running words around
design education and visual communication
authored by chris m hughes

Reid Miles and the Art of Condensed Typography

Thursday, 20 January 2011

Condensed sans serif typography seems to be everywhere at the moment. It's all over the latest advertising campaigns, direct mail, film posters, magazines, TV ads, and, increasingly, thanks to the @fontface rule, websites.

This month's WIRED magazine features some great spreads and headings in condensed sans -

wired 1

wired 2

- and websites such as Amazon's lovefilm.com, and the new glasgowfilm.org, which I wrote about recently, are converts.

Condensed sans serif type is a poor choice for body text. The classic technique is tightly kerned, bold and uppercase, with no more than a few words in a single line. This makes it ideal for titles, headlines, pull quotes, and numbering. The legibility is strong and clean, but it tends to fall off dramatically as you increase the letter spacing.

At its best the snug parallel vertical lines and narrow counterspaces give a sturdy, factual quality. If you throw in a minimal colour palette, the result is a retro print style with a distinctly American feel to it. For me this brings to mind newspapers, posters and magazine covers from the 50’s and 60’s, and, above all, jazz record sleeves.

The record covers for the Blue Note, Prestige and Impulse! jazz releases are where I first became aware of this kind of typography. My father had a few of these and they made a big impression on me - the covers were often composed of nothing more than huge words, a couple of coloured boxes, and occasionally, a silouette or cropped monochrome image of the artist.

When you looked at one it felt like a real document of the music and of the era.

As well as the musicians which the labels had in common - John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins and so on, one designer's name became synonymous with jazz coverart - Reid Miles.

Reid Miles is famous for his work with Blue Note, where he designed upwards of five hundred record sleeves and in the process invented the quintissential jazz visual. Working almost exclusively in the American post-war typeface Trade Gothic, Miles laid the groundwork for the classic and much-imitated American look that we associate with condensed sans serifs.

The cover art, often featuring Francis Wolff's photography, combined tinted black and white photographs, a restricted color palette (often black and white with a single color), and frequent use of solid rectanged areas. Plus of course the amazing typography. Here are some good examples, all dating from the 1950’s and 1960’s.

To varying degrees, these examples all demonstrate the classic technique, and they showcase the versatility of the typography. One surprising aspect of Reid Miles work is that he apparently wasn't a very big fan of jazz. Rather than listening to the music, he worked directly from written descriptions of the music and the artists, given to him by the record labels.

That may account for the incredible variety of compositions he managed to inject into the 12” sleeve format with a minimal set of tools.

Along with Milton Glaser and Bill Gold, Reid Miles contributed to a very distinct style of American graphic design - popular, commercial, iconic, and acknowledging a loose appreciation of modernism without becoming too formalised. Which explains why condensed sans serifs still work so well.

Reid Miles gallery @ Hard Format
Blue Note Photography of Francis Wolff
The CoverArt of Blue Note @ amazon
Reid Miles Image search @ google