“It’s easy to be an accountant. All you need is a
computer and a copy of Excel.” Try telling that to
the people in your company’s financial department.
And yet, with the accessibility of desktop publishing,
everyone seems to think he is a designer—especially
bosses. Too often, otherwise reasonable bosses
seem to go out of their way to question and critique
design work. The challenge you face is: How do you
concisely explain the principles of good design that
are second nature to you, but may seem arbitrary to
Although you can’t change your boss’ craving
to question your work, you can control how you
respond to her. You can also use this as an opportunity
to educate her—and to reaffirm why she was so
smart to hire you.
A couple of strategies can help you with this process:
You’re the expert
- Remember, you are the expert.
- Be businesslike around businesspeople.
- Anticipate questions.
- Be able to justify your decisions.
Keep in mind your boss is the one who controls
your paycheck, but also remember you have your
job because of your graphic design skills. Unless
your boss is a designer as well, she is probably just
expressing her opinion when challenging your work.
All large projects should have a design brief; for
smaller projects, you and your boss should have at
least a verbal understanding of the project’s scope. Once an approach is agreed to, though, the execution
is your job alone. Bosses may have free reign to
challenge the concept—but not the execution.
Bosses tend to be businesspeople, and by definition
they have more power than you. Treat yours with
respect. Even if you think her suggestion to set the
company quarterly report in Hobo is laughable—don’t. Handle every question, every suggestion—no
matter how silly or ill-informed—with respect. Look
upon the questions as an opportunity to educate
your boss. If you are successful over time, you may
find the challenges diminish.
If your boss regularly challenges your typeface selections,
be ready. If you make a typographic design
decision you think may be questioned, have your
rationale ready. If you try something new, prepare to
be challenged. The first step in dealing with design
questions from your boss is to anticipate them.
Justify your decisions
The corollary to “anticipating the questions” is
“having the answers.” Have a good reason for choosing
the typeface you did … and “because I like it”
isn’t good enough. If you chose to use an en dash
instead of an em dash, have a sound reason. If you
used Old Style numbers in text copy, have the justifi
cation handy. If your choice is based on sound
typographic principles rather than on personal taste,
your boss will probably be satisfied with the answer.
13 QUICK ANSWERS
Justifying your decisions can be quite challenging;
you may not have a quick explanation for each of
your choices. You may intuitively know that rag-right
copy is almost always better than justified columns
of text, but may not know exactly why—other
than most of the time it just looks better. And “it
just looks better” is never a good enough answer
for a boss. Try to seize the opportunity: Here’s your
chance to elucidate some fundamentals of good
design that may not be obvious to your boss. What
follows are quick answers to some of the most frequently
asked typographic design questions. Using
them may not answer all your boss’ questions—but
they may be able to take some of the heat off your
next project presentation.
1. Why can’t we put all of the
information on one slide?
You think: Only poor presenters cram slides with
copy so they won’t have to think on their feet.
A better answer might be: Too much information
on a slide will make the text difficult to read and
detract from the effectiveness of the presentation.
Slides should illustrate and emphasize the speaker’s
points and provide the highlights and “takeaways”
of the presentation. Slides that are cluttered, have
more than five bullet points or have long lines of
copy do little to highlight, emphasize or illustrate
the speaker’s statements (see figure A).
2. Why can’t we underline that copy and
put a bunch of exclamation points after it?
You think: The habit of underlining words to make
them stand out went away when typewriters became
an endangered species, and no one (except a text-messaging
teenager) hits the exclamation key more
A better answer might be: Underlining distracts
the reader. It introduces another graphic element
to the letterforms, and it forces the reader to read
one word at a time, rather than groups of words.
Using bold type, a different typestyle or setting
the type larger than the surrounding copy are better
ways to emphasize a point. Underlining was
the only way to emphasize copy with a typewriter.
It made things stand out because it was different.
Good typography makes a point without disrupting
the communication process (figure B).
Old-time printers called exclamation points
“screamers.” Consider the decibel level of several of
these punctuation marks. Sometimes it is important
to shout in copy—but screaming is rarely effective.
Using more than one exclamation point impedes
communication, just as screaming does.
3. But I think we should use a lot of fonts;
we bought them, didn’t we?
You think: Sure, if we want our annual report to
look like a circus poster.
A better answer might be: Using too many fonts
calls attention to the messenger instead of the message.
A jumble of fonts disrupts the hierarchy of the
document. For about 90 percent of documents, four
fonts should suffice. One font is usually appropriate
for both headlines and subheads. For text copy, use
one basic text face, then use the bold version of the
face for emphasis and italic for special situations,
such as book titles and foreign phrases. Using more
faces creates typographic clutter (figure C).
