A novice could easily confuse the two. On a conceptual level, though, text grades are fundamentally different from type weights. Weights are meant to create differences between type styles, to allow readers to easily distinguish one type style from another. (Think of a bold word in a paragraph of text set in a lighter weight.) Grades, however, are designed to do the exact opposite: they make type in different environments appear similar. Their weight increases in a different way to preserve the overall proportions and contrast of the characters. The spacing of the Regular weight remains unchanged throughout the different grades. Switching grades will not affect the length of a text.
Grades were originally developed to counter the effect of printing on distinct paper stocks, so that text printed in offset on glossy paper would have the same gray value as text on uncoated stock printed in a high-speed flexography environment. But grades have also found a new life on screens.
Using grades in print
When text is transferred to a medium, it undergoes subtle but noticeable changes. Consider letterpress, for example—the act of forcefully pressing the raised and inked letters into paper creates a relief. The ink squeezes outward, which makes the printed letters appear a little bolder, a little darker than the original metal sorts they were transferred from. And even with offset printing, ink spreads slightly as it gets sucked into the paper. Exactly by how much depends on how absorbent the stock is. So if a publication or organization wants to achieve a consistent text image across different media, it needs a type family with grades to counter these minute differences. Similarly, printed text—reproduced on a surface that reflects light—looks different from text on a screen that emits light.
Weights are drawn with a clear end product in mind. A type designer can literally see how much lighter or darker the characters are from one weight to the next. Designing grades is a much more abstract and speculative activity: one needs to anticipate what the resulting text will look like, as it can only be evaluated after the end product has been printed on actual stock. That’s why text grades are usually available in a range of increments (typically four). Some testing is required to determine which grade should be used on which paper stock. Ultimately, both the experience of the type designer and the eye of the type user are crucial for achieving the desired result.
As a rule of thumb, use the lightest grade (Grade 1) when there is a considerable amount of ink spread; use the heaviest (Grade 4) when printing on a super-smooth substrate that absorbs virtually no ink. Also, consider whether the text is printed positive or knocked out. In the case of substantial ink spread, use the lightest grade for positive text but the darkest grade for negative text, since the ink will eat away at the letterforms.
Using grades on screen
Just as ink behaves in specific ways when printed on an absorbent surface, light emitted by a screen also affects letterforms—the lighter parts erode the darker parts. This makes negative text (i.e., light letters on a dark background) seem heavier than dark letters on a light background; the light seems to push the letter contours outward. To achieve the desired text image, use a lighter grade with knocked-out type than with positive text.
Grades can be put to more experimental uses, too. For example, in websites and interactive applications, words can be made to grow heavier when the cursor hovers over them, or when they are clicked. And, hypothetically, if an application has the means to register ambient light, rendered text can switch to a heavier grade in order to counter adverse lighting conditions, thereby increasing legibility and readability.
A multitude of applications exists for grades, both in print and on screen, and we will likely see more possibilities develop in the future.
Like all Lipton fonts, Bennet is available for print, web, applications, and ePub licensing. Webfonts may be tested free for thirty days. To stay current on all things Lipton, subscribe to Type Network News, our occasional email newsletter featuring font releases, foundry happenings, type and design events, and more.
Bald Condensed, né Yves Peters, is a Belgian-based rock drummer known for his astute observations on the impact of letterforms in the contemporary culture-sphere. A prolific writer on typography, he has a singular knack for identifying the most obscure typefaces known to man.