When type is here, and then gone.

Friday, August 16th, 2013 | Blog, Theory

Here’s the talk on the Speakers Series at Academy of Art University.

Type is all around our modern environment. From contemporary technology to books half-millennia old, typography has a rich history and pedigree. The study of typography is more vital and alive then ever, and no where is that more evident than the utilization of type in time-based media and motion graphics.

Type in motion is primarily display type. The duration of the reading act is fixed by the designer in time-based media, and therefore long forms such as a book are all but impractical and exhausting. When laying out type for printed matter, designers may typically refer to those imbibing the content as the “reader”. However, in time-based media and motion graphics, we commonly refer to our content consumers as the “audience”. Type in motion creates a unique reader-audience hybrid with specific considerations and limitations.

This means type needs to have specific functionality: typically working as a headline, a series of credits introducing other segments, or as quantitative display for the audience. Typographic systems are created to inform the audience of important information, but rarely are the main focus of what is seen on screen, such as with news, sports, or network scheduling displays in broadcast television. This fracturing of the audience’s attention can be explicit such as in a 24-hour news network. Designers assume the audience’s ability to read when placing type on screen, but the moment of comprehension is assessed through a variety of factors.

The moment of comprehension refers to the moment in time in which the audience “gets it”. This can be linked to the reading of the text, or can be combined with other factors, oftentimes, audio voice-over. Designers use the tension of unreadability to the eventual moment of comprehension during a transition to drive interest from one text passage to another. The pattern and rhythm of presenting one data point to the next is the essence of type in time. When type is on-screen, but not legible by the audience, it is known as being dissonant. When the type phrase is in a holding pattern, it is known as consonant. It is fully legible and the assumption is that it has been comprehended or is in the process of being comprehended. The duration of consonance is also casually referred to as as the “hold time”. How long should type hold on screen for an audience to read it? The answer is more complex than one might imagine, and is varied based on an array of factors– some of form, some of function, and some of content.

Contrast- Contrast is created by various means, but the most common methodology is color and transparency. When type is 100% transparent, it has no contrast and therefore is unreadable. However, even at 10% opacity, some amount of the type is visible, and then audiences will begin to make meaning of the type that is presented to them. Note, that you can also easily create contrast with typographic means such as weight changes, but as these properties are practically unchangeable over time, this differentiates them into the category of typographic styling.

Typeface Choice — The choice of typeface makes a difference in dissonance to consonance time. An extremely decorated black letter typeface will take more time to be read by most modern audiences. This is somewhat cultural and historical. With the advent of modernism and san-serif typography, modern audiences will find the time to comprehension much faster when reading sans-serif.

Editorial Sequence- What has happened before and after in the edit will also make a difference in the time to comprehension. If an audience is asked to keep track of a running list of terms, objects, or concepts, they will require more time to read. Likewise, if they are predicting a word because of its place in sequence such as “Red, Green, B____” they in all likelihood will be able to comprehend “Blue” much faster.

Aural- Voice over and sound design can add to consonance and dissonance in complex ways. The most obvious example is a voice over reading the same text as presented in the onscreen typography. This speeds up the time to comprehension, almost to instantaneousness. It also can present an interesting opportunity for the designer- if something is read, it does not nessesarily need to be heard, and if someone is speaking, emphasis can be created with editing the text to only essential words. Additionally, the sound design can describe a space that the type can reinforce. Sound and type can work together to create a third idea. For example, the word “Help” on screen with no other imagery, plus the sound of a storm over the soundtrack may be universal and powerful enough to persuade the audience to donate to the Red Cross. Designers can also play against expectations and have factors actively negate one another. Hearing dialogue over a soundtrack of a woman and man speaking, and then showing the typography of what they are “thinking” engages the audience to read subtext in an interesting way, and comprehension is more complex then the act of reading.

Familiarity- The reading act is not a phonetic one. We assume that the audience reads through the same methodology by which they read all type – pattern recognition. For example, the sentence “The dog is red” may take relatively little time to comprehend not just because of the simplicity of the words but also their familiarity to audience members. This of course, assumes the audience is able to read! When designing media for children, the designer must take great care to craft the experience for an audience that still relies on phoneticism to reach comprehension. Additionally, a word is formed in the mind, and designers must make educated guesses about vocabulary level. This creates some interesting and seemingly counterintuitive scenarios. For example, an audience may take less time to comprehend the made-up and all together absurdly long word “supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” because of their familiarity with the word versus shorter words that they are less familiar with, such as “Transcendentalism”.

Cutural- Familiarity is created through time in a society, and the act of reading is intensely cultural. This is one reason designers who are non-native speakers find animating type in a second language so difficult. The time to comprehension is not a scientific maxim, but rather made up of thousands of free associations and cultural signifiers. For American audiences, the time to comprehension when reading “Mickey Mouse” will be significantly shorter then “Totoro” or “Tintin” even though the latter two take less time to read mechanically.

Believe it or not, this list of factors in which the duration of type should hold on screen comes before the designer has applied any styling or any composition principles, so there are a litany of other considerations. Through the use of scale, weight, texture, color, position, repetition and more, the designer can impact or account for many of these factors. Common examples might be styling type in all capital letters as opposed to lower case, changing color to address contrast, or weighting certain terms for emphasis or to aid with legibility, readability, and eye flow.

Legibility is the simple act of each individual character or glyph being distinguishable from all other characters in the font. This is separate from the relative readability of type, which is the presentation of textual material in order to communicate meaning. While legibility is relatively more straightforward to adjust and evaluate in a somewhat scientific manor, creating type that is readable includes factors that are situational, personal, and subjective.

Many motion artists and other producers or art directors work for years with rituals, rules, and maxims for how long type should be held in duration on screen, when in reality it is far more complex an issue. When factors such as cultural assumptions are ignored wholesale by content creators who may be a homogenized bunch, the message suffers.

Ignoring the recipients of the design is to do disservice to the message – and the audience.