What Kind Of A Career Can Typography Lead To?

Byronb81's picture

I’m a graphic design student who has in the last year and a half fallen in love with typography. I guess I never understood how much was really going on there before but I digress. I seem to be the only one at my school obsessed with type and trying to learn everything I can about it. My question is, what can I do with this as a career? I know somebody is going to say, “be a typographer” but what does that mean? Do you really draw typefaces all day?

I’m very much interested in learning more about how one sets an entire book but is that a job? Or is it more along the lines of you’ll be a graphic designer who specializes in type so you’ll get more work doing book covers and whatnot? I know this is a sophomoric question but you guys seem to be a different species then most of the graphic designers I meet and I want to know what you do, thanks!

Nick Shinn's picture

Type design and typography are different things. I'm a type designer, but I don't draw typefaces all day, there is too much other business to take care of (not to mention hanging out at Typophile).

There's not much of a future in print typography, although on any given day it's always possible for anybody to find their niche anywhere. There's plenty of opportunity to be a typographer online, but the skill set is quite different than for print. If you want to make type look good in digital media, you need to be able to animate it in applications like Fireworks, Flash and After Effects.

Consider the typography here--heads that use sIFR, Font Bureau's animated banner ad, and the coding of the text you're reading now. That's typography today.

Quincunx's picture

While I mostly agree with Nick, I think he's being a bit grimm about the future of print typography. Books will not disappear, or at least not in the near future. Not untill there is an acceptable (digital) alternative for them. But it's obviously true that digital media play a very important -- and ever increasing -- role.

But yes, typesetting (or better yet, designing) books is a job. But being a graphic designer who specializes in type sounds like a much better description. That's basically what I try to do.

I design typefaces on the side, basically. I don't do that all day when I'm working on a typeface, but sometimes time does fly when you do. :)

Chris Dean's picture

Definitely tracking this one. Great question. Here is my working operational definition of what I consider to be future typographers (sentence structure still needs a little work):

"One who strives to set text to make it easier to read as supported by research in the domains of reading comprehension and cognitive psychology, as well as empirical data."

Currently, doing this would categorize you as a "research scientist."

If what you do is set text according to convention, I would define that as a "type setter."

If, for the sake of argument, we accept this operational definition of typographer, then I see a future in:

a) academia, conducting laboratory research funded by grant monies, or

b) research and development for large corporations, or as a consultant. Your role will be to either conduct experiments designed to support or refute hypotheses, or prowl the databases and journals, keeping up to date, and finding relevant research to your context. You will then need to translate them into plain language so that your colleagues can understand and apply this knowledge. You will probably need good writing skills for this.

Long/short, memorize typographic conventions and then learn scientific method, experimental design, psych 2000, stats and some basic writing.

More to come…

bemerx25's picture

And here I was thinking "typography" meant using type effectively to communicate clearly... :-)

charles ellertson's picture

Ah, books.

As a typesetter -- those of us with airs like to call ourselves compositors -- I've thought about the future.

No one knows what will happen of course, but here is my best guess. Even though more books are manufactured, and more people are reading books than 20 years ago, I think the nature of them has changed, particularly in the design & manufacturing area.

I'd offer this site as anecdotal (in both sense of the term) evidence. Type designers are trying to control more and more of the behavior of type, something that was traditionally left to the compositor. Often this is a good thing, occasionally not. Type has become a computer program, and as is generally true, all too often programmers are not all that well versed in the range of uses to that employ their programs.

As to making a career of it:

Composition prices have dropped, rather dramatically. In 1985, we charged about $8.50 a page for straight text, with endnotes but no footnotes. Of that, $2.25 was for keying and proofing, so without keyboarding & proofing, the price would have been about $6.25. But the price per page today is about $4.75.

Aside from composition, a typical design fee for the interior-only of a scholarly monograph in 1985 was about $350-$400. It is about twice that today. A jacket design has also gone from about $350 to about $750 to $800.

The prices charged can range on upward in the New York publishing world. Less freedom there for a designer usually, and more time pressure on a compositor.

* * *

As I remember in 1985, a new Chrysler cost about $12,000, and I bought a house, 1,600 square feet, 3/4 acre lot, reasonable part of town, for $55,000. Yes Virginia, there is inflation.

Machines have gotten tremendously faster of course. But all that means is today you use WYSIWYG; in the old days, we'd run things via batch processing, sometimes in background, sometimes while we ate & slept.

There is no photo chemestry or photographic paper, a significant expense. There are other differences, so
it is hard to compare costs & prices from 1985 and 2009 directly.

BTW, there is always composition from countries other than the States or Europe, putting pressure on prices.

* * *

My feeling is there is less time today for niceties, only some of which can be made up by software such as OpenType. The market that will pay rather well for such niceties is quite small, and tends towards books more in the fine print genre. Many of those are not set & printed digitally, requiring an entirely different set of skills.

So composition is being driven by price. On bad days, I've been known to mutter that scholarly publishing has become just another branch of ephemeral printing, and there is some truth to that.

As to books and graphic design, leave that to the jacket. A book interior usually should not be an exercise in graphic design. I don't know if he said it in On Book Design but Rich Hendel has remarked more than once that the best interior designers come from compositors, especially those who read.

You can always find a niche and make a living at it. You have to be very good to survive in that niche, but that is part of the fun of it. You also get to skip the modern equivalent of spending your life working with "New, "Improved, Whiter than White!"

* * *

There is an old joke: the best way to make a small fortune in publishing is to start with a large one. It wouldn't be funny if there wasn't more than a kernel of truth there.

Good luck whichever way you go.

paragraph's picture

My recent experience with the local book publishing industry was not good. I was a book designer (here in Oz), and book typesetting was the main part of my income, while the creative bits were more like icing on the cake. Nice to have, but cannot live on it.

Some years ago, the main customers started sending the typesetting work elsewhere, for about one-tenth of the price, while still requesting the templates and the design work at reduced prices. So, the better the design and the templates were, the easier it was for the other people to finish the job and get paid for it. Still, numerous emails kept coming requesting clarification/instruction about styles, baseline grids use, headings spacing adjustments, etc.

Teaching your competitors (without compensation) how to do your job is stupid. Thanks providence for type design.

Theunis de Jong's picture

Charles, you are my proxy! (And maybe even a doppelganger.)

... a typesetter — those of us with airs like to call ourselves compositors -

My speciality is books--making boring plain text as pleasantly digestible as humanly possible, and without drawing undue attention to pretty looks. So I used to call myself "typesetter", and until a decade ago, people'd mention hot lead somewhere. I used to resort to a bland "I'm working with computers" -- but nowadays, that's not as nearly as hip & kool as it used to be, wot with the Wii generation coming up.

From now on I'm gonna be "Compositor"!

will powers's picture

Well, it is still not a bad idea to inform oneself about good practices for book typography, whether or not you think books shall soon disappear. To be able to set a mass of text in a way that keeps a reader engaged for a spell: you learn that best from books. Try a novel that needs only a half dozen style sheets. Then try some poems from a writer who demands some patience from the typesetter/compositor. Eventually try something like that damned book I had to design that ended up with 70 style sheets despite my pleas to the editors to re-work the text.

When I teach typography, no one in the class wishes to be a book designer, and I'm under no delusions that any shall end up as such. But I do tell them that if I can help them how to figure out how to design and then to set a line, a para, a page, a chapter, then they'll be better equipped to set that stunning one-word ad or billboard or web banner. But if they take type from an instructor who doesn't set them to work on long text, the billboard and ad work will not be so easily understood. That may be bullshit, I don't know.

I call myself a "typographer." Yes, it may be obscure; that's fine. It means I try to figure out how type should look, and then work with others who will set it. I've been a "compositor" back when it was the accepted term for what I did with metal type; and a "typesetter"; and a "book designer."


dberlow's picture

Nick: "I’m a type designer, but I don’t draw typefaces all day,.."
Perhaps because you spend time as a typographer as well? Not to start a thing, but all type designers must be typographers at least as far as the testing and evaluation process.

Byron Beyatetwun, most typographers, also have another job rolled in, like graphic designer, art or design director, or technomom.


blank's picture

There’s plenty of work for a digital typographers. Even in this economy I see plenty of job openings for interactive, UI, and motion design that require strong typographic skills. The important thing to do while you’re in school is build a portfolio of this kind of work so that you can slide right into such a position instead of sitting around praying for a job in print.

Jackson's picture

If you're really into typography right now, figure out how to make visually interesting and effective typographic solutions for all your projects. The most important skill for any one looking for a job out of school is good typography.

Technical and media issues aside, I'd resist the urge to become too specialized right out of school. That's an easy way to find yourself in a production job a few years down the road.

Nick Shinn's picture

Perhaps because you spend time as a typographer as well?

Absolutely. I love type specimens, to collect, and to make.

BTW, I'm not dumping on print media, which I think will be around for a while yet.
But realistically, if you're starting out today you should look to "new" media for the most opportunity, unless you have a real bee in your bonnet for print. And if you specialize in new media, being the generalist that most designers are, print design jobs will come your way.

Byronb81's picture

Thanks guys, I really appreciate the input and guidance, cheers!

Will Miller's picture

I completely agree with jackson on finding creative and self initiated ways to use type and type design in your pieces. As Firebelly Design's art director, the very first thing I look for, and the one thing which makes or breaks pieces, is good typography. Not necessarily clean or perfect, but thoughtful, creative and different.


paul.halupka's picture

Aren't there a batch of people who learn type design, especially in a masters program, and go on to work at type foundries?

blank's picture

There are two grad programs for type design. Some of the graduates have gone on to work at type foundries, but there aren’t enough foundries to provide jobs for all of them.

Si_Daniels's picture

James is correct, there are few jobs "at" type foundries. Most foundries are one-man-outfits, rely on freelancers, or are more like font resellers than old-school foundries.

Nick Shinn's picture


And women. Also don't forget mom-and-pop shops (a term sufficiently broad to include couples without children) and family businesses. Do such partnerships outnumber purely business partnerships?

Si_Daniels's picture

Well I did say "most" - and the basic point is that none of the business models listed tend to employ many in house MA type design graduates.

Nick Shinn's picture

And as with business in general, there is a market for sub-contractors.

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