dot-font: Room with a View
One of those recurring principles of designing with type is to think about how the type will be viewed. How far away will it be from the viewer's eye, and at what angle will it be read? Will the type -- or the viewer -- be in motion? Nowhere is this principle more obviously and routinely ignored than with the descriptive labels next to the art in museums.
Point of View
Every time I walk through an art museum, I get frustrated. No matter how wonderful the art, no matter how well it's displayed, and no matter how brilliant the architecture of the building, there's one thing that always gets short shrift: the descriptive captions.
The purpose of the caption is to identify the work, and often to give some description of its nature or provenance. With a painting, for instance, there's usually a title, and an artist's name with dates, and perhaps something about where the painting was done and what techniques were used. There may be a sentence or a phrase (or even a short paragraph) about the subject of the painting, or about how it fits into some thematic or chronological sequence that the exhibit is meant to embody. This is all useful information, and most of us welcome it as we make our way through exhibits.
But most of the time the captions seem to have been designed to be seen (and read) from one distance, while the art itself needs to be viewed from quite a different distance -- a good deal farther away.
There is an ideal distance for viewing art, though it varies with the individual piece and with the artistic methods used. In a museum exhibition of Impressionist paintings, for instance, it's very important to stand back far enough for the individual bits of color to mesh and blend into an overall effect. That's what those particular paintings are all about. (You might also want to walk up close and study the details of the brushstrokes and the texture of the paint itself, but for appreciating the painting as a whole, you have to stand back.) It's hard enough, in a crowded museum, to get the distance you need; if the museum's rooms themselves aren't too small, then without exception you'll find that when you stand back from a painting, someone will walk right in front of you and stop right in the center of your field of vision.
The ideal viewing distance for a piece of sculpture might be quite different. In an exhibit, say, of fine calligraphy or typography, the ideal viewing distance is probably much closer than for a large painting.
Yet inevitably, no matter what the subject, the captions are made too small, so that you have to keep alternating between a comfortable viewing distance for the art and a (much closer) distance at which you can actually read the information about it.
Integrating Art and Text
It's a simple question of signage, really, and of information design. But for some reason the same museums that have superb signage to guide you from one room to another seldom give the same careful attention to the descriptive captions.
There's no one way to design a caption for a museum. But the same principles apply there that apply in any other typographic situation. The typeface needs to be inherently readable; it needs to be spaced correctly; the line lengths shouldn't be too long for absorbing the information at a glance; and the size of the type needs to be large enough to be seen from wherever someone is viewing it. There also has to be enough contrast between type and background, and the caption shouldn't be on a shiny surface or behind glass or plastic with a bright light glaring off of it.
The biggest problem is size. I suspect that most museum designers think that museum-goers would be put off if the captions were so large that they took up a significant part of the wall real estate. But if the information is important, then it should be seen. If it's not important, then it should be somewhere else, somewhere other than on the wall next to the art -- perhaps grouped together as a sort of "fine print" on a plinth or a stele somewhere else in the gallery (not in the line of sight), or buried in the back of a catalog. Making the caption readable while keeping it as unobtrusive as possible is a classic problem of information design. (It also requires the help of the editors or caption-writers, in deciding what information really is essential and what just gets in the way and clutters up the viewers' experience.)
Type for Reading
I'm partial to a good humanist sans-serif type for situations like this: something that's got classical bones but is stripped down to essentials, without a lot of contrast between strokes or a lot of distracting flourishes. But not an industrial sans -- and certainly not Helvetica, where the similarity of shape among many of the letters (and numbers!) makes it hard to distinguish one from another. (Remember, in a caption for art, you're quite likely to run into unfamiliar names, so you can't rely on familiarity as a tool for recognizing individual letters. They have to be clearly distinguished from each other.)
Syntax would be an obvious choice. Or FF Thesis Sans. Maybe ITC Stone Sans. There are lots of others. (About the worst possible choice would be a version of Bodoni or Didot, unless it was very, very carefully spaced. The fine serifs and the huge contrast between thick and thin strokes make them the antithesis of a typeface for information design.)
I would also use a typeface that has old-style numerals (sometimes called "lowercase" numerals, because their bodies match the x-height and they have ascenders and descenders), so that things like dates don't take on more visual importance than they really deserve. (And so they're more readable.)
But more important is spacing. Given that the captions may be viewed from an angle, it's essential not to cram the letters too tightly together; but it's also necessary to make sure they hang together as words. The relationship between the line length and the space between lines is crucial. (The longer the line, the more space is needed between one line and the next.) Essentially, the composition of descriptive labels for museum walls is much like typesetting small bits of text. We're looking at the museum captions from a much greater distance than we would look at the captions on a printed page, but the visual relations are the same. The type size should be large enough to give the same effect, at ten or fifteen feet away, as smaller type on a page would give at a distance of fifteen or twenty inches.
Take a look at the captions the next time you walk through an art museum. Take along your trifocals or you computer reading glasses if you're middle-aged like me. And be prepared to do the art museum two-step, shuffling back to see the art, and forward to read the caption. I suppose it's good exercise.
Read more by John D. Berry.
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