4. Why can’t we use white type against
a dark background?
You think: Reversing type out of a dark background
is about as sound an idea as skating on
pond ice in April.
A better answer might be: Reverse type is harder
to read than dark type against a light background,
and studies have also shown readers don’t like to
read reverse type. It can sometimes be effective to
use reverse type for a headline, but this normally
demands special handling to make it work at all
5. My nephew (or replace with any close
relative) is pretty good with art, and he
You think: Oh boy, here comes trouble. I’ll never
hear the end of her nephew, “the artist.”
A better way to look at it might be: This can be
the beginning of a variety of challenges to your
work. Handling a situation like this calls for tact
and diplomacy. A two-part approach is usually the
best. First, validate your boss’ assessment of her
nephew’s talents. “How exciting to have an artist in
the family.” Then, as a separate comment, explain
your reasoning for the design choices you made.
6. My daughter (again, replace with the
relative of choice) gave me this great
font. How about we use it?
You think: Not on my watch! Who knows what it
might do to my computer.
A better answer might be: It is never a good idea
to use fonts from outside sources. A company
needs to be sure it owns a license for any font
software it uses, and its usage must be in compliance
with the license. Without proper licenses, a
firm exposes itself to the possibility of copyright
infringement. This could result in significant
financial liability—even bankruptcy.
7. Can’t we set it all in italics? Italics are
You think: This is supposed to be a brochure for a
gutter-sweeping robot—and you want pretty?
A better answer might be: Italics should be used
sparingly. Italic type is about 14 percent more difficult to read than roman type. One or two words
in italic type stand out without jarring the reader. A
sentence set in italic can become more of a distraction
than an emphasis, and an entire italic paragraph
can be downright difficult to read (figure E).
8. Why can’t we use (fill in the inappropriate
or hackneyed typeface of your
choice) for this project?
You think: Sure, and I’ll get laughed out of my next
Better answers might be:
9. Why can’t we try something other than
the corporate font? I never did like it.
- Because the typeface is not appropriate for our
message or readership.
- The design is overused, and therefore will not
differentiate us from the competition.
- The typeface is not intended for long blocks of
copy (figure F).
Another boss, trying to make his mark …
A better answer might be: Corporate fonts build
brand identity. They help distinguish our company
from the competition. Deviating from corporate fonts
can confuse the reader and erode brand identity.
And/or: We paid plenty of money for our identity
program and the fonts that are part of it. We should
take full advantage of the investment. (Bosses
almost always like answers that demonstrate fiscal
prudence and efficiency.)
10. Why can’t we put the text copy
You think: Because it’ll look cheesy and amateurish.
A better answer might be: Type printed in color
will not have the same impact as type printed in
black. Good typographic communication calls for
a strong contrast between the words and the background.
This is especially true for type at small
sizes. To be most effective and easiest to read, words
need to stand out from the background. And, no
matter how bright it is, any color is paler than black
11. Why can’t we set this in all caps?
You think: Only if I want to replicate Trajan’s
A better answer might be: More than 95 percent
of the type we read is in lowercase composition. As
a result, we are much more familiar with reading
these characters. Headlines set in lowercase take
up less space than headlines set in all capitals—up
to 30 percent less space. Not only is page and
screen real estate used more efficiently when using
upper- and lowercase, but fewer eye movements are required to take in the same amount of information
12. Can we put a fancy border around that
part to make it stand out more?
You think: Fancy borders are for scrapbooks—not
A better answer might be: The most inviting, the
most reader-friendly and the most direct typography
is the simplest typography. Type and image are the
two most important elements of graphic communication.
Lines, borders and other fancy bits almost
always distract readers instead of helping them (figure
13. Why is there so much blank space?
Isn’t that a waste of paper?
You think: It’s not an all-you-can-eat buffet. Leave
some room for the type to breathe.
A better answer might be: For a page design to be
effective, it needs to have a balance of type, illustration
and space. If the copy is too dense, it will be
both unattractive and difficult to read (figure J).
If you are plagued by other typographic challenges
from your boss, write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org, and I will be happy to respond. And even if it is
the same answer you might give, the old adage—an
“outside consultant” is almost always listened to more
than a long-time employee—can work in your favor.
The answer to the rag-right question? There is
nothing inherently wrong with either rag-right or
justified copy. But using justified copy—especially
in short measures—makes it much more difficult
to maintain tight, even word spacing. Excessive and
uneven word space breaks copy into separate elements,
thereby forcing the reader to read individual
words, rather than phrases or blocks of copy.