You can think you see the letters you read in books, emails, signs and, well, the world, as clear as day, but you don’t. In reality, the individual letterforms that make up words must be drawn counter-intuitively and idiosyncratically to match how the brain perceives visual balance. Type designers should use a series of visual tricks that make you think the letter B is balanced above and below, and that VS and J have the same height, even when they are not. All this to say that the letters you read all day are not what they seem. In fact, character design itself is a craft of illusions.
But unlike most magicians, Jonathan Hoefler reveals his secrets. The typographer and founder of Hoefler&Co. recently explained on his blog that he and director Brian Oakes wanted his episode in the Netflix documentary series Summary: The art of design be more than a profile; it should “offer viewers some practical insight into the mechanics of the craft itself”. He has now made these lessons available for free download on his website, no Netflix subscription required. Here are some of the “typographic illusions” explained by Hoefler.
To go past: Make round letters, like the letter VSand flat letters like J appear to be the same height, the round letter should be drawn so that it is actually taller. The amount it extends beyond the flat letter is called “overhang”. The same technique should be applied to diagonal letters like A, Vand Oalso, since we perceive letters with strokes that converge in a point as smaller than they really are.
Balance: “Another thing that we consistently rate poorly,” Hoefler says of Hoefler&Co. Blog. “This may be a remnant of how humans evolved to process the physical environment, intuitively recognizing that distant objects appear smaller than nearby ones.” Take the letter B. The top half should be drawn smaller so that the two halves appear to match.
Contrast: In type design, it refers to “one of typography‘s greatest paradoxes: that lines appear thicker when oriented horizontally than vertically.” To accommodate this, type designers draw much thicker verticals than horizontals. This J may seem equal, but it’s really just because your brain infers that it is.
“Anisotropic” – referring to how the behavior changes depending on the direction – “contrast” applies to S as well as. It is thinner at the top and bottom, thicker in the middle, and has a general slant to the rear. Return it S and you will not find a mirror image.
So why does our mind play tricks on us? It could be physiological. A theory mentioned by Hoefler, based on a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciencesis that “because our brains have evolved to accommodate the three-dimensional world, expectations that relate to two-dimensional forms often do not apply. When there is a disconnect between what we see and what we expect to see, we experience this as an optical illusion.
And while these illusions are most closely associated with typography, they can also have ramifications for graphic design, affecting how we perceive everything from a single arrow to logos and entire visual systems, according to Hoefler. The best way to solve these design problems is to know them. With Hoefler’s new tools for teaching typographic illusions, it just got a little easier.