Fonts for Complex Data

Retail displays, packaged goods, financial reports and apps all present readers with a dizzying array of data. Here are a few ways to make quick work of their long lists, tiny annotations, and mighty stacks of numbers.

Type designers work with a diverse clientele, and yet common themes always seem to emerge in our conversations. This seems to be the season of complex typography, in which designers everywhere are faced with the challenge of presenting different and competing kinds of information to readers. An agency we’re working with is designing a demanding identity for a fast-moving consumer goods brand; an in-house art department is creating a responsive website for complex financial disclosures; a freelance graphic designer is doing the identity for a local coffeeshop, and discovering the joys and perils of digital menu boards. As always, the wrong fonts can lead designers into sticky dead ends, but the right ones can be immeasurably helpful. Here are some of the things our clients consider when faced with complex typography, and some of the typographic strategies that can be the quickest routes to success.

Strategies for Small Sizes

Information can often be divided into data and annotations. A web form needs a way to distinguish entry fields from labels; a graph needs not only labels for its x and y axes, but most crucially a verifiable reference for the source of its data. (#fakenews, I’m looking at you.) The most familiar and obvious way to establish this hierarchy is through type size, using palpably smaller type to distinguish the content from its notes. But at smaller-than-text sizes, even the most lucid typefaces can become difficult to read, their spacing overly tight, their counters congested, and their x-heights measly. Compare the tiny type in these two examples.

Whitney and Whitney ScreenSmart

Helpfully, there’s an adaptation designed for the web that proves useful in any medium: a typeface’s ScreenSmart fonts, which are designed to compensate for the effects of scale. Above, two compositions using the Whitney typeface, the one at the right substituting Whitney ScreenSmart for the tiny annotations below the graph. ScreenSmart fonts always deliver greater clarity and more comfortable reading at smaller-than-text sizes, making them a useful companion to a multipurpose typeface for setting the fine print.

Dealing with Lists

Fine print is the bugbear of typography not only for its tiny size, but often its prodigious length. Disclosures, disclaimers, and lists of ingredients may be the sections that readers most often ignore, yet they’re among the most heavily regulated part of any typographic object, and therefore the content that’s most heavily scrutinized by an alarmingly large portion of an organization. Hands up if you’ve ever received a request from Legal to fit in a few more sentences once a design has been approved. Hands up if this wasn’t exacly a “request.”

Gotham Condensed and Gotham Narrow

A non-designer’s first impulse is often to reach for a condensed typeface, on the principle that narrower letters take up less space. Yet it’s almost always a better option to make the counter-intuitive choice of a wider typeface, and to set the type in a smaller size with tighter leading. Wider letters have more comfortable proportions, they’re more generously spaced, and they have more ample counters, collectively making them the more legible choice. Above, two ingredient lists in Gotham: at left the passable Gotham Condensed, but at right the far more inviting Gotham Narrow, a family that’s two steps wider. TIP: Use not only a wider font, but a wider ScreenSmart font as well, for maximum clarity.

Working the Character Set

The humble annotation can give designers the chance to flex their creativity, and an excuse to explore the more colorful quarters of the character set. Reference marks, starting with the asterisk and dagger, are sometimes a welcome grace note whenever the subject matter becomes dry, but beware their use if there are more than three notes in a document. Readers can be counted upon to recognize the cycle of *, †, and ‡, but probably not the longer series of **, ††, and ‡‡ — or §, || and #, depending on your house style. If there are more than three footnotes, stick with unambiguously numbered superscripts instead:

Chronicle Text Grade 2 Pro

Superscripts are included in every H&Co font that has a Pro edition, as well as Gotham, Ringside, and Inkwell. TIP: In the text, mark your footnotes with superscripts, which ascend above the cap height. But in the notes themselves, use numerators instead, which are lower on the body. This connects them more clearly with the explanations that follow, and gives them greater clearance from the preceding lines.

