Type A Personalities, Typography, and Typos: Why Spelling Makes the Difference

During portfolio critiques, one of the most common areas for improvement I point out is attention to typography. I don’t personally care about your familiarity with umpteen grunge fonts, or if you’ve pledged eternal devotion to Helvetica. But please, please, please, make sure you take another look at the body/header relationships, your use of white space in editorial layout, and your leading, kerning, and tracking. My Type A personality is so strongly tuned to the font fork, that a whole design concept can fall flat if I see a ligature being mistreated, or if I notice a cavernous oblivion between 2 characters that hasn’t been kerned. My god, to me that’s like a cuticle begging to be ripped off with ones teeth but annoyingly ever out of reach. Gack.

So yes. Typography is that important. And why not? Language is the medium of your content. It’s what drives knowledge home with your audience because it’s what they read. And it can be the crowning glory of a piece if you spend as much time on it as you do on any other component of your work.

Still, there’s one other thing that can make your piece de resistance plummet gracelessly like so many tons of concrete just when you thought you’ve finally nailed it. Spelling.

Spelling it out.

I know, I know. You work with whatever content they give you. The copy is their job. Yada, yada. For the love of god people, do yourselves a favour and offer up the power of another pair of eyes to keep things fresh. First of all, most clients have read their content a million times and are completely blind to their own typos. In fact, most of their own internal editors have the same problem. It’s true that – unless you are a bonafide copy editor – when it comes to internal marketing teams everyone is an editor and that means QA is not handled externally until it gets to you. So, chances are if the final version of content submitted over to you for placement is talking about how the ‘CEO is an excellent manger’, the 5 people who had to proof that piece and sign off on it have let that typo slide.

In my experience there are 2 types of people. The designers that won’t say anything because they know that when an authorizing stakeholder or whoever goes to sign off and notices ‘manger’ they will be able to bill out another hour for editing or author’s additions; and the people who will say ‘Hey there, unless your CEO was the infant crib to Jesus, you have a typo. Let me change that for you.’

In all instances, you should strive to be the latter. Now, if client content is laden with typos and grammar issues, or even if it’s unfinished or still in point form, by all means do call your client and tell them that it appears the scope of work has now changed and you will resubmit your quote based on the editing and/or copy writing you will do for them.  If it looks like you are doing one round of edits, give a flat quote. If it looks like there will be back and forth, set up an hourly rate and track your time and edits.

Clients, like anyone else, respond to honesty and professionalism. As designers working in brand application, you are not only managing your client’s identity, you are also managing your own reputation, and your own brand when you take the ethical road. Sheesh, who knew ‘spelling’ was such a loaded issue.

One more sore point. Or Five.

Ok, so it’s one thing when your client gives you content that needs editing or is riddled with Spell Check omissions. It’s completely another when you hand in a proposal that has spelling issues. Here are some common oversights that chill my blood and reinstate that OCD ‘must rip off the cuticle’ feeling..

  1. Stationery versus Stationary
    Alright everyone, here’s the deal. I’m only going to say it once. Stationary means ‘inert’, as in standing still and not going anywhere. Stationery (yes, please note that it’s spelled with an E) means Letterhead and other key print components to a business or personal venture. Now which one do you want to do a proposal for?
    The absolute worst is when I’ve seen people talking about ‘providing a dynamic treatment’ to a client’s stationary. Oh, the full-blown irony.
  2. Canadian versus U.S. spelling
    Spell Check defaults are set to American English – remember that. If you are responding to a Canadian RFP (that’s Request For Proposal to newbies), you should be writing in Canadian English. Case-closed. That means you’ll be writing ‘labour’, ‘colour’, and ‘judgement’ among others. If you are responding to an American RFP, you will be spelling colour without the ‘u’, and discussing ‘judgment’. That’s the winning protocol. Don’t mix genres. And if you are stumped, then there is nothing wrong with asking your contact how they prefer things spelled out. It’s just like verifying the spelling of a client’s key executive names (which you should ALWAYS do before you submit a proposal, even if you think you’ve got everything figured out).
  3. Letter Transpositions (The Untied States)
    It’s a rule of nature really: only the most embarrassing letter transpositions are the ones that don’t get picked up by Spell Check. This is how ‘united’ becomes ‘untied’, or ‘fired’ becomes ‘fried’. This is why you want someone on the outside to read your work for you.
  4. Capitals and More Rules
    It’s always good to check that everything that’s supposed to be capitalized, is. But this extends beyond your rule for proper nouns. This applies to your own rules within the document. For example: if you are referring to Phase One throughout your proposal, then that should remain capitalized throughout. Switching between Phase One and ‘phase one’, makes it confusing. Phase One has become a proper noun, while ‘phase’ remains regular and refers to phases in general. Have someone go through your work to check for continuity throughout before you hand your final documents over to a client.
  5. Spaces
    Inadvertent spaces between parts of words (e.g., a pple), can usually be caught during Spell Check, but not always. You want to check and double check this because it not only looks careless, it also looks like you really screwed up your kerning. Another similar issue is that of hyphenated or two-word phrases, and compound word mistakes (e.g., full-text or full text vs. fulltext). Wherever possible get the correct spellings, and apply throughout. If there is some debate as to hyphenation then ask around. At the end of the day consistency wins. If you make up your mind once, then stick to your guns throughout the entire document. I’ll share a little hands-on experience. When you read about financial tools and tax advantage products in Canada, you see articles about flow throughs, flow-throughs, Flow-throughs etc. It’s ridiculous. At the end of the day, you and your client just have to sit down and pick one, or tailor a spelling that either everyone agrees on, or that fits in with the brand. After that, it should become hard-wired into the corporate vernacular and be the only spelling in all of their documentation. My client and I decided on ‘Flow-Through’ to formalize the concept. Is it right? For us it was. Consistency wins!


The last thing I want to share with you is a link to the top 25 commonly misspelled business words. It’s a quiz, so have fun with it. It’s also a bit of a jolt if you’ve become dependent on Spell Check and auto-correction to do your work for you. It’s good to get shaken up once in a while though. http://www.businesswriting.com/tests/commonmisspelled.html


Typography is a beautiful art. And while I hesitate before bestowing a similar compliment on Grammar in general, I do have to say that typography and syntax go hand in hand from the beginning. My word of advice to anyone with a message to broadcast, is check, double check, and spell it out for your audience.


Kat Inokai
Creative Director

1.      Letter Transpositions (e.g., “Untied States” )

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