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Exploring the techniques and methodologies of the craft of visual communication.

Calculated Errors - The Ink Trap


A few weeks back we handed over a large-scale project to a long-term client; the fruit of a few months hard and dedicated work bundled into carefully structured PDFs, PSDs and EPSs. It was the usual stuff; guidelines, specifications, hero screens and graphical assets - what we commonly refer to as deliverables.  The handover is, as you might agree, a special moment in the daily life of any creative; a mixed bag of emotions ranging from the joy and happiness of “completion” to the emptiness of “being done” and the skepticism/fear of “what will happen next”. The reality is that we can’t consider a design project “done” the moment we hand it over, but instead that it is “born” in that moment and that it comes alive in the period after it has left us behind. 

In a way, it takes on a life on its’ own.

Many times our design solutions fail following that crucial handover point, when we no longer control/curate the direction, and when the idea is too complex or demands too much from whoever is taking it over. It might be that we often seek the kind of perfection in our work which ironically ends up becoming impossible to manage for our clients, third-party content providers or in-house design teams. Maybe there are just basic flaws to our design. What might seem a perfect solution for us can break at the hands of others and fall apart, simply because it wasn’t made bulletproof; it wasn’t scalable enough. The question is of course - what can be done to prevent this from happening? What can we, as designers, do to prevent this from happening?

With these thoughts fresh in mind I watched (and re-watched) Jonathan Hoefler’s lovely talk from the Pivot AIGA Design Conference held in 2011, entitled “Type at the crossroads”, where he shares a number of insights into the process of designing typefaces, of shaping ideas into “form”, of constructing scalable design systems and re-interpreting fonts for different media. While I really recommend you spend some time watching the entire clip, there is one specific part to it which made me stop and think specifically on our handover process, on handovers in general and of design projects which end up living a life of their own as we pass them on.

 Numerals from the H&FJ Retina character set (below), compared to Helvetica Condensed (above).

Speaking on the topic of anticipating the media (this part starts at around twelve minutes into the clip), Hoefler describes the process H&FJ went through designing the Retina typeface; a customized font for The Wall Street Journal, specifically crafted for displaying financial data at very small point sizes. Hoefler describes how printing small type on paper creates an issue of bleeding ink; ink which smudges and affects the overall legibility of the characters and further: how the aim of the project was to create a solution which would “show more, in less space, using larger type” (the kind of crazy client request which might seem familiar for many of us).  

As the H&FJ team started looking for a solution they eventually came up with three ideas around which they built their final solution; a set of concepts which helped generating the final result. 1) They designed a set of characters where each letter shape was distinctly different from the other shapes, creating a unique form to letters which would normally be grouped and made to conform (like 8 and B).  2) The amount of white space within the letters was increased to create a lighter feel to the characters and bring more air into the pages, and 3) they utilized “ink traps” to cater/prepare for the moment in future as ink would bleed when printed on paper. Ink traps are basically small dips/curves added to the points where stems meet in the letter shape, a concept originally invented by Matthew Carter during his work on the Bell Centennial typeface in the 1970s (that specific typeface was used to print phone books on poor quality paper). Carter later went on to design Verdana where he used the TrueType hinting technique, another method of incorporating optical and typographical errors enforcing consistency in the final output. Anticipating the media. 

 Ink traps in the Bell Centennial typeface designed by Matthew Carter.

Hoefler goes on to describe a scenario where the final design - their deliverable; the typeface, is merely a connection from the original idea of its' appearance, to the final printed letter shape. The envisioned "form" isn’t realized until the characters are printed in its' final destination, its’ imagined media.

Ink traps in the Retina typeface, using the font as a vehicle of transport from idea to form.

I like the concept of ink traps in a direct sense (as a solution) and I also like them metaphorically, as the output of a creative process is a filter towards the destination, and where the deliverable is a variable.  Ink traps are interesting because they reduce the perceived aesthetic impact of a typeface as a standalone piece of design. They make the typeface "uglier". The spaces added around the stems create an awkward feel to the shape which to some extent reduces the simplistic beauty of the form. The perception of "ugliness" is only valid however, if you look at it as the end result, as the final "form" - when it should merely be considered a connection; a vehicle towards the final form. Perfection then, does not happen when the project is handed over, but when the project comes alive, at the hand of the client, in print.

Phillip Starck's "ink trapped" pasta.

Reading about ink traps I thought about Phillip Starck, who once designed a type of pasta which was twice as thick on one side so that "when you overcook it, eighty percent of the pasta is still al dente". Anyone vaguely familiar with the work of Starck might understand the tounge-in-cheek nature of his approach to pasta design, that the rationale of the design to some extent was about making fun of un-skilled American chefs, as opposed to re-invent the design of a food classic - but there is something about the concept, of anticipating the media, which ties the idea to the concept of typographic ink traps. Starck’s pasta predicts human error, where H&FJ’s typeface predicts a production error. 

The sub-pixel rendering technique developed by Microsoft in the 1990s.

Bringing the topic up internally with some of my fellow frogs, a discussion blossomed around the stories mentioned above, and other examples of metaphorical “ink trapping” surfaced. The concept of sub-pixel rendering was developed by the Cleartype team at Microsoft in the late 90s - (quoting our Seattle-based Associate Creative Director Matt Conway) - “... it deliberately creates color fringing along the stems of letterforms with the goal of gaining some spatial resolution for glyph detail.  The amount of color the system uses is dialed up or down depending on screen characteristics and the color sensitivity of the human viewer (color blind people can tolerate lots of color that would annoy other people).  This is a case of making letters "look worse" especially up close by allowing / expecting a somewhat lower contrast for glyphs through color fringes.  The vertical sub-pixel striping of the LCD screen is the medium here that's being specially exploited to make things look to the end user.”

Matt also shared some insight into the process in which the thinner Courier New was designed based on the classic Courier in the late 90s. According to some sources the outline data used for Courier New was digitized directly from the metal ball IBM electric typewriter “That resulted in glyph forms that were uniformly far too thin and spindly, for exactly the ink-trap reason described below:  the ball was designed to impact paper in a typewriter, and the designers of the ball knew this, making the shapes on the ball "undersized" to compensate.  The digital rendition of "Courier" was a slavish copy of this undersized geometry, and had to be redone as "Courier New" to make the font closer to the design of the font as originally intended.“.

The metal ball from an IBM electric typewriter.

I thought about these stories, the problems posed and their respective solutions and then about problems we face in our work on a daily basis,  primarily in relation to the topic I introduced in the beginning of this article - of handing projects over to clients.  How we should anticipate the media and understand the destination. We tend to strive for perfection only to understand that the solution will fall apart as soon as it comes into the hands of the clients we work for. Could it be possible for us to define and design our own ink traps to prepare for the project handover? Is it possible to find solutions which come alive ONLY when in the hands of clients? Can we better utilize the restrictions of the media we work in, and use it to our own benefit? 

I would like to think so.

Happy ink trapping!


Big thanks to Matt Conway, John Rousseau, Eric Lawrence, Alvaro Marquez, Christian Egea, Clay Wiedemann and Lawson Kight for their shared input and insights.