Numerics, Numerics, Numerics

The same Pro packages that contain superscripts and numerators contain tabular figures, the most vital part of any composition that includes numbers. Unlike a font’s traditional proportional figures, whose widths vary with the natural shape of each number — from a narrow 1 to a wide 0 — tabular figures are all built on the same horizontal measure, ensuring that columns of data always align correctly.

Tabular figures have a second and equally important characteristic: they maintain their equal widths across a range of weights. (This runs counter to the typical behavior in a typeface, in which heavier weights become progressively wider.) Known as “duplexing,” this is one of the essential characteristics of tabular figures, because it allows designers to highlight individual lines in boldface without disrupting the width of the column.

TIP: The word “tabular” may imply the dense tables that are annexed to annual reports and financial disclosures, but don’t forget how often stacks of numbers appear in other contexts. Tabular figures are essential in menus, indexes, and directories, and anywhere that a design includes prices, statistics, account numbers, or scores — or any kind of dynamic data online. Any digital experience that shows changing numbers such as stock prices, sports scores, product skus, exchange rates, flight numbers, timetables, or membership points will absolutely demand tabular figures. Design your projects with tabular figures from the outset.

Making Creative Choices

Advanced numeric characters like tabular figures and superscripts aren’t the exclusive province of workhorse type families, and not every project demands a sober serif or sans. When a project’s complexity requires a hard-working typeface, but its subject matter invites a more individual tone, look for unexpected typefaces that feature extended numerics. The handwritten Inkwell contains all the features needed to articulate demanding content, but its relaxed demeanor has a natural affinity for entertainment, retail, food services, the arts, hospitality, pediatric care, and even philanthropy:


TIP: If your tables will use only a single weight, consider a typeface whose numbers have equal widths without the regular-and-bold duplexing of true tabular figures. The Indicia, Claimcheck, Revenue and Greenback typefaces in our Numbers collection are designed on a fixed width, as are the cheeky digits in each weight of Inkwell Blackletter.

Branding Custom Collateral

The last mile of visual communications are often the things created not by designers, but by software. It’s frequently the operators of word processors, spreadsheets, and presentation packages who need to speak in the organization’s voice, but lack the tools to do so properly. For these projects, we’ve created Office Fonts.

Isotope and Whitney Office

Office Fonts are adaptations of H&Co’s hardest-working typefaces, specifically engineered for use in business packages such as Word, Excel, and PowerPoint. These are the same families whose ScreenSmart fonts invite use at small sizes, and whose Pro character sets can tackle complex data. Reimagined for the non-designer, Office Fonts are limited to a familiar four styles per family (roman, italic, bold, and bold italic), and feature exclusively tabular figures, to avoid typographic mishaps that might go undetected. (And they ship in TrueType format, for maximum backward compatibility with even the most antiquated operating systems.) TIP: If a brand’s communications will ultimately include custom collateral like reports, proposals, statements, and presentations, design these documents from the outset using Office Fonts, to take advantage of their unique characteristics. —JH

Introducing Whitney Narrow

The Whitney typeface has always been an adroit multitasker. Having grown out of a commission from New York’s Whitney Museum, the typeface was designed to serve two masters: the museum’s publications department, which needed a design both compact and energetic, and the facility’s public signage, which above all required legibility and sturdiness. A later addition designed for headlines, the six-style Whitney Condensed family, made Whitney an even more valuable tool for both publishers and brands.

But one challenge that Whitney has never confronted is the narrow column. As editorial designers know, narrow columns are the bugbear of typography: they’re hostile to wide typefaces, perverting text with overzealous hyphenation, and often demanding that headlines be craftily written. Designers, developers, publishers, and brands now face the challenge of narrow columns every day in the form of the mobile phone: with the ascendancy of apps and the mobile web, fonts are routinely set on a two-inch measure. For these applications — as well as the narrow columns that permeate magazine sidebars and captions, paper packaging, data visualizations, and product literature — we’ve created the compact and economical Whitney Narrow®.

