Like many disciplines, there’s a science and art to design. On the science side we rely on foundational principles, use logic to make rational decisions, and study sciences like psychology and neuroscience to better understand an audience.
On the art side consider that most design principles are more guideline than rule and with all the decisions you have to make during a design, there’s hardly time to apply the scientific method to all of them. For most of the decisions you make, you have to use your subjective judgement and trust in yourself.
The Art of Design
The larger object is noticed before the smaller one. The red element grabs your attention before the blue one. Something moving draws your eye. These things can be tested and measured scientifically. The problem is designers need this information in reverse.
We don’t need a red object, a large object, or a moving object. We need to design something so it attracts attention. The previous paragraph offers three possible ways. Which one should you use? Therein lies some of the art.
You have to make decisions without knowing if they’re right and you have to trust they are right once you’ve made the decision
It’s an art to chose the best of many workable solutions. It’s an art to balance the many possible best solutions that work together to form a big picture best solution. It’s an art because there are few, if any, absolute rules to tell us which option is better. You have to use your own judgement to decide.
There are so many decisions to make on even a simple site that there comes a point where you have to go with your gut and trust in what it tells you.
You develop this trust by learning the guidelines and observing designs. You develop confidence in your decisions through critical thinking about design in general and your own designs in particular. You rely on things from the science side of design to build your confidence for working on the art side.
The Art of Choosing a Typeface
Type fundamentals aren’t too hard to understand. You can learn the anatomy of type and the anatomy of a typographic grid quickly. You can pick up the most important guidelines in a relatively short amount of time. There’s body and display type and different ways to categorize every typeface such as serif and sans-serif or humanist and old style.
You can learn to harmonize the relationship between font-size, line-length, and line-heght. You can lean on design principles like scale, proportion, and hierarchy to help determine these relationships.
What I find more difficult is deciding which type expresses calm and which exudes energy. What’s difficult is choosing a typeface that expresses the same things you want your design to express. While you can lean on guidelines and the advice of others, in the end all you have is your eye to guide you.
The art of choosing a typeface requires you to develop your eye to make your choice. You need to develop trust and confidence in your eye and judgement so you’re not be second guessing yourself all the time. Trust your decision and move on to the next one. It’s about putting in the time and effort to observe, think, and decide to the point where you trust yourself to make a good choice.
How do you know if a typeface is legible and readable at a certain size? Build a web page using that typeface at that size and as close as possible to how you might use the type in your project. Take a look at it. Is it readable? Legible? That’s how you know. You decide.
It’s ok to seek opinions more expert than your own, but try to use those opinions as a fallback after you’ve first sought your own opinion. In time you’ll learn to trust in your opinion more.
How I Make Type Decisions
Typographic decisions are some of the first decisions I make about any website. However, before I even start looking at typefaces, I’ve talked to the client and defined the problem. I’ll have a concept to work from and usually have a short list of descriptive words the design should communicate.
For example say a client wants to communicate they’re both friendly and attentive. How might you choose a typeface that communicates those two things?
Friendly suggests to me something softer and rounder as opposed to harder and sharper. Attentive suggests something that stands straight up and down, ready and alert. A typeface may not instantly grab you as friendly and attentive, but you can make comparative judgements by asking yourself if one typeface is rounder or more straight up and down than another.
To choose I’ll look through collections of different fonts and those commonly installed on computers. I’ll look to services like TypeKit or FontShop and I’ll look to free fonts like Google fonts and Font Squirrel. I might make a decision like serif or sans-serif for the body type just to add a constraint and then spend time looking through fonts, collecting a few I think are friendly and attentive or whatever qualities I’m seeking.
I’ll take a second pass at the fonts I’ve collected as possibilities and narrow the choices down to two or three. With a manageable list, I’ll build a simple web page using the most realistic copy I have and start experimenting with font-size, line-length, and line-height.
From there I’ll look for a display font to pair with each of the few options I’m considering for the main copy. Once again I’ll think about the descriptive words and do my best to seek a font I think communicates what I’m after.
I’ve yet to find a site that lets me search the word “friendly” and have it return a list of ideal fonts to use. Instead I use my eye to decide if the characteristics of the typeface communicate what I want the type to communicate.
I’d like to tell you that I’m 100% certain in my type choices, but I can’t. I can tell you that the more I look at fonts and the more I think about them and the more effort I put into making each choice, the closer I get to that 100% certainty with each new decision.
Because it’s unlikely I’ll ever be 100% sure of every choice I make, I have no problem leaning on those who know more than me at times.
I’ve searched for lists of fonts other designers think are designed well. I’ll seek advice on which fonts work well as pairs to fonts I’m considering. In between projects I learn what I can from those who know more, so the next time around I can be more confident in trusting my own opinion.
In the end you only have your judgement when choosing typefaces for a project. Over time you can improve that judgement by learning what you can and applying what you learn in combination with any observations you make.
If you want a friendly font, think about the characteristics of type or the ways to classify type and ask yourself which characteristics or classifications are friendlier than the others. You don’t need anyone else to tell you. Make your own judgement. Practice the art of design.
When first learning design, I looked for objective and absolute rules everywhere. I didn’t find them. I’ve since learned much of design comes down to trial and error. Not necessarily for each design decision you’ll make on a project, but rather in training yourself for the art of design.
There are plenty of guidelines in design. Some are easy to understand and put to use. Others require more context to understand and more subtlety to use. The few rules we have that can be scientifically backed still require an art to decide when the rule applies and should be used.
Choosing a typeface and determining proportions for size, measure, and leading are part of the art of design. You have to make observations and use your judgement to decide what a typeface communicates. You have to relate proportions to the goals of the design and perhaps use trial and error to find the right proportions to use.
It’s the same when working with color or choosing what grid should hold your content. There are no recipes to follow that automatically lead to good design. You have to make decisions without knowing if they’re right and you have to trust they are right once you’ve made the decision.
Design isn’t art, but there’s an art to becoming a good designer. You have to experience design, think about it critically, and ultimately learn to trust in your judgement and decision-making abilities.
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