Old-style figures.

As ridiculous as it sounds, I quit my job and started my own practice because of typography.

Back then I was working with a boutique agency. It was a good studio – good bosses, good people, good pay, good clients – no real reasons to quit. The final straw was when, the boss, stormed into the studio and said:

“This is wrong! How can you not see the mistake? The fonts are corrupted. The numbers are going up and down! You should have spotted it. Quickly redo everything NOW, we need to show this to the client very soon.”

That was it. I spent a week on that book project. I knew perfectly what I was doing.

I was setting the numbers in text figures, otherwise known as old-style figures.

Usage of text figures / old-style figures

I had read Robert Bringhurst’s The Elements of Typographic Style cover-to-cover numerous times to validate, explain and defend my work. It’s the book. Hermann Zapf calls this book “the Typographers’ Bible”, and Hoefler + Jones considers it as “the finest book ever written about typography”. Robert Bringhurst has to be right.

Robert Bringhurst, The Elements of Typographic Style.

Use text figures in ALL other circumstances”.

My boss didn’t buy it and I had to redo the entire book. Those were the days before OpenType. You have to highlight-select the numbers, go to the font menu and select the equivalent “old-style figure” font. For example, start by setting a paragraph in Adobe Garamond Regular. Then scan through the paragraph and highlight the numbers one by one, and change them to Adobe Garamond Old-Style Figures Regular. In short, it was painful – You need to have a lot of love to do that for a book.

However much I respected my boss, it was at that moment I decided I have to move on. He was a self-taught graphic designer who had a successful career. I was the young guy who was over-exposed to the world of design. Before labelling old-style figures as corrupted fonts, he had also termed Studio Dumbar as retro (when they were probably the most cutting edge in identity programmes), and labelled Metadesign as rigid (when Metadesign was doing the coolest applications with grid systems).

I have to add – he had never heard of Dumbar or Metadesign – not until I showed him their works. And he could not fathom the idea of why I would spend so much money on buying Eye Magazines, because they “don’t show brochures or logos which could be used as references in our work”.

That was 25 years ago.

Years after leaving, and after having to deal with my own clients, I realised he had a point.

Text figures / Old-style figures vs Lining figures

Almost all CFOs, accountants, auditors and financial controllers would raise an issue with typesetting accounts in text figures. They would have dismissed the design as funky or blamed it on corrupted fonts, instead of pointing out the obvious reason – Lining figures is just more legible and easier to process when dealing with financial tables. That’s being practical – that’s how Excel does it, that’s what the world is accustomed to.

If my ex-boss didn’t go all confrontational – from accusing me of making a mistake to selecting the wrong typeface for a project which had consumed a week of my life – I might have stayed on. But my typography knowledge was questioned, and my ego was bruised.

If only he had communicated the problem he could foresee and reasoned it well.

My ex-boss sounds like a lot of clients. Just google “Quotes of Stupid Things Clients Say to Designers”. Many of them directly insult our knowledge of design and hurt our egos badly.

“This font doesn’t work. Can you try Arial?”. “There’s too much white space”. “I like this red. But can you make it more colourful?”. “The UI is fine – it’s on point, but can you make it more exciting?”. “I feel we can add a special transition at 0:29, maybe a dissolve?”

“Could you do an actual logo instead of a font?”

If they could articulate and communicate their issues, instead of commenting directly on the design. But many can’t, and it becomes our job to decipher and resolve.

The other side of the story.

One of the most difficult challenges is to work with young designers.

There are design decisions made by young designers which could easily be picked apart by the eyes of an experienced designer. Wrong grid. Wrong typeface. Wrong set-up. Wrong systems. Wrong pace. Wrong logic. Intuitively, we need to take a glance, and we just know.

The hardest part is to tell the young designers why. Instructional feedback is taken as dismissive and condescending – “change this, change that and get it done.” But as cliche as it is – design is subjective; colours, layouts, typefaces, pacing, UI elements are all design choices. “What you like may not be what I like, just because you are more experienced doesn’t give you the rights to boss over me.”

In many interviews, I have heard this common reason for quitting. “My boss doesn’t appreciate my ideas”

The truth is, not all designers are articulate. They are visual-oriented, and they are driven by intuitions. They just know what works and what doesn’t, but they can’t describe exactly why. But working with young designers requires the need to articulate the problem behind the craft, and not directly critique the craft. Not the flexibility of a 12-column vs 8-column, but why the need for flexibility. Not the colour choice for hover and on-click behaviours, but why the need to have that animation or interaction. And not about choosing the right font vs. old-style figures, but why lining figures are needed for tables.

That’s the dilemma. Deadlines are pressing. Clients are demanding. It is always easier to send a list of instructions and expect the juniors to just do it. It is tiring to define the issues and explain the reasons behind the required changes. And be prepared for the occasional push-backs, or in some cases nasty tantrums and confrontations. “Why don’t you just present this version to the client? Let them see my version, why change it now?”

Two days ago, I chose to D-I-Y on an Adobe XD file, instead of communicating changes to a young designer. This is usually the last resort. It’s not only me – Many of my friends, despite having a team of employees, still prefer to D-I-Y when it comes down to this. It’s the same as Chief Creative Officers and ECDs rewriting copy. Design Directors reworking layouts. Film directors editing their own films. It is simply easier and faster. It is tiring, but it is just physical tiredness, as compared to being mentally drained out.

Who has time for creative debates and arguments, when the deadline is tomorrow?

The Elements of Typographic Style, Version 4.0 is the 6th Edition. It is a must-read if you are into typography. To get an idea what the book is about, here’s a link to typographica.org’s review.

Caslon type specimen, 1915, from Tholenaar Collection can be found on Online Letterform Archive, which contains a precious collection of digitised printed design.

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