Whitney Narrow was designed to thrive at sizes both large and small. At small sizes, it excels not only in text and informational typography such as charts and graphs, but for rendering the growing universe of fine print that’s often required but infrequently read: the ingredient lists, nutritional information, regulatory notices, disclaimers, and copyright legends that attract compact typefaces. In print, Whitney Narrow renders this fine print with clarity and warmth. For the screen, we’ve created the companion Whitney Narrow ScreenSmart family, a collection of twelve screen-optimized typefaces that’s designed and engineered to perform at sizes as small as nine pixels.

At headline sizes, Whitney Narrow makes a hale companion to the regular-width Whitney. It preserves Whitney’s angular motif (originally inspired by the iconic geometry of Marcel Breuer’s Madison Avenue museum), and features an option to disable these details when they’re not wanted. Above, Whitney Narrow Bold in two different moods: jaunty with its angled stroke endings, and sober without them. These gestures appear in 231 different characters, but can be quieted with a single setting in any application that supports OpenType Stylistic Sets, such as Adobe InDesign, and the Cloud.typography webfont dashboard.

An Appearance on PBS

Typefaces: Gotham and Tungsten

“Off Book” is a series from PBS Arts dedicated to documenting the creative process, and expanding the definition of art. Produced by New York filmmakers Kornhaber Brown, the series premiered with an exploration of “light painting”, and the intention to explore a new artistic genre every episode. Episode two focusses on typography, and I had the privilege of helping to represent the sub-sub-sub-genre of typeface design. Pentagram partners Paula Scher and Eddie Opara discuss their unique perspectives on typographic identity (in both senses of the word), and designers Julia Vakser and Deroy Peraza of Hyperakt discuss the range and reach of data visualization, a genre unto itself. And kudos to Kornhaber Brown for wrapping up with the one-minute segment, “How to talk about type like you know what you’re talking about.” Required pre-holiday watching for our families. —JH

Things We Love

Typefaces: Tungsten and Gotham

In a manner more typical of the corporate than the corporeal, designer Nicholas Felton marks the passage of each year with an annual report. Past editions of the Feltron Annual Report have ranged in sensibilities, from his editorial 2006 (smarter than the smartest magazine) to his diagrammatic 2009 (which out-Tuftes Tufte.) While the very concept is arch, making the Feltron Report a beloved fixture in the offices of so many graphic designers, I really have to hand it to Nicholas for never stooping to the obvious and allowing his yearly record to become a mere send-up of the annual report form. This year’s report, awash in our Tungsten typeface, is no exception: it uses the tools of data visualization and typography to tell a compelling story, and color a narrative that might so easily have been reduced to a mere family tree or a timeline.

Spend some time with The 2010 Feltron Annual Report: I think you’ll find it smart, touching, and inspiring, an uncommon trifecta. —JH

Typographic Gifts for Designers, Part 17

I wonder what sort of psychological profile one could draw from my favorite childhood possessions. I neither played nor followed football, but clung to my NFL lunchbox that showed all the team helmets with their different insignia. I had no special interest in English History, but was fascinated by the chart in our living room that traced the succession of British monarchs from William the Conqueror to Queen Elizabeth II. A kindergarten teacher gave me a chart of rocks and minerals found in the northeast; a kindly docent at the South Street Seaport Museum gave me a diagram showing how to communicate the alphabet using morse code, semaphore, and maritime signal flags. The list goes on and on, and only a graphic designer will understand the common thread: I had a thing for data visualization.

Whether these objects provoked my interest in design or simply resonated with it, they were marvelous things to have around as a kid. I’m therefore delighted to see that a company called HistoryShots is offering for sale a similar collection of visually engaging prints, not merely suitable for framing but actually framed. Clockwise from top left: The History of the Union Army and Confederate Army, The Conquest of Mount Everest, Visualizing The Bible, Death and Taxes, The History of Political Parties (Part II), and the Race to the Moon. —JH

Ask H&Co: Fonts for Financials

Typefaces: Sentinel and Gotham

Annual reports offer designers a marvelous opportunity to strut their stuff. In the hands of a thoughtful typographer, a dense volume of technical text can become warm and welcoming, its changing rhythm of introductions, statements, analyses, and disclosures calling for a beautiful typographic system to help organize the text. Financial data can be uniquely satisfying to design, offering an irresistible opportunity to work with large type families in intricate ways. There are tables both long and short, as well as charts, graphs, and diagrams, all studded with headings, footnotes, and legends that defy even the most ingenious grid.

Each of these details places a special burden on the fonts, making it especially important to choose the right palette up front. We’ve gathered some thoughts about choosing fonts for annual reports for our Techniques library, here you’ll find four things to think about when considering a typeface — and a collection of font families specifically designed to meet these unique challenges.

The H&Co Institute for Unapplied Mathematics

Typefaces: Gotham Narrow Book, Archer Book, Indicia, Dividend, Gotham Extra Narrow Medium, Bayside

We’ve received our share of intriguing questions over the years, but this one takes the cake. On Monday, a correspondent called from National Public Radio to discuss the implications of typesetting a number with twelve million digits.

The number in question is 243112609-1, which holds the title for World’s Largest Known Prime Number. Mathematicians have known since at least the third century BC that for many values of n, the formula 2n-1 produces a prime number. When it does, the result Mn is called a Mersenne Prime, after the seventeenth century French mathematician who calculated the first 257 of them by hand — quite something when you realize that M257 has 78 digits. (And, so very cruelly, it’s not prime.) The search for prime numbers, an esoteric pursuit that rivals typeface design for its cultishness, has continued ever since; these days it’s assisted by the Great Internet Mersenne Prime Search, a project that organizes the downtime of almost 90,000 volunteers’ computers into a collective effort to find the next great prime.


Data Visualization of the Day

Jason Kottke turned me on to this fantastic data visualization by Zach Beane, showing this year’s box office gross for American movies. Like this related graphic at The New York Times, it uses the x-axis for time and the height of each node to indicate revenue, but presents the data in a way that allows readers to infer four additional kinds of information — without having to complicate the graphic:

The position on the y-axis represents each film’s rank, revealing the importance of a strong opening weekend (but begging the question of how The Bucket List, which opened in 23rd place, became the #1 movie in America the following week; something to do with New Year’s Day?) The slope of each line conveys the distinction between films with a slow burn (Juno) and those that flamed out (Cloverfield.) Beane makes a rare and non-gratuitous use of color to distinguish individual data lines, where the occasional dissonance identifies films with box office longevity: the thread of mint green running through the purple of early May highlights the inexplicable endurance of Horton Hears a Who. And the height of the y-axis overall charts seasonal trends in the industry at large, confirming that July is considerably more important than April.

Finally, I appreciate the way Beane used rollovers to reveal the names of the films themselves. A lesser designer would have given this information primacy, but Beane recognized that the titles, while crucial, are not the story themselves. Isn’t it nice when a bold decision is demonstrably the right one? —JH

Typographic Gifts for Designers, Part 4

Every design studio has at least one of Edward Tufte’s books. They’re traditionally distributed during the sacred initiation ceremony through which one becomes a Graphic Designer: a cloaked celebrant makes the sign of command-option-escape and anoints the novice with toner, the congregation recites the paternoster from Paul Rand’s Design, Form, and Chaos, and the now-ordained Designer is presented with the Holy Relics that will form the heart of his or her own workplace: a manga-inspired wind-up toy, a framed fruit crate label with a smutty pun, an overwrought and temperamental stapler with a European pedigree, and a copy of Envisioning Information.

Whether you share Tufte’s love of clarity, or haven’t read his books and simply want the shortcut to intellectual street cred (I’ll deal with you later), you’ll want a copy of this poster showing Napoleon’s March to Moscow, which Tufte correctly calls “probably the best statistical graphic ever drawn.” Designed by Charles Joseph Minard in 1869 and now reproduced by Graphics Press, the diagram simultaneously shows the position, direction, and strength of Napoleon’s army, as well as the time and temperature at each turn — a remarkable amount of information for such an intuitive and tidy diagram. —JH

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