Join Tiffany Wardle deSousa and Dr Shelley Gruendler in a conversation about the Flush Left / Set Solid look in typography, citing the gallery of images below as examples.
Dr. Shelley Gruendler: The ‘Flush Left / Set Solid’ look has been emerging over the past five years or so. It’s usually in Helvetica, although we’ve seen it in Futura, Univers, and other similar blocky sans serifs.
Tiffany Wardle deSousa: Emerging or just coming back on trend? Does the International style ever go off trend?
SG: This trend is more difficult than it looks and it can actually spotlight typographic details that need to be addressed. For example, the left edge is more visible when one doesn’t use additional interlinear space. This exposes necessary typesetting issues such as needing to optically align the left edge of the block of text.
TWD: Optical setting seems to be non-existent these days.
SG: Do people not notice the need for it? Do they just not see it?
TWD: There is macro typography and micro typography; many people can do macro typography, it is the micro typography that sets people apart. Typography is something that exists on macro- and micro-levels and both levels are equally important.
SG: Details are the finesse in typography. Frankly, if people can’t see the details, then they really shouldn’t consider themselves typographers. I do love that book, Detail in Typography by Jost Hochuli.
TWD: A great book that outlines many important things.
SG: It should be a required text for all intermediate and advanced typography classes.
TWD: For me, typography is the details. If you are just putting type into blocks and measuring margins, you’re only doing the beginning of the job. That is where flush left, set solid typography can fall apart.
SG: Another thing with this ‘flush left set solid’ approach is that the interlinear spacing matters entirely.
TWD: IMAGE A starts to read as a list of words because the linespacing is too wide. It no longer feels connected.
SG: IMAGE A really doesn’t hold together – Futura does need additional interlinear space, but for display, it can fall apart a bit.
TWD: Right. These two posters aren’t successful for the same reason, which is that the designers didn’t pay attention to how much spacing is required for it to read well.
SG: IMAGE B is a better example for successful display interlinear spacing for the size.
TWD: With the lines being so short it hits the right spot for how much space it needs to read as a paragraph of text and not a list of groceries.
SG: Funny how the IMAGE C works very very well, but IMAGE D doesn’t – just because it’s all caps, doesn’t mean it sets the same when reversed out of black. The shirt is nearly unreadable, but IMAGE C looks fantastic with its great balance of white & black.
TWD: A lot of it has to do with amount of words. If there are too many words, and all are set tight, you have to reconsider your word spacing.
SG: Much of the balance has to do with the weight of the letters, along with the negative space around it. It’s all about balance, or rather the imbalance, of the positive and negative areas.
TWD: Exactly. I think it is also important to consider word spacing along with line spacing. If you are going for an tight set of lines you have to tighten up your word spacing. Big words spaces don’t improve readability either because it all starts looking like gaps or rivers in the text.
SG: The letter spacing matters, too.
TWD: Yes. And it all depends upon the typeface. All typefaces need this amount of consideration. Each has its own needs.
TWD: IMAGE E is a good example of something that needed less word spacing. Since it has tight linespacing, the word spacing should be tightened.
SG: I wonder if people understand how interrelated linespacing & wordspacing are? Helvetica or Futura can set well tight, but when they’re too loose, either with interlinear, word, or letter spacing, they can fall apart.
TWD: IMAGE F is in Futura and is a good example of why set solid text isn’t always a good idea. Reading it is more like bobbing for apples. You dive in, grab a few words, and come back out for air. I hope that isn’t the desired effect.
SG: When I look at it, I only see the word spaces and nothing else. It’s also got a lousy rag.
TWD: Yes – blocks of white with lots of gaps.
I think they were appealing to designers? Is this what people think designers like? Is it what designers like? Heaven help us.
SG: I’d hope designers would have a critical eye to notice bad typesetting!
TWD: So the takeaways from this Flush Left / Set Solid look are …
1. First consider the context. Is it even appropriate?
SG: 2. Then consider the optical spacing of the lines and watch that left margin.
TWD: 3. The rag totally matters because it impacts how well it will be read.
SG: 4. Make sure your interlinear and word spacing are proportional or related.
TWD: And maybe avoid using this setting on t-shirts unless the lines are almost the same length. We don’t want to walk around look lop-sided, do we?
SG: A terrible look for a typographer’s T-shirt!
Additional Type Resources by “Mastering Type” Author Denise Bosler