Strathmore Archives

One of the most elusive skills for a designer is kerning. I am asked often, "How do I know if it's right yet?" regarding the kerning of a word or letterspacing in a paragraph. You know when it looks right. Which is like saying, "make it better," or "I know it's pornography if I think it is." It's frustrating for someone looking for a binary direction, good or bad. 

When I began my career, very open letterspacing was the fashion. It was the 1980s, and the combination of 1950s nostalgia, the introduction of a Basel aesthetic, and the rise of new wave demanded space. It was about optimism, whereas the ultra tight letterspacing of the 1960s and 70s seemed to be about commerce.

That tight letterspacing was more about technology. Photo-typesetting, introduced in the 1960s, allowed the designer to specify type that was touching. This wasn't possible when it was made with individual slugs of metal. Like all new technologies, such as a cool new Photoshop filter, everyone jumped all over it. The tighter letterspacing also allowed for larger typography. Using less real estate horizontally, a word could now be enlarged for more impact. This was especially popular in advertising when the name of the product could be even larger.

I like tight letterspacing. It makes me feel secure. Nothing is lucy goosey and about to fly away. And it kind of screams at the viewer, "13! Dammit."

Michael Manwaring, April Greiman, 1984

Massimo Vignelli

Massimo Vignelli

Sean Adams

Sean Adams is the Chair of the undergraduate and graduate Graphic Design Program at ArtCenter, founder of Burning Settlers Cabin studio, and on-screen author for LinkedIn Learning/Lynda.com He is the only two term AIGA national president in AIGA’s 100 year history. In 2014, Adams was awarded the AIGA Medal, the highest honor in the profession. He is an AIGA Fellow, and Aspen Design Fellow. He has been recognized by every major competition and publication including; How, Print, Step, Communication Arts, Graphis, AIGA, The Type Directors Club, The British Art Director’s Club, and the Art Director’s Club. Adams has been exhibited often, including a solo exhibition at The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

Adams is an author of multiple magazine columns, and several best-selling books. He has been cited as one of the forty most important people shaping design internationally, and one of the top ten influential designers in the United States. Previously, Adams was a founding partner at AdamsMorioka, whose clients included The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Disney, Mohawk Fine Papers, The Metropolitan Opera, Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History, Richard Meier & Partners, Sundance, and the University of Southern California.


Recently, a young designer met with me and talked about obsession. "I'm worried it's wrong, but I get obsessed about something and can't stop," she said. She wasn't talking about Justin Bieber or heroin. She gave the example of string art. "I can't stop looking for it online and want to learn how to do it." Who doesn't?" was my reply.

I don't know where she heard that being obsessed was bad. Sure, if you're stalking someone and build a shrine with sacrifices for them you may have a problem. But I've been working on my OCD family tree for years and never tire of it. Paula Scher makes wonderful paintings of maps. Marian Bantjes works with pattern. Massimo Vignelli couldn't get enough Bodoni. Being obsessed is part of the job.

Ken Briggs was a British designer responsible for many of the beautiful posters for the National Theatre in London. Clearly, Briggs was obsessed with the New Typography, inspired after seeing a copy of Josef Müller Brockmann's Neue Grafik. The posters relentlessly use Helvetica, golden section proportions and grids. But, Briggs took the rigid rules and tweaked them with surprising color choices and offbeat photographic solutions. He added a dry British wit to a sterile approach.

Briggs didn't do this once, or for a couple of months. He did it over and over and over. And thank God for that obsession. The lesson here, obsession makes perfection.

as you like it tour 1
as you like it old vic