28 June 2012
A manual for readable typography
Inclusive Design: Clear and Large Print Best Practice Guide for DesignersPublished by RNIB / ISTD<br>
A colleague once invited me over to see the latest additions to his collection, some hardcore Max Bill (few things were more invigorating for me at the time). Being the inscrutable book collector, my friend had devised a test. On display were two A4 journals. Both designed and authored by Bill, one from his early years and one from later life. What did I think?
The first was a cold and systematic blast of white space, small sans serif type, columns, ranged left with three out of every four lines hyphenated to allow for the constraints of the German language, the crisp half-tone images bleeding into yellowing edges. My blood was racing. The second journal was very different. The paper was also fading, but the design was significantly different. Sans serifs were still the order of the day, but where Bill had used eight point set to small measures the type had grown to fourteen point and was set at a large and uninspiring measure across the page. The layout was simplified and stable. All the tension of the earlier design had gone. Disappointed I made noises about the later piece, suggesting that Bill had lost his Modernist principles.
In fact, the answer was simple. Bill was a practising designer late into his life. The second journal was designed to accommodate his needs as his eyesight altered. The first piece exuded the spirit of the age; the second, of his actual age.
Inclusive Design reminds me of Max Bill’s later work: clean, simple and a good piece of communication. Set in 12 / 16 Foundry Sans, this manual is close to neutral. The information within has been carefully distilled to provide prompts to designers seeking to make items with legibility and clarity.
Produced as a two-thirds A4 sheet manual and presented in a four ring binder, the format is a little unconvincing but the content covers all the basics. This contributes to an odd retro feel. Working from the word outwards, detailing the appropriate use of type, from type sizes, weights, typefaces, use of numerals, alignment, wrapping, kerning, letter spacing and word spacing, line length and so on, and developing the theme into print production details. At one time designers were educated in traditions that laboured over these principles. That age is gone and one is struck that Inclusive Design is a worthy addition to the beginning of an everyday design education, let alone a reminder of the special needs of the partially sighted.
Inclusive Design is stylistically close to the branded house style publications the Design Council pushed out during the 1990s and similar to some ‘house’ items produced by the ISTD. There are, however, recent departures from the principles of Inclusive Design from
both organisations, which exemplify the dilemma of the designer. Do you follow the system and keep up standards of legibility? Or do you design something interesting that exudes individuality and expresses the designer’s personality? The Design Council’s Futureproofed certainly breaks the ‘guideline rules’ of Inclusive Design, as does the ISTD’s recent International Typographic Awards 2004. Both have an individual appearance: the former rooted in the vernacular of London design style, while the ISTD Awards brochure is more bespoke. Both are interesting because they break rules and, heaven forbid, exude the mannerist tendencies that my tutors, steeped in Tschichold’s history, would have beaten out of me.
Looking at both contemporary pieces I am reminded of a regular scene at my family home. ‘Anno Domini,’ my father would mutter in frustration as he squinted at his broadsheet, adjusting the focal length between his reading position and the content at regular intervals. As someone who read for hours every day, ‘designers’ designed’ publications were impenetrable to him and he would have welcomed the principles of Inclusive Design.
Would a young Max Bill have designed something for my father to read? I doubt it. When he did, it was because they then shared the same frailty, which for Bill meant design manifestos and ego took second place to the function of being able to read the content.