Typesetting is Back

The term “typesetting” might sound a little outdated. You might think of a Linotype machine with its impossibly large keyboard. The truth is typesetting is as modern as ever and getting more sophisticated by the day. It will always be needed in professional settings and should be handled by an expert because it’s a specialized skill.

Typesetting has become really complex with designers having to compose for multiple viewports. Graphic designers for the screen — most designers these days — go to great lengths to get type right for various scenarios. That is, until they send the work to production.

We have all experienced the design-production volley. The design is sent to production to be assembled into code. But of course things don’t end there, it gets kicked back in QA. Before you know it, the work is stuck bouncing back and forth between production and QA, in the process receiving hundreds of little dents of compromise. When the banging stops, one can only hope for “not terrible.”

The developer + QA model is painful but also really expensive. And everyone knows these types of waterfall structures are incredibly inefficient.

The modern day typesetter is both designer and programmer. They address the needs of typography and design at the code level. For Creative, they provide design continuity and typographic perfection. For Production, they make production-ready UI code, to spec.

The work is simply done. The project does not get stuck in QA and there is no confusion about the direction. There is only translating the design in code.

You might be asking “why conflate typesetting and UI production?” Because UI production with an understanding of typography results in better quality output. Modern UI production should be 95% typesetting.

Here’s a rough list that hopefully makes a good case for typesetting. Perhaps it will convince some to at least consider incorporating it into existing workflows.

5 Reasons for Modern Typesetting

1 Many agencies have programmers assembling UI. Programmers aren’t usually experienced in the areas of typography and design.

Consider this (   painfully oversimplified  ) scenario: Developer assembles the design into code. Designer is unhappy with the result and blames developer for ignoring design details.

Sound familiar?

Why in all these years of designing for the screen have we left typesetting up to computer programmers? Programmers will be the first to admit they can’t set type. What when they just get beat up for trying? And it’s a pretty low view of the craft to expect someone with no practical experience to be able to set type with any ability. Mostly, it’s only designers who are qualified to set type. But as we’re all familiar, many designers don’t code.

The modern typesetter is both designer and coder which makes them uniquely qualified to handle the typesetting properly.

2 The smallest elements are usually the most important. Whoever is setting your type might not understand the importance of such details.

Chances are your audience is most exposed to your brand through type — overwhelmingly through the small letters of body text. One might say “But those letters are too small to have any meaningful affect.” That is of course a typical misconception of the typographically uninitiated. While the letters themselves are of immense importance — their spacing even more so — the consideration of the micro is by definition what makes the difference between typing and typesetting.

These tiny details are most easily accessed by typographers and type designers. Graphic designers that make it a point to focus on type in their practice can as well. The ability to affect typographic detail is the practice of typography and typesetting.

Remember, good typography is conspicuous by its absence.

3 Design and production are separate — you can’t do both simultaneously even though it might seem so at times.

Although you set type when designing, the final setting — the propagation of the typography to all contexts — is production. They are two separate concerns. Once you’re programming rules for breakpoints, you’re doing production. You might say “Well, that’s design too!” The truth is, while you might think there is free will in setting type, your setting is largely at the mercy of the type’s internal structures. And while your design may push the limits of a type’s unique requirements, that too should be addressed in production, to translate pushing that further boundary to the rest of the composition. There is design and then there is production. As a designer constructing the experience, are you going to also handle the myriad of tiny adjustments required to set responsive type everywhere and across all viewports? Probably not to the extent it needs. Most design shops don’t, even though they say they do (see also the first point above). More often than not, design gets compromised in endless QA loops anyway, right?

For a designer, using a typesetter can be uplifting but mostly just super convenient! Tell them what you need and they’ll just handle it, maybe also in places you never considered.

4 Many fonts are imperfect, requiring adjustment.

Bad quote spacing comes to mind. Many of the best typefaces are poorly spaced. Some revivals are copied straight from metal that was never kerned. You don’t get points for being faithful to an unfinished design. Many designers operate with the view that a particular typeface is safe to use provided enough other people are also using that face. Unless you’re intricately focused on typography, it will take more than a decade working as a graphic designer to begin seeing typographic detail of any fidelity.

Your readers are affected by typographic details, regardless of their “seeing” them — regardless of you seeing them. Having a typesetter dedicated to smoothing all of the tiny inconsistencies is immensely valuable for a brand.

5 Some of the best graphic designers don’t set type very well, and that migth be what makes them great designers.

We have all heard the quote “Good designers copy, great designers steal” which was, you know, stolen from Picasso. Copying is a fast way to get up and running but flatly following trends cancels understanding. The result is blind faith in the latest thing. Let’s be clear, some really great design has been made this way and we all used this exact same approach to learn how to design. But typographically speaking, stealing manifests as a font that seemingly sets itself through an infatuation with a certain style and that’s where the knowhow stops. One of the best graphic designers of our time, who shall remain unmaned, once told me that an optimal line height is set so “the ascenders and descenders almost touch, but not quite.” Yikes.

Consider using a typesetter:

for the tiny details, so you can tend to the big ideas…

so your designs make it through production, intact…

to translate faithfully the DNA of the design into code…

to do the production, so you can focus on the design…

… because everyone deserves beautiful typography.

Glyphic is a brand strategy consultancy serving publishing, LMA (Libraries, Museums, and Archives), and adjacent markets.

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