When we think of setting text, vertical columns of fixed width are what typically come to mind. While this is almost certainly the most common format, more creative approaches can enliven an otherwise traditional layout. Creating shapes with the text can infuse a piece with vibrancy, energy, visual diversity – and even drama.
Prior to digital technology, setting type in a shape was labor-intensive and technically challenging at best, and close to madness-inducing if the shape was the least bit intricate. With today’s sophisticated software, it is relatively easy to define a shape and pour the type into it. That said, setting type in a shape requires clarity of intention, a reason for being. Attention to detail is key – and the rules of good typography still apply.
Popular categories of shapes for text include representational, geometric, and random or abstract. A figurative shape such as an animal, a bottle or a piece of fruit is instantly recognizable, sending a message before a single word has been read. A shape, such as a circle or globe, a triangle or pyramid, or a heart can reinforce a theme or illustrate a point. An abstract, seemingly arbitrary shape can impart excitement, a sense of calm, or dynamic tension. The form you choose should help communicate your visual (and sometimes literal) message, as well as support the purpose and intention of the overall design.
Now comes the rigorous part: the execution. When creating a typographic shape, bear in mind the best practices of good typography. These include minimizing the number of very short lines that can be difficult to avoid in narrow shapes, and keeping hyphenation to a minimum. When applying justification to type shapes, aim for balanced word and letter spacing, and avoid rivers of white space. Uneven spacing can reduce readability, jeopardizing the reader’s interest.
Achieving the best visual and contextual outcome occasionally calls for minor revisions to the text itself (with permission, of course!). Other useful techniques include inserting manual line breaks, and subtly altering the shape to minimize typographic improprieties. The text content is always more important than the shape in which it is set – but taking the time to fine tune the shape, the spacing and overall typography can yield an eye-catching and memorable result.
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- Editor’s Note:Ilene Strizver, founder of The Type Studio, is a typographic consultant, designer and writer specializing in all aspects of typographic communication. She conducts Gourmet Typography workshops internationally. Read more about typography in her latest literary effort, Type Rules! The designer's guide to professional typography, 4th edition, published by Wiley & Sons, Inc. This article was commissioned and approved by Monotype Imaging Inc.