While watching the United Design Guild’s Live Stream with illustrator David Roberts, I was startled when I had an unusual Pavlovian response. It occurred about 1h 16min into the stream, when Mr. Roberts said, “…always constantly be aware of your darkest darks and your whitest whites.” Without thinking, I responded out loud, to myself, “Thickest thicks. Thinnest thins.”
After recovering from my knee-jerk dogmatic response, I felt a growing interest in the parallels between what was being demonstrated and what I primarily practice, type design. Mr. Roberts was speaking about his own illustration work and, specifically, he was tossing some advice-bones out to amatuer illustrators. He explained that by clearly defining your darkest darks and your whitest whites, this contrast will start to “…blend into your overall image, [and] the character is going to be really in your face and really pop.” Throughout the stream, he discussed working upon a gray background and really pushing back the darker shadows, while building up with white on top of it. As he worked, you could clearly see how the artwork changed with each layer of value added. These extremes became more and more defined throughout the stream and the work progressively showed more clarity and voice. It was entrancing to watch as he pushed and pulled a flat gray canvas into a dimensional figure.
Now, my blurted-out response of, “Thickest thicks. Thinnest thins,” which I do realize sounds like the aftershock of a college hypnotist, is one of the primary guidelines within type design. When creating a piece of lettering or a typeface, you must be rigidly attentive to where each form is the thickest; why that is the part of the form that is thickest; and whether or not that is the right amount of thickness. It is common practice to mark up a proofing document for a typeface with small ticks denoting your thickest and thinnest moments, creating a well-defined assessment of your extremes, as defined by the work in front of you. This hyper-awareness of thicks and thins helps to create the internal logic that will dictate your forms. This logic not only facilitates the work of the reader, but also the work of the designer, as it creates an underlying rationale that can be built upon to invent new forms within the same system.
It was the redundancy of his phrase and mine that encouraged me to wonder if there was more to this idea. I started to consider what it could mean in a more generalized context. What does it mean to be constantly checking your blankest blanks and antiblankest antiblanks? What I’ve come up with is that we, as designers, must clearly define the design space in which we work. The more articulate we are about our extremes, the more truth we bring to the work we do. When creating a piece of work that needs to have an internal logic to function, we must clearly define the boundaries of our own rules and maintain them devoutly.
In an effort to transform this coincidence into something resembling solid conceptual thinking, here is the universal truth that I propose: Once you have established and defined your blankest blanks, you should be constantly checking and refining their location, their intensity, and their rate of change. In an illustration, checking the location of your blankest blank means checking that the deepest shadows are in a place that makes logical sense, as they relate to the brightest highlights. The internal logic that is being described is an unseen light source. In type design, checking the location of your blankest blank means checking that the thickest and thinnest parts of your letter will be in logical locations, as they relate to each other and the type of letterform you are building. Checking the intensity is a simple matter of defining the extreme. Define exactly what shade of black is the darkest; exactly how heavy is the thickest part of your letter. Then, ensure that this intensity is matched in all of the locations that it’s supposed to exist. Finally, defining the rate of change of your blankest blank. Is it an even rate of change, or is there pull towards one extreme? Transitions, gradients, and speeds of a curve can all be accelerated or decelerated. Take a look at the gradients shown here. They start and end with the same extremes, but the color change speeds up or slows down as it approaches one extreme or the other. This can be articulated in type and lettering as well. Consider the speed with which a stroke will swell to its thickest thick or contract to its thinnest thin.
By defining the internal extremes of your work, you create an intuitive life and logic to what you are creating. An awareness of extremes is an awareness of design space. By establishing and maintaining what your laws are, you can create coherency and rhythm. In short, you can create a reality. While every project does not need to self-define extremes, every project does contains some type of extreme or limitation. Whether it’s the longest/shortest name for a web page template, the number of print colors available for package design, or a word count for an article, these constraints become the parameters that dictate our work. Often, they become the fuel for creative solutions. So whatever it is you are working on, take a moment to consider its blank, its antiblank, and the blanky continuum between them.