50 Shades of Bad Typography

When the world was introduced to desktop publishing thirty years ago, proper punctuation marks and kerning pairs were not brought to the party.  Foot and inch marks were used instead, and they weren’t exactly the best stunt doubles. Today, I expected a more savvy designer pool with an arsenal of modern tools to rectify this problem. Nope.

Then again, should I expect such a giant leap in only a quarter century? After all, 200 A.D. saw the rise of woodblock printing, a practice that ran the show until 1476 when the printing press was born. It was an era where typography used to be a specialized occupation filled by highly skilled artisans. It should be no different today.

When your keyboard isn’t set-up for smart quotes by using the foot and inch key, you can create the proper marks on an Apple keyboard by the following keystrokes. To kern using your keyboard, use Shift-Command combination with your bracket keys shown below.

fighting bad typography mac keyboard

Tip: Use a serif font punctuation on san-serif design for more pronounced typographic presence. San-serif punctuation marks tend to be lifeless.


Bad kerning (or tracking) is equally destroying design. It’s 2012. We should have enough computing power today to accurately plot any two letters together with good spacing between them. And yet, our design software still struggles with how to negotiate visually-appealing kerning pairs. I’ve noticed the worst infractions between upper and lower case letters. The Heinz example below has issues so obvious, it’s hard to imagine what designer, art director or creative director signed-off on this. POUR ABLE MUST ARD. Really?

bad typography example fixed

Tip: It’s ok to have letters crash into each other to create correct letter spacing. The R and A in pourable need to touch due to the negative space created by the slant of the A. The B had to move to the left slightly too to close-up the white space.

Dr. Pepper recently ran a national campaign with a blatant kerning error. That is, unless the 10 Bold T Asting Calories was the primary message.

bad type kerning fixed


Now look at this “Professional Sign’s & Lettering” company mark (of all businesses).  Yes, they did use the proper apostrophe over inch mark, even though it’s still grammatically off since chances are unlikely the company is owned by some guy named Sign. But all the points they scored were lost when they left a gaping hole between the n and s.  But we can give extra credit for the use of Brush Script.

bad type fixed

Tip: reduce the size of your apostrophe and lower its relative position to characters in the word. This gives it a better lockup in the word. You don’t have to accept where your design program plots your punctuation.

If I had to just kern one thing on any piece of creative, I’d spend extra time with your headline—especially if your layout is type and/or copy driven. Because when your all-type headline layout looks good, it is your visual. Treat it that way.

Good typography isn’t always about where the computer places your 26 characters. It’s about how it looks, flows and feels to the reader. And that takes effort. Effort takes time. If you don’t have time for good typography, another line of work might be in order. Goat herding, perhaps?

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