couple studies related to this subject on the Education Resources Education Center (ERIC) website:

EJ416365 – The Effects of Italic Handwriting on Legibility: The Methods and Findings of a Three-Year Study

ED265540 – An Evaluation of the Speed and Legibility of Italic Handwriting

Another important factor is the difference between legibility and readability. Certain typefaces are more legible than others because of the clarity of their design. At a certain size and/or a low enough word count, however, even less legible typefaces are still readable. That is to say, if you have few enough words and a large enough point size, you can get away with using a script typeface.


philswinIn the examples here, the traditional serif typeface Adobe Garamond is more legible than Edwardian Script. In the longer sentence at the smaller point size, “The Phillies are World Series champions,” the script typeface is difficult to read and should not be used, but in the simple, two-word “Phils win!” both are readable and either one would be acceptable.

An article on Wikipedia (I know, weak reference, but it’s still a good point) has this to say:

“If the columns of a newspaper or magazine or the pages of a book can be read for many minutes at a time without strain or difficulty, then we can say the type has good readability.”

Think about how long you are asking visitors to read certain passages when making decisions about your typefaces. Once you get one short phrase or sentence, I’d err on the side of the more traditional, non-slanted typeface for better legibility.

One community, one typeface



I learned about the Basque people who live in southern France and northern Spain while studying French in college. (I majored in French  to ensure that I would not be burdened by some cumbersome “job” or “career” when my studies were over.) The Basque community exists within the political boundaries of France and Spain, but it is culturally distinct and its members speak a unique language unlike any other European language (much like Yankees fans within the rest of the United States).

When I visited the Basque region in 2007, I was struck that whenever the unique Basque language was represented visually, from the names of restaurants painted on windows to official parking signs, the same typeface was used, even when it was drawn by hand. This is an instance where a specific typeface is used not to evoke a certain emotive effect or even accentuate legibility, but rather as a signal that the text is meant for a certain audience. In an environment where multiple languages are present, readers of the Basque language know immediately when information is directed toward them.

I found this to be an effective way to use a distinctive typeface.

Even if we do not incorporate multiple languages at interpretive sites, we can still draw from this example when choosing typefaces. For instance, type related to wayfinding might be set in a certain color or style while interpretive text on panels or in exhibits might be treated differently. Some sites may choose to treat type related to natural heritage differently than that related to cultural heritage. Or type for sophisticated, educated audiences might be set in a classic serif typeface, while type for Yankees fans might be set in Comic Sans.

Whatever the distinction, detailed guidelines and consistent typographic treatment can serve as visual signals for visitors looking for specific kinds of information.