Monday, April 24, 2006

Why Stacked Type Just Doesn't Work
As a graphic design instructor, I often see projects in which students stack type. That is, they vertically stack letters one atop another as in the vintage neon signs shown at left (fig. 1). The format was used because it was readable from a perpendicular angle to the storefront. Stacking the type enabled the signmaker to make the letters very large while enabling a secure attachment to the side of the building.

In print however, the format appears awkward. The first issue is that we are used to reading individual letters from left to right. Stacking type forces the audience to read the type in an unaccustomed to manner (fig. 2). The resulting jerky eye movement draws undue attention to itself.

Secondly, our eyes are drawn to the varying set widths of each letter (fig. 3). This is especially true if the word contains both the letters "I" and "M." An agreeable solution might be to rotate horizontal type 90 degrees. When set horizontally, all capital letters are more consistent because they are of the same cap height (fig. 4). Similarly, upper and lower case lettering is unified by a consistent x-height (fig. 5), and even the greenest students are sensible enough to avoid stacking upper and lower case type. (Ugh!)

The resulting arrangement of type suits tall, narrow layouts and avoids the problems resulting from stacking type. An example is type set on a book spine.

So students, the next time you are inclined to set stacked type for a project, think again. Keep these stylistic considerations in mind. Chances are, stacking type is not the strongest solution to your graphic design problem.

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