Looking for the right type

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Messages are carried on the wings of type. Yet typography is sorely misunderstood in business-to-business advertising. The most essential part of an advertiser's message-the copy-often appears in type that's too small for easy reading, or is squeezed into a corner or printed over part of an illustration.

 Both text type and display type are misused, or should we say abused. Type sends critical signals to readers not only about the product or service but about the company itself. When used correctly, type can convey a sense of elegance or confidence. When used incorrectly, type can send signals of desperation or disorganization. Readers will make those judgments in the blink of an eye.

Typography is a critical factor in an ad's overall design, but we'll revisit design matters another day to keep the focus on type.

One of the biggest problems with type is that there's often too much of it. If you put too much on a page, you've essentially said nothing because readers will find it too easy to pass it up.

In one recent ad, Insight Direct USA is pushing an Hewlett-Packard storage server into the channel. Insight makes the server the hero-and that's fine-but all the bursts of display type seem haphazard. The ad doesn't have a block of type text to tell readers a story about the product and what's in it for them. We would tone down all the display type in favor of some text type. And use the text type properly, of course.

As a rule, text type should be no smaller than nine or 10 point. It should avoid entanglement with other parts of the ad, and column width should be no more than half the width of the ad. In other words, don't go aisle-to-aisle with the text type.

Siemens treats the text type as nothing more than a foot wipe in one of its branding ads. The text is set against the patterned floor of what appears to be an airport concourse or a building lobby as a couple of executives bustle past. Overprinted against the floor is Siemens' message about its skill at making buildings safe, comfortable, productive and less expensive to operate. We're convinced readers will walk past the text because it's difficult for the eye to discern it.

First of all, the message appears in reverse type-white on a dark background. We've relented somewhat about our long-held distaste for reverse type. Sparse amounts of reverse type properly leaded and in a simple sans-serif typeface can sometimes work on dark, uncomplicated backgrounds. But Siemens' text doesn't cut it. The type seems small, its serif face is too complicated to break through the interference. It looks dense and uninviting.

Canon violates our rule about extending a block of type text beyond half the width of the ad. The reader's eye begins to lose steam if it's forced to go beyond the length of the alphabet, or 26 letters. In the copy block, Canon uses an attractive type face and provides ample leading between the lines, but readers will find the text block a challenge because of the width.

Another issue with the ad touting Canon's new multifunction copier is that it flies without a headline. In its place is a sort of subhead in italic type below the illustration. It strikes us as too much italic type, which like bold type should be used sparingly.

We've cursed the darkness. Let's now light a candle in the form of an ad that makes smart use of type. It's an ad for Aetna. In a block of copy astride the image of a message in a bottle, Aetna tells business executives how it can help make their work forces healthier and more productive.

The message appears in an attractive typeface. The text is no more than half the ad's width, and the black type looks sharp against the white background. The headline or display text is equally attractive and legible.

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