More than once, I‘ve heard this question from young designers, “why should one know typography? So-and-so just did their own thing and now they have 50K followers on Instagram.”
Instagram may be here for now, but may not be forever, so the validation is fleeting. Nor can the social platform correctly measure what is effective design, rather only indicate what’s popular at the time. Instafame does not equal fortune.
If your main goal is to gain Instagram followers, well then, I guess you don’t need to obtain typography fundamentals. However, you can build a successful design career on the foundation of typography and design mastery.
I’ve asked seven experts and legends in graphic design why typography mastery is so important to one’s design career. Here’s what they said.
1. The sophistication of the typography separates a good designer from the crowd.
“These days, there’s a plethora of freelance designers and newly minted design graduates looking for work. When I review design portfolios, it’s always the sophistication of the typography that separates a good designer from the crowd.
“The fact is that sophistication isn't easy to come by. Design students are asked to be proficient with so many platforms, tools, and media. So much to learn in so little time at school. Developing a sensitivity to typography requires special focus, dedication, and usually the influence of a great teacher, or two.
“I truly believe one of the great callings of a designer is in making information clear and inviting; helping to make the world a less cluttered and confusing place. Masterful typography is the ultimate secret weapon.”
2. Mastery of typography and design is vital and a serious impediment to material success.
“Mastery of typography/design (it’s hard to separate those two) is both vital and a serious impediment to material success. We’re in the age of “good enough,” and it’s easier to produce volume if you’re not sweating every detail. Aiming for perfection is a pain in the ass for you, it’s a pain in the ass for your clients. It can make you seem “difficult” to work with. It certainly doesn’t make you cheap. Good enough is easier, perhaps it’s more fun, too, because, you know... “Whatever. It’s all good!” But in the long run, being “good enough” is a spiritually impoverished existence. Striving for mastery lays the foundation for a career that lets you become your best artistic self and connects you with other people who see the world the same way.”
3. Only the most distinctive of graphic designers who produce truly unique work will survive.
“Right now the whole future of graphic design, including typography and type design is up for grabs given the level of automation around the corner. Only the most distinctive of graphic designers who produce truly unique work will survive. Too many designers are just designing to latest trend that will soon be translated to an algorithm, leaving them way out in the cold... and unemployed.”
— Louise Sandhaus, Graphic Design Faculty at Cal Arts and author of Earthquakes, Mudslides, Fires & Riots: California and Graphic Design, 1936 – 1986
4. A mastery in typography and design is an expectation.
“With all of the great teachers and technical tools available in schools today, a mastery in typography and design is an expectation. A truly successful design career is, as always, built on powerful ideas.”
5. Mastering typography means mastering the ability to see.
“Assuming a “successful career” means consistency in creating good design and communication, the connection is fundamental. As pigment is the painter’s medium, typography is the designer’s medium. The more knowledgeable and skillful the designer is with typography, the greater the impact the work has. Mastering typography means mastering the ability to see.
“Usually good typography skills are developed through rigorous training from teachers with a lineage to the masters. The best typography teachers are adept at history, drawing, and observing—resulting in a level of discernment that cannot be developed quickly. It takes years of focus, practice, and dedication to craft. Understanding the minute details of typographic forms and how they translate imbalance to balance, brings confidence to the designer.”
6. A big part of the expression of any design solution is typography.
“A big part of the expression of any design solution is typography. It’s highly important to have not only the basic competency, but to really understand that typography is the backbone to communication.
“For an organization that is looking to solve a business problem—be it a service design or customer experience brief—even in those rough phases, a designer needs to present journey mapping and research in a way that’s easy digestible. That may come in the form of a report that you might distribute to your client, or slides, a keynote presentation, or internal communication. Not just the end thing; such as a website or wayfinding signage.
“Typography begins well before that. A lot of the progress to a successful design outcome is fundamentally from a typographic execution. If you have that understanding, you are using design holistically.”
— Ram Castillo, Design Director, Author, and Founder of Giant Thinkers
7. The better your type and design skills are, the better the results and the quality of your work.
“Young designers have an amazing selection [to choose from] but no reference points. The more designers use type and have good models, on and off-screen, the better the attention to detail.
“Design education needs to include more exposure and study of history and practice of typography and its evolution. Basic practice of scale, readability and contrast, mixing type and styles needs to be studied and exercises with specific objectives should be introduced and repeated. Practice, review, redo and clarify are the edicts. The more you use and practice, the better your overall work will be.
“If you want to progress; financially, and in your critical career, the better your type and design skills are, the better the results and the quality of your work. We need more design and type skills in all sectors of communication.”