Trust your Typographic Eye

One afternoon when I was a newbie designer, I was cutting some thick board paper into several parts. My boss happened to be hanging around, watching.

I wanted to impress her with my precision and carefully measured with a long metal ruler, and made small pencil marks where I was supposed to cut. I was trying to make all the parts perfectly equal. Then she impatiently said, “what are you doing? Use your eye!”

I don’t trust my eye, I thought, so used to hearing that young people should deliberately do things the hard way so that they learn.

She shooed me off the mock-up area and took over. And took the big sheet, positioned the metal ruler somewhere that looked like the middle and just sliced it nice and smooth. Then handed it back to me to continue nervously. I did not have much confidence in my optical perception. My boss, meanwhile, had a superior eye and could see everything.

What I didn’t know was that you can learn that over time. But first you would need to keep using your eye. Exercising your vision. Not necessarily to cut all parts of a sheet into equal sizes, but to think and judge as you design. If you don’t get it right, just keep doing it, and eventually your eye will get sharper.

Consider the following principles, and hopefully they will convince you of the importance of your eye and that though you may be often unsure, ultimately you can trust it as you work on improving your perception and sense of space.

Optical center is different from mathematical center

If you were to center type perfectly (vertically centered) on a page, it will look a little lower than center. It’s not your eye tricking you, that’s how we all see it.

Mathematical centered text appears rather low

Designers would center the text using their eye. If you were to measure it mathematically, it’s not really centered. But between mathematical center and optical center, the optical is the one to follow. Because after everything is done, the design must look good and make sense to the eye.

Kerning is done with the eyes

When type designers kern (determine the spacing for each letter when paired with a specific other letter) all the combinations of their alphabet, they adjust with their eyes. There is no magical instant kerning tool in type design. Moreover, the eye trumps the ruler.

Attempting to kern my first humanist typeface

But weight, there’s more

When I attended a short type design workshop by Jean Francois Porchez, they provided a bunch of materials: calligraphy pen, ink pencils, masking tape, tracing paper, graphing paper. And no ruler.

We drew 80% of the time with our hands, and used the computer in the last hours only. Which I loved. But we also used our optical judgment the whole time, to evaluate details such as size, weight, and proportion. “Use your eye,” even when drawing the guidelines, Jean Francois advised.

We need to consciously use our eyes.

When learning type design, 80% of the work is done by hand

There was one time my boss, let’s call her the Imperial Ruler, said to me “what letterspacing is that?” And I said, auto. Her eyes got big and I felt some steam. She said, “Don’t let the computer tell you what to do; you tell the computer what to do!”

(Later on she also praised me for excellent kerning on a logo, and it was also “auto” but I was so embarrassed and scared of her response, I didn’t say anything.)

Type designers use their eyes to judge things. Similarly, graphic designers use their eye when typesetting. It may be awkward at first, and you may have no idea what to look for but there are some basic principles to start with. They use their eye to judge the weight of a paragraph, readability, balance. Even when you don’t know the principles, your eye has a built-in capacity to see things. Most people don’t see it because they don’t think they can. But really, you have no choice but to trust your eye because that’s what you’ll use for practically everything. You will use the computer to align things, but sometimes it doesn’t get it right either (because of letter shapes and their quirks) and you have to see that.

So the good news: yes, you can trust your eye! Trust is after all the starting point for most things. And the more you use it, the more you can trust it. And enjoy it.

It’s such a relief that type design is not robotic; a lot of it is drawing, imagination, and creativity. A lot of it also is ridiculing boring typefaces like Times new roman, and encouraging each other to do something different, and using type to test it out.

Type is human. Design is human.