Have you ever noticed that most designers share a few common preferences? Wearing lots of black, for example. And funky glasses. And for riding fixies and drinking artisinal espresso?
I have noticed. And wondered why.
Take espresso. Why are so many designers coffee snobs? Is there something inherently design-y about being a coffee connoisseur?
After pondering this for a while over several doppio espresso con pannas (for here, of course. In porcelain. Damn those paper cups!), I've decided there is. Consider, if you will, the similarities between setting beautiful typography and pulling the perfect shot.
In Italy, the art and science of making good espresso is expressed in the Four Ms:
Macinazione refers to the grind of the beans.
Miscela details the bean blend.
Macchina is the equipment used to pull the shot.
Mano expresses the skill of the barista.
If you have ever had a really good espresso, you were the beneficiary of the delicate balance of these four factors.
If you have ever made really good espresso, you will know that it takes time and skill, is not cheap, and is a lot harder than it looks.
The same can be said about good typography. Placed in the context of the Four Ms, it looks a little something like this:
Macinazione– In typography, Macinazione refers to the quality of the typeface. Like good espresso, the beans (aka, typeface) need to be finely ground. That is, thoughtfully designed; iterated and refined, over and over, so that all the rough edges are worked out. In essence, a typeface must be finely ground until it is formally, proportionately beautiful but ultimately useful.
Miscela– Miscela in typography refers to the proper blending of typographic elements. Choosing the right typeface for the job, pairing typefaces with thoughtfulness and formal sensitivity, and then setting type expertly in a well-defined grid.
Macchina– The machine of preference for any designer wanting to set good type is an Apple Macintosh. And good quality typefaces from respected foundaries.
Mano– While anyone with a desktop computer can, in theory, set good type, in practice, it's quite another story. A good typographic sense comes from hours of practice – usually through formal design education – of observing and imitating the masters (preferably of the Swiss modern variety), and finally, an innate sense of white space, balance, contrast, and form that in many cases cannot be taught.
Like good espresso, good typography is something that, when done well, appeals to our visceral senses. One may not be trained enough to articulate when it isn't done well, to know that the reason this macchiato tastes terrible is because the beans were ground too coarsely, the shot was pulled too fast, the espresso produced too weak and watery. Or because the beans were burnt and of low-quality grade which resulted in bad crema.
To know that the reason that book or website lacks elegance or cohesion is because the "designer" was actually a developer and used free typefaces and no grid. Or that the disorganization and overall chaos of a piece is because even though the designer may have gone to school (not all design programs are the created equally), the instructors had them study Photoshop and Illustrator but failed to include lesson plans about Armin Hoffmann, Emil Ruder, and Josef Müller-Brockmann.
But when it is done well, ironically – almost tragically, really – the designer becomes invisible. For what you're left with is a great user experience, a delicious taste in your mouth, a feast for your eyes, and three simple words on your lips: Damn, that was good.
This post written in a Moleskin on the MARC Penn line, to and from DC. Typed in peace and tranquility via Ommwriter.