Typography is the art of crafting and arranging letterforms. Contrary to popular belief, it’s an art with a history dating back to before the printed page, back to the origins of human writing. The purpose of typography is the conveyance of the written word. This ancient art continues to survive every major technological shift in human history. Today, the written word isn’t shackled by the page but brought to life through motion graphics.
Good typography leads the reader through the text, inherently communicating the message. Poor typography works against the reader, confusing them in the process.
The one constant in motion graphics, regardless of design style, is typography. It is inevitable that motion graphic designers will need to animate text on the screen. The printed page shaped the rules of typography, most of which translates to motion graphics. However, some rules don’t apply as the introduction motion produces new typographic challenges.
A key component of typography is legibility, the ability of the reader to comprehend what is written. Good typography leads the reader through the text, inherently communicating the message. Poor typography works against the reader, confusing them in the process. There are many factors that come into play when determining what is legible. Typeface, font size, color, placement and spacing are all part of the equation that translates from print to motion design. Movement and timing are factors that aren’t part of the print tradition but are vital elements of motion graphics.
Typefaces are the uniquely styled shapes that make up letterforms. Typefaces are commonly referred to as fonts, the difference being the font is the actual digital file used to create the typeface. This goes back to early days of the printing press when a font was a collection of lead letters, displaying a typeface, to be used for physical printing. It’s no different in the digital age. For instance, Helvetica is a typeface, but a user installs the Helvetica font file on their computer to use in their applications. Throughout history, typefaces were designed to take advantage of the technology used to create the fonts and influence the meaning of the printed word.
The shape of the letterform lends itself to the legibility of a typeface. The human visual system is able to recognize words not only by their letters but by their overall shape. Serif typefaces are most commonly used in large blocks of text, such as paragraphs and the page layout of books. This is because the serifs help define the shape of the word and help lead the readers’ eye. Serifed fonts help in motion design when there is title on screen that can only be up for a short time, but because of digital display resolutions serifs can get muddy and be hard to read at small sizes. Clean sans-serif typefaces, such as those influenced by Swiss typographers, present well on digital displays. The clean lines and well defined angles of a Swiss-inspired typeface provide contrast and make it easy for the viewer to identify the letter form.
Typeface trends come and go; what’s popular right now may look outdated in several years. There are some typefaces that have generally worn out their welcome. Comic Sans, Papyrus, Copperplate, Curlz and decorative fonts like Bleeding Cowboys are going to look amateur. This doesn’t mean they should never be used. There is the rare instance when a comic book style talk bubble is part of a motion graphic and Comic Sans looks much better inside of it than Myriad Pro. It’s a good rule of thumb to save the overtly stylized typefaces for situations in which they are needed.
Points, Picas, Ems and More
The world of print bestowed an array of measurements for typography. Motion graphics didn’t inherit this full spectrum, in the digital realm of video there are two values that measure type size, points (pts) and pixels (px), and those sizes are to an extent arbitrary when creating motion graphics. The size that matters is what shows on screen. There isn’t a locked in formula for this because screen sizes are different. There’s a difference between screen resolution (i.e. 1080p, 2K, 4K, etc.) and screen size. A phone has a different screen size than a movie theater. Twelve point type might look fine and be perfectly legible on a projected screen, but the same type could be indiscernible if the video is embedded into a small window on a website.
This matter of size applies not only to the font height, but also to the weight of the letter. Thin and light fonts are popular in the sparse, minimalist designs trending today. There is a danger when using a thin weight, however, as it doesn’t show well on a small screen to which video is often scaled down. This results in thin lines disappearing. A thin weight is also problematic with fast movements, the lines run the risk of creating an unintended strobe effect. Again, this doesn’t mean thin weights should not be used, it just means use caution and understand the final delivery of the motion graphic before creating it.
It’s Only a Matter of Time
Motion graphics are a time based media, visual information is revealed to the audience over a specified and controlled duration. On the printed page, the viewer determines the pace at which they consume what they read. In this way a print typographer is able to block out and fill a page with type, even decreasing its size and placing the text into columns to fit as much legible type on the page as possible. On the video screen, the viewer becomes passive and the pace is determined by the motion graphic designer. For this reason the motion designer must be aware of how much text is on screen at one time and the pace at which their audience can read it.
When timing text on screen, the motion graphic designer has to take into consideration their audience and the message they want to convey. If the motion graphic requires the audience to read the text on screen, such as a title in a lower third, the designer will want the graphic to exist on screen long enough for the audience to read and understand it. There are times when a motion designer can use typography to influence or support a specific feeling in a sequence. An example would be a single word that violates the frame of the screen while composited into a montage. In this situation, the word on screen may stand out as too influential if it’s viewable for an extended period of time. The motion designer will want to flash the word, so it’s meaning is conveyed but not dominant in the scene.
Kinetic Type and Movement
Good typography is important, but without motion there are no motion graphics. Kinetic typography, in which animated text is the primary narrative element, is one of the most popular styles of motion graphics. Kinetic typography goes hand in hand with timing. The number of frames a word is on the screen is contingent with what the designer wants the audience to know and feel. The secret to good kinetic typography is for the animation of letters and words to be motivated by the message they imply. Arbitrary animations and movements on the screen will eventually grow wearisome to the audience and will lose their interest.
Consistency is another important factor for kinetic typography, movements should be paced and directed in a way that they fit together. A good piece of kinetic typography doesn’t throw the proverbial kitchen sink of animation techniques at every word. Instead a selective palette of coordinated techniques will help the overall flow and pace of video.
As motion graphic styles wane in and out of popularity, one thing remains the same, the need for sound typography. Motion graphics are anchored in the rules of typography, in the world of video, one doesn’t escape the other. A simple understanding and adherence to principles of type design will brighten up any motion graphics clip that puts type on screen.
SIDEBAR: What’s Hot and What’s Not for Typography in Motion Graphics
Mobile platforms and responsive design led to the trend of flat design. Motion graphics and typography have followed suit, mimicking the simplicity originally intended for mobile web environments.
When video was delivered at NTSC standard definition sizes, bold color statements were needed to lift text off of the screen. HD and digital cinema resolutions have expanded not only the resolution of the screen, but the color space and the varying levels of contrast on screen as well. The subtlety of low contrast type is appealing for those wanting to deliver a simple message.
Animated typefaces go one step further than kinetic typography. Instead of just animating the position and movement of words, letters and glyphs, the letterforms themselves are animated. Serifs unfold, ascenders climb, descenders unfurl, while bowls open up and stems build.
Not So Hot
The classic drop shadow had its time in the sun. Now the sun has set and there are no more shadows to be found. Besides, no one is fooled into believing two-dimensional words are in 3D space just because they have a drop shadow.
Stroke, Bevel and Emboss
Photoshop 5.0 was an appropriate tool for it’s time, just like these techniques.
There are a lot of free fonts available for download. That doesn’t mean they should get used. A highly stylized typeface might look interesting at first glance, but more often than not, it looks generic at best and in the worse case scenario is illegible. Paint-splattered western noir fonts have their place, and it’s not in an editor’s timeline.
Chris “Ace” Gates is four-time Emmy Award-winning writer and producer.