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TEXT DESIGN: CHOOSING A FONT

For purposes of this essay, I've written this haiku for Yackulic's image:

school break—
an emptiness
before the tidal surge

Any text placed on the image will necessarily interfere with a photographer's intent as to the central emphasis of the image. However, some text designs and placements will interfere more and others less with that intent. Here are some ways NOT TO DO IT. I've exaggerated the examples to illustrate what I see as a problem in many haiga. Each example has to do with the font type, size, tonality (contrast with other elements in the image) and text placement.

1. Wrong font type and tonality: While the text has been placed in the largest negative space, the design doesn’t work for me because the text competes for the eye with the central elements in the photograph (waves and boy). The font is too dark (tonality) and too dissimilar to the elements in the image (blocky as opposed to wispy; strong as opposed to suggestive/light). It's difficult to look at the photographer's composition without noticing that blackness in the upper left.

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It’s important to consider the eye-mind connection when examining text placement issue. A common mistake that photographers make is to fail to recognize that their eye is wired to their brain. Thus, when he or she captures an image and shows it to others, the others see only the image; however, the photographer sees the original scene. In short, the photographer’s mind dominates and doesn’t see the flaws in the image. Good photographers create compositions that allow viewers to see what the photographers saw. In similar vein, haiga artists see their images as composed and tend not see the overall image with the haiku text; however, the viewer sees the large, dark text in the upper left corner, and can't as easily enjoy the original composition however good it was without the text.

2. Better tonality, but wrong font? This tonality works better to my eye, because it doesn’t compete with the image of the boy. The tonality in the text is similar to the tonality in the image. In fact, I used a gray tone in the boy's shirt to create the gray tone for the text. Now the eye more easily goes back and forth between poem and image. Still, to my eye, the font seems a bit wrong for the image. It's a formal serif-type font (Century Schoolbook)—one with semi-structural details on the ends of some strokes—whereas the image is composed of mostly wispy elements with no hard lines. On the other hand, serif type fonts are allegedly easier to read than sans-serif fonts and it has been argued that text presented in a font that is typical of that which readers usually see will be less, not more distracting. For a full discussion of serif vs sans-serif fonts see the article in Wikipedia.

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3. Better font type, but questionable use of font color: I prefer this wispy sans-serif font (festus) to the more standard serif fonts for this type of image. But what about the color? Any color, and particularly primary colors (blue, red, green, etc.) which aren’t commonly found in the muted colors of the natural world, will capture the eye (dominate) in a monochrome (graytone) image. In this case, the eye is drawn to color at the upper left. There is no balance between image and haiku. Put another way, even subtle colors trump the monochrome composition (more about color with color images below). A general rule for monochrome images is that gray scale font colors work well whereas colors don't because color on gray scale makes the text the dominant feature of the haiga image.

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4. Hard to read and/or flamboyant fonts: The font used below (Zapfino) is undoubtedly beautiful and it would be tempting to use it just because of its beauty. However, I find it hard to read. The issue is whether one wants the haiku text to be readily absorbed by the reader, or a bit of a stumbling block. Thus, I tend to like a font that is simpler, one that is stripped of embellishment, or put another way, more haiku-like.

5. Unusual text lineage and placement: It’s tempting to create line breaks and spacing so as to have a haiku convey more than its words. One could argue that the spacing below simulates a 'tidal surge' and thus enhances the overall effectiveness of the haiga. However, unusual presentations of the haiku text will capture the attention of the reader and perhaps even make the haiku more difficult to read. One might well ask, is not the haiku and image sufficient to convey the message? Should not haiku text design follow the same spirit of the haiku itself ... simplicity and less is more? In general, the more complex that haiga artists make their text lineage and placement, the more quickly I quit trying to figure it out and go on to something else.

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6. Poor Placement of text: You could argue that the font in both images below is okay with respect to size, tonality (dark/bright), and type. But the placement competes with the image of the boy, breaks up the lines of the image and interferes with a critical aspect of the design of the image.

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7. Improved font type, size, tonality and placement. There are many fonts that are ideally suitable for haiga compositions, and different fonts work better with different types of images. Free hand or brush stroke font types are well worth considering for your compositions. Just as calligraphy works well for the original brush stroke haiga done by the Japanese masters, these fonts look and feel more like calligraphy or brush work and tend to work well on photographic images. The font below is called "Festus". I used it because the soft lines of the font resemble the wispy and soft lines of the waves in the image. Of course, this is a matter of taste. Click here for an exploration of free-hand and brushstroke fonts.

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