A beautifully-painted square wheel!

Fifty years ago, the eminent English typographer Stanley Morison gave this definition of his craft.

“Typography is the efficient means to an essentially utilitarian, and only accidentally aesthetic, end, for the enjoyment of patterns is rarely the reader’s chief aim.”

That quotation is included in many text books on typography. Usually, however, that is as far as the quotation is taken. But Morison went on to say this: “...any disposition of printing material which, whatever the intention, has the effect of coming between author and reader, is wrong”. This study is dedicated to exploring Morison’s second tenet. The intention is to show that certain typographical elements not only do not encourage reading, but actually discourage the reader by throwing unnecessary distractions in his or her path, thereby interrupting reading rhythm.

The student who browses through a collection of today’s magazines could be excused for thinking that typography largely had been replaced by abstract aesthetics and artistic inspiration. Morison it appears, has become one of yesterday’s men, and with him the English academic Herbert Spencer, who said: “The true economics of printing must be measured by how much is read and understood, and not by how much is produced.”

The new wave of design, in which publications and advertisements are conceived in the hope that their content of information will fit neatly into the artistic design created for them, or in which they have become merely a package created on the basis of divine inspiration, is nonsensical.

Design is not, or should not be, mere decoration and abstraction, but part of the business of communication.

The concern should not be for the beholder’s — or creator’s eye for beauty. It should be for those who, it is hoped, will read a publication and gain sufficient from it to want to buy it again, or the product it is advertising, or both.

But how frequently are opinions on the invalidity of a typographic design cast aside, displaced by the view that legibility isn’t important if the product looks exciting?

This is absurd. A design that looks exciting but is incomprehensible is nothing more than a beautifully-painted square wheel! Newspapers, magazines and advertisements should be vehicles for transmitting ideas, and their design should be an integral part of that process, and forever under scrutiny.

Good design is a balance between function and form, and the greater of these is function. This is as true of typography as it is of an Opera House or a space shuttle.

Typography fails if it allows the reader’s interest to decline; it fails absolutely if it contributes to the destruction of the reader’s interest.

Source: Communicating or just making pretty shapes
by Colin Wheildon