Your ultimate guide to understanding typography

typography

Much more than just picking a font and a point size from some drop-down menus on your computer, typography is an art and skill with a rich history stretching back centuries to the wooden and metal letters used with printing presses back in the 15th century.

We encounter typography far more readily than our ancestors did, however; on any given day we observe a staggering range of typefaces before we’ve likely left the bed, from reading emails, carefully designed news articles, or social media platforms. The consumption of modern typography is often little more than an afterthought for many of us but that’s precisely what makes getting it right so incredibly crucial.

As such, typographical errors tend to make a bigger statement than good typography. Mistakes stick out like a sore thumb, while thoughtful typographic choices blend so nicely and imperceptibly with the overall design that you might overlook them altogether. Mastering this art form is as much about avoiding common errors and understanding balance as it is about making bold, artistic statements.

In either case, however, you’ll need to be aware of typographic terminology, key techniques, and fundamental errors in order to create something cohesive. We’ve gathered some of the most important themes below in our complete guide to understanding typography.

What is typography?

At its most basic definition, typography is “the design, or selection, of letterforms to be organized into words and sentences to be disposed of in blocks of type as printing upon a page,” or, in many cases, what appears on our screen, explains Encyclopedia Britannica.

Why is typography important?

The fundamental purpose of typography is to present text in a way that enhances (or diminishes, as the case may be) the experience of reading it. Typography has the ability to alter your experience of reading something, which makes absolutely crucial to the consumption of everything that includes it, from newspaper articles to resumes and package design.

Consider the feeling of reading text that is far too small, or that has minimal space between the letters, as opposed to text that’s crafted in a way you’re expecting: evenly spaced, legible font and size. Or, consider how typography on a poster in wild colors and cleverly arranged can challenge your perception of a product or brand. The true power of typography lies in its ability to alter how you feel about a message being conveyed.

A guide to important typography terms

Image by Alex Block via Unsplash.

Font vs typeface

A font is a set of printable or displayable text characters in a specific style, known as a typeface. Today, the terms ‘font’ and ‘typeface’ are used interchangeably, but they are historically different. Put simply, a typeface is design – it’s what you see; a font is how that design is delivered – it’s what you use. While this distinction has become less important with the rise of desktop publishing, it’s important to understand the historical difference.

Size

A font can be applied in all different sizes and can be used to create visual hierarchy. Visual hierarchy is an important function of the legibility of text; consider a newspaper and its layout of the headline to amplify a focal message, subhead to summarize the piece, and paragraph copy to convey the message in full. The principle of the golden ratio is one you can apply to get this balance right.

Weight

A font’s weight determines how thick or thin characters are displayed. Fonts that are narrow and thin can create a good contrast between a thicker, bolder heading and body text but they have their own drawbacks, as they can be difficult to read on small body text because of how faint they can look.

Ascender

The ascender is the vertical stem that extends above the mean line of a font. In other words, the taller part of a lowercase letter or the upper portion of an uppercase letter. Smaller, introduction or supportive text are usually best on this landing space.

Descender

The descender is the portion of the letter that extends below the baseline of a font. Subheadings or less important text fits well in this space, a simple tagline or embellishment.

Serif

A serif is a typeface with small decorative edges at the ends of the letters. They have a more traditional and sophisticated look. Serif typefaces are suited to long copy as they are easy to read.

Sans Serif

A sans serif is a geometric typeface with no decorative details, additional strokes, or spurs at the end of the letters. They have a more modern, minimalist look and are great for titles.

Script

A script font mimics the stroke of a paintbrush, often linking letters together. Applying a script can add a certain edge to your design. Script typefaces create a dynamic and interesting pairing when combined with a sans serif.

Baseline

The baseline is the line on which most letters sit and below which descenders extend. If you want to add text corresponding to the line above, the baseline is a good space for this.

Tracking (or letter-spacing)

Tracking is adjusting the space between letters throughout an entire word. Designers often elongate shorter words and fill empty space by increasing letter spacing, creating flush lines between headings and subheadings, as shown above.

Kerning

Kerning is similar to tracking in that it determines the space between two letters or characters. However, tracking adjusts space equally through a whole word, kerning only adjusts the distance between two letters. Adjusting space between the letters enhances the visual flow of words. Words can be indecipherable when letters are set too close together and awkward when too far apart.

Leading

Leading refers to how text is spaced vertically in lines and affects the readability of text.

For example, the space between the bottom of the upper line and top of the lower line should be in proportion to the size of the font. Too much or too little space can make it difficult to read and descenders can overlap ascenders.

Line Height

Line height is the distance between two rows of text from the baseline of the upper row to the baseline of the lower row.

Glyphs

Glyphs are the characters and symbols in a typeface, such as an ampersand or asterisk.

Cool typography fonts favored by graphic designers

Pluto

Image by MyFonts.com

A quick glance at Veerle Pieters website reveals her extensive knowledge of typography, but with a friendly tone and a colorful design. Her favorite fonts, told to Typewolf, mimic that same combination of friendly and hardworking.

Pluto can be seen as being informal and friendly on the surface. But, looks can be deceiving. Based on Pluto’s “straight and upright architecture,” it is ideal for a longer copy as well.

Neturaface

Image via House Industries.

Originally created for headlines, Neutraface has a similar combination between form and a wide range of usability. Though its strong architectural background may fool some into thinking it’s only a headline font, Neutraface is actually able to be read at a variety of sizes.

Minion

Image via Fonts.com

Stretching even further back in time for its influence is the Minion font. Both Debbie Millman and Rob Weychert — another esteemed member of the type world — shared their affinity with this Renaissance influenced type with Typewolf.

Though not released until the 1990s, Minion attempts to conjure up classical typefaces with its style. This font is so influential that The Elements of Typographic Style, a guidebook and classic for all typographers, uses it for its body copy. If you want a font that will stand the test of time, then Minion should be your go-to choice.

Brandon Text, Supria Sans and Trade Gothic

Image via Myfonts.com

Image via Typographica 

Image via MyFonts.com

In her interview with the typographer’s dream website, Typewolf, Laura Kalbag reveals three fonts she would take with her if forced to pick. “My current favorite typefaces are HVD’s Brandon Text and Supria Sans. I could probably survive for a long time using nothing but HVD Fonts.”

The reason that these fonts are her favorites is that both are easily readable. They diverge from there though, with Brandon Text reminding her of Art Deco design while Supria Sans “has loads of character and quirkiness whilst staying legible.”

Even when she wants a more utilitarian font, Kalbag likes to have some personality incorporated into it. For that, her go-to is Linotype’s Trade Gothic.

Larsseit

Image via Typewolf

Designers and typographers wanting a clean and readable type should side with Janna Hagan on her favorite font: Larsseit. The reason this font sits at the top of her list is that it’s “modern, fresh and . . . extremely versatile in different contexts.”

Versatility can be a game-changer depending on your project, so designers wanting such flexibility should definitely borrow from Hagan. Not sure where you should start to find your favorite? Hagan suggests looking for inspiration in other mediums and disciplines.

“Even though I’m in design, I’m constantly inspired by photography and art.”

Futura

Image via Pletorica Designs

Scarlet Duba goes back to when she first started on her design journey when choosing this font as her favorite. Futura was her “first favorite typeface... because it is based on the purest geometric forms like the circle.”

This purity of style might strike a chord with many designers, and using Futura is a strong choice when you want that element in your design. Duba also provides quality advice to designers and typographers who need a little inspiration.

“Use the classics a lot,” she suggests. “And, remember it’s about how you use the typeface, not necessarily which one. Some are bold statements, but some allow the center stage to the art/photo/illustration or the body of text you are working with.”

Bryant

Image via Process Type Foundry

Aimee Gauthier explains that “[a] designer’s collection of fonts is like a toolbox, with each tool (or font) having a specific purpose for a specific job or outcome.”

“Some fonts are hard-working and can be used for multiple purposes, while some fonts are very specialized, meant to be used to convey a specific look and feel, or provide visual personality and embellishment to its application.”

Gauthier picked Bryant, which she returns to often because it “has a warm, youthful, approachable tone to it.”

“It’s simple enough to be used as body copy, but also has enough personality to carry it’s own when used more expressively, or in headline copy. I love the range of weights it comes with, and for whatever reason, find myself gravitating back to it over and over.”

Akzidenz Grotesk

Image by Jon Marzette via Behance

Mahédine Yahia, digs deep into the history of type with her favorite font. She loves Akzidenz Grotesk because it was “the first font without serif font-enlargement used.” She also appreciates the impact the font has had in inspiring other popular fonts Helvetica or Arial.

Like Gauthier, Yahia wholeheartedly believes that rising designers must learn the history of type to appreciate it. She encourages all to learn about the designer behind the fonts, because “there’s a story there.” And designers are all about sharing stories at their very core.

Bookmania and Mostra Nuova

Image by Mark Simonson

Image by Mark Simonson 

Mark Simonson, founder of his eponymous studio, doesn’t have a favorite font per se, as he gets to create fonts for a living.

“I have many favorite fonts. It would be impossible to narrow it down to one. I really like fonts, which is a big reason why I became a type designer. . . . [W]hen you ask about a ‘favorite font’ I immediately think ‘for what?’”

Since narrowing down which fonts he loves is difficult, we asked him to share which recent font creations he loved instead. Bookmania was created to blend together the “sturdy elegance of the original Bookman Oldstyle (1901) with the swashy exuberance of the Bookmans of the 1960s.”

While Mostra Nuova takes us to the 1930s and Art Deco period in Italy with its geometric shapes. Simonson was careful to make a few adjustments to Mostra Nuova though to keep it from being “too severely mechanical.”

Mr. Eaves, Mrs. Eaves, and Archer

Image via Typewolf

The most beloved couple of multiple designers are the fonts Mr. and Mrs. Eaves. While many typographers expressed their affinity for this couple, Sophie Elinor Brown provided the best response as to why she loved them.

“For a long time, I was infatuated with Zuzana Licko’s ‘Mrs. Eaves’. ‘Mrs. Eaves’ is full of curves that’ll make your knees weak, and the timeless character set has some truly beautiful ligatures.”

What makes this font even better in Brown’s eyes is the fact that its backstory is, as she described it, “salacious.” “For anyone who thought type design was stuffy, it’s well worth reading up on John Baskerville’s escapades.”

Image via Schrift and Farbe

Archer was a purchase that Brown fell head over heels for as she explored its weights and styles in long-form layouts. “The hairline, in particular, is divine; it’s effortlessly sexy and so thin it’s barely there.”

Her advice to aspiring designers and typographers is to consider the overall implications for your choices.

“Typography might fall under the umbrella of design, but it’s inextricably linked to language. The pieces of lettering that really cut through for me are the ones that are clever, cheeky, or shocking; a design that has style but also substance.”

Uni Grotesk and Lava

Image via Typography.Guru

Image via Typotheque

Peter Bil’ak, founder of Typotheque is a fan of Uni Grotesk and Lava.

“I suppose that’s because they have been developed to address a specific task,” Bil’ak explains. “Uni Grotesk has been used on highway signs, Lava for the body text of a design magazine.”

Equal parts practical and attractive, these fonts should be in your arsenal for a variety of projects.

Bil’ak recommends doing “rigorous research about type before deciding on your choice of fonts.” It’s important to “[t]est typefaces in a specific context of your work, in the real size, real medium, real language, and not in a faux Latin on a screen when you’re going to print something,” he adds.

How to combine typefaces

We all love our typefaces but it is possible to have too much of a good thing. Too many different typefaces in one design can look messy and chaotic. As a rule of thumb, it’s a safe bet to use no more than three different fonts in one typeface, though this “rule” can be broken to good effect in the right context.

If you’re looking for a starting point for combining fonts, a basic sans serif font plus a serif font will almost always go together. Another option is to pick a single typeface or type family that comes with multiple weights and styles—that way, your typography looks cohesive, but you still have variations to choose from.

It can be easy to overuse those weights and styles (like bolding, italics, or capital letters). These styles can be great to add emphasis to text, maybe to make it stand out visually, to show its importance, or to mimic speaking patterns. Just don’t use them all in one passage of text; it looks like you’re trying too hard to get your message across and can feel rude to readers. The occasion should be rare that you even need more than one.

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