Typography 101: Are You My Type?
Typography, or the study of type, focuses on the art of arranging type to make words both appealing and legible when displayed. The purpose of written language is to effectively communicate thoughts and ideas, and some typefaces are better suited for certain situations than others.
A basic understanding of typographic elements (or working with an awesome design agency, like us) can save you from making a font faux pas on your next big project.
The History of Type
The word typography is derived from the Greek words typos, meaning “form” or “impression,” and graphein, “to write.” Early forms of writing were carved in clay or stone, and later, written on papyrus and parchment. Paper was first invented in China in 105 CE, spread to Japan, and eventually spread to Europe. By 1600 CE there were more than 16,000 paper mills in operation.
In the mid-1400s, German goldsmith Johann Gutenberg designed his first metal movable type press, inspired by the grape press used in winemaking. This method of printing uses moveable components, like individual letters and punctuation marks, to reproduce a document in a much more consistent and legible manner than handwritten copies. The metal movable printing press made mass communication possible and allowed ideas and information to flow throughout Renaissance Europe, increasing literacy and permanently altering the structure of society.
Essential Elements of Type
Many of the terms associated with typography stem from the metal movable type press, where individual letters and punctuation needed to be arranged and set by hand. Today, people can make changes to an entire paragraph in the matter of moments with the proper software.
Type size is measured in points, and one point is 1/72 of an inch. Word processing systems tend to default to 12-point font, but the majority of books, newspapers, and other publications are set at a smaller point size. Type sizes as low as 10-point (or 10 pt) are often quite legible for body text.
Baseline, Median, and Cap Height
The baseline is the invisible line that defines the visual base of all of the letterforms, the median is the line defining the x-height of the letterforms, and the cap height marks the visual height of the capital letters in a typeface.
Ascender vs. Descender
An ascender