Tuesday, 12 October 2010

Type | Poetry | Kathryn Lewis Interview

I felt that this week’s occupation with ‘Type’ would be a fantastic opportunity to interview the freelance graphic designer and typographer, Kathryn Lewis.

In the years that I have known Kathryn, I have seen her turn her hand to all things type-related, from book-binding to web-design. Her experiences have given her a superb insight into various avenues of the publishing world and she has proven an invaluable resource in my consideration of how we can help poems to live on the page in the most visually unimposing manner possible.

We got together this evening to discuss all things typographical in the first of what I hope will be many Silkworms Inkterviews.

Here’s how it went down…

Phil Brown: Good evening Miss Kathryn Lewis... would you mind briefly introducing our readers to who you are and what you do?

Kathryn Lewis: Good evening Phil, I'm Kathryn, I studied Typo/Graphic Design at the London College of Communication and am currently working for an independent book designer. The studio I work for is very small, and we mainly design high-end art catalogues and produce a lot of work for galleries and museums

Phil Brown: Over the past five years, I'm guessing you have come into contact with a lot of graphic designers... how could I easily spot one in a crowded room?

Kathryn Lewis: I could generalize terribly here!

Phil Brown: There has never been any harm in glib generalizations and pigeonholing that I am aware of...

Kathryn Lewis: Of course there's a stereotypical idea of what a graphic designer looks like. For the most part the stereotypes are pretty true! I admit when my eyes started to fail me from staring at my iMac screen for 12 hours a day I did go out and buy black-rimmed glasses. Mannerisms though… A tendency to be obsessively compulsive and/or have perfectionist qualities. An in-built cringe gland for spotting Comic sans Many a designer has bonded over disgust for Comic Sans

Phil Brown: Bloody old Comic sans.

Kathryn Lewis: We love to hate it.

Phil Brown: Ever seen a thick-rimmed, check-shirt graphic-design kid blunder into college with a piece of work they had laid out in Comic sans?

Kathryn Lewis: Only ironically...and never with serious intent. Although what's kind of worse is when people don't even know what typeface they've chosen. At least if you've chosen Comic Sans you know what it is and why you've decided to use it.

Phil Brown: Onto another ubiquitous font: Helvetica... how do you feel about it?

Kathryn Lewis: Crikey.

I think Helvetica is a non-choice nowadays. I think the documentary by Gary Hustwit really cemented that for me. Did you see the furor about the new Gap logo that exploded recently?

Gap recently decided to roll out a redesign of its classic logo, which was met with baffled animosity from the design world. They'd just replaced the blue square with serif type, with a pretty boring corporate-looking Helvetica clone. There was genuine confusion as to what the brand was doing. So much so that Gap has ceased the roll-out of it and returned to the logo we all know and ignore… for now at least. People get very passionate about this sort of thing, especially online.

Phil Brown: Do you have any thoughts on what the least edgy clothing line in the existence of retail-fabric was playing at?

Kathryn Lewis: I originally thought it was some sort of publicity stunt but now I believe it was just a major error on their part (read: cock-up).

Mistakes happen, just look at the Tropicana disaster. Peter Arnell will not be forgiven.

Phil Brown: Do you think that there is more harm to be done in changing the typeface than the name itself (I'm thinking of Opal Fruits, god rest their soul)?

Kathryn Lewis: Now that you mention it, yes, I do believe so. When you're looking for something, be it in a book, in a shop, in a street your eyes will pick up the colours and shapes of something first. If you have a successful brand it can be crazy to alter it completely as it becomes familiar to people.

Phil Brown: One thing I would like to speak to you about is serifs… for the uninitiated could you briefly disclose the difference between serif and sans serif fonts and why it is important to make the distinction between these two families?

Kathryn Lewis: Serif typefaces are recognisable by the extending lines at the end of the character's arms and legs and sans serif typefaces are, as the name suggests, without these additions… they aren’t families, but the two fundamental styles of typefaces you can get.

Phil Brown: From a typographer's point of view, why is it important to distinguish between the two?

Kathryn Lewis: Well of course you can't help but distinguish between the two. But they are of course appropriate to use in different situations. It is rare to see lengthy pieces of text set in a sans-serif typeface. If you do see this, unless it's used very well it can often jar slightly when you read for extended periods of time.

Serifs are seen as a little easier on the eye in situations like this.

You have to also consider the cultural or historical associations of typefaces. Serifs stemmed from handwritten documents, speaking generally they are inherently more old-fashioned. sans-serifs came later and are associated with modernism: clean lines, no ornament or clutter.

All these things should be or could be at the back of your mind when selecting typefaces for a project.

Phil Brown: Do you think this 'jarring' effect is nature or nurture... do we want our lengthy text in serif fonts because it is what's expected or is there some deeper reason?

Kathryn Lewis: There are people who believe that the serifs help ease your eye along the lines on a page. I’m unsure if I believe this is such an important factor. There are many other things to consider when setting type that have an effect on the legibility of a document.

Phil Brown: you have mentioned that (very broadly speaking) serifs are better for a longer piece of text. Given that poetry rarely gets to the end of a line, do you think it should be the natural progression for typographers to lay out poetry in sans serif fonts?

Kathryn Lewis: I've had a little experience in typesetting poetry for a book, and I do believe it's one of the more difficult challenges, but in regards to serif versus sans serif typefaces, I think due to the inconsistency of line length (within poems, or within a book of poetry) I think the choice should be made depending on the style of poetry it is.

For me, either works, and it really is down to how the poet or designer feels about their work and how they want it to be portrayed.

I think the moral is, don’t underestimate typeface choice as it does have an effect on the reader, even if it's generally subconsciously.

Phil Brown: If you take yourself back to your early days of laying out text on a page, what has been the most valuable lesson you have learned?

Kathryn Lewis: I would have to say it's rather the little things that you pick up from working with great designers. Things like, always make all-caps sections of text half a point size smaller with slightly increased kerning. Or make the leading of paragraphs breaks half the leading of the paragraphs themselves.

These things may sound ridiculous to people who are perhaps not as familiar with the process but they make all the difference. Typography is a micro world where all these little decisions come into play. And you wouldn't notice it because the idea is to make something as effortless and pleasant to read as possible.

Unless you're David Carson of course.

Phil Brown: How do you feel about Carson's aesthetic?

Kathryn Lewis: I'm ever so slightly envious of designers like him in a way as I could never do what he does to type! I don't particularly like it but it must be nice to have that freedom to use type as art. I like my characters to line up neatly whereas his rebel!

Phil Brown: And to finish with a couple of glorious clichés… what is your favorite typeface to work with?

Kathryn Lewis: It will change of course, but right now I love the combination of Arnhem and Zurich. They are both beautiful typefaces. They just look right, that’s the best way of describing it… and for me they set each other off really nicely. Plus, I have a bit of a thing for combining serif and sans serif typefaces... there are no rules really you see!

Phil Brown: Finally, everyone and his dog seems to be having a go at Photoshop Elements these days... what advice would you give to anyone seriously considering entering the world of graphic design?

Kathryn Lewis: Leave Photoshop in the dock, grab yourself a copy of InDesign and find that local band to creat album artwork for. Immerse yourself in the design blogs, scan books, visit exhibitions, find out what you like. University is optional. Take it from there.


Anyone wanting to get in contact with Kathryn can e-mail her here.

Phil Brown
Poetry Editor

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