Proofing & Testing

May 29, 2016

Tools, Contexts, Tricks

Type design, like any other design process, is defined by the iterative approach, making loops back through a cause and effect cycle and aiming to gradually reduce the revisions until such time as the design is complete, and all issues have been resolved satisfactorily. Due to the systematic nature of the shape relationships withing a typeface, however, this process can perhaps be described as an amplified version of the iterative process.

Because of the internal rhythms and behaviors defined for specific kinds of shapes within the overall structure, each change will have a knock on effect on a larger number of related forms. This results in a painstaking proofing process which requires incremental changes, and puts paid to the instinct to make large numbers of changes in swathes.

It can be difficult to predict how a small change will ripple through the complement of characters in a typeface, and how it will play out in the paragraph at different sizes, and the more changes made in one go, the harder it is to identify the change responsible for any more global effects in the paragraph, whether it be an improvement or misstep. In typefaces, the whole is always greater than the sum of its parts.

The proof of the pudding is in the eating Given that this is the background context, one of the biggest and most important tools in the designers’ arsenal is the proof. Having a range of proofs for each chunk of the character set you are tackling, preferably prepared in advance, but at least methodically organized and structured for future use as you move through the process, is of paramount importance. There is no one right way to do this, and it really depends on your own personal workflow, but in the initial stages of the process, the proofs generally need to show:

All the shapes in play at a large size Large enough to see the detail in the form and make notes on specific parts of the shape. The ability to draw directly onto the forms or even use white-out to manually test out solutions is something to be desired here.

Spacing strings at a size where standing back from the printed proof will allow you to see the forms and rhythm at roughly the size it will appear to an average reader in the paragraph. Paragraph setting at a range of sizes. (More on this in Optical Illusions below)

For this last, an invaluable resource is which produces words from the selection of characters you have designed, and allows you to set paragraphs so see how the texture and rhythm are building before you have a full character set.

Context Later, when you have all the character set complete, amping up the proofing process is necessary, and these ‘in-context’ showings should include real-world text and contexts that reflect the environments in which the type is intended to be used, as well as continuing to test for situations for which the type is not designed but in which it may nonetheless be used. Testing this range allows you to see things in the proofs that you not only do not see on screen, but also allows you to optimize the forms and spacing to provide a buffer zone for out-of-context use cases, as well as incorporating the value of happy accidents, where the type behaves in a way that you did not predict, or design, but which offers an interesting atmosphere that you might want to play out and make a feature of unexpectedly.

Below, the designer, Alex Catanese, has selected text and a variety of sizes and contexts and a typographic system in which to test his single-weight ‘literary’ typeface. This allows him to see how it would behave in its real-world context, and by putting it in this context, he can assess whether the typeface behaves as intended, as well as seeing any holes in the family that might be filled with other weights or styles.

In this way, the context and the purpose are interrelated. The context is the environment in which the type will be used, and the genre of content it will be used to set. The purpose on the other hand, is a little more specific than this, and gets to the heart of the hierarchical layers of typographic texture within this environment.

Purpose You might design a typeface for use in life-style magazines, but the purpose of each weight and style of this typeface will be defined by the layers of the typographic system or systems within that context. For example, headline, subhead, running text, pull-quotes, captions, etc. may all be target purposes for a particular typeface or for the individual styles and weights within a typeface family.

Proofing for context allows the designer to more globally assess whether the typeface flavor, personality and atmosphere fits with that of the intended context. Proofing for purpose allows the designer to selectively tweak the type to optimize it for the stated outcomes of the project. Having a clear picture of both from the start makes for an easier workflow overall, and a clearer set of selling points in making the typeface useful to the public.

It should be noted that quite regularly typefaces designed for very idiosyncratic uses have been used outside of the intended context often to great aesthetic, editorial or semantic effect, and that often the brief and intended purpose or context of a type design project may change and pivot over the life of the project. If this is the case, and it often is, it makes updating the proofing to reflect these new contexts even more important, as they will not only help to test the fonts’ behaviors and appearance, but also to define them afresh.

Optical Tricks The reason for the range of sizes in the proofs is largely down to the fact that typefaces are, like any other visual product, governed by the optical illusions and tricks of the eye that will be the final arbiter in assessing the decisions taken in terms of the spacing and the formal vocabulary of the system. Things that look perfect at a larger size, and may provide enough visual interest and tight enough spacing to work well at this scale (which would be good for a display type) often behave in quite different and sometimes unpredictable ways at smaller sizes.

Things that look awkward and funky at large sizes, by contrast, may work beautifully in the paragraph. This is in part because each of these scale-contexts requires different things of the typeface in question. Smaller sizes rely on the proportions being more conventional and the spacing looser to help disambiguate the shapes, whereas at larger sizes, the proportions can be more free but the spacing and the craft of the shapes themselves becomes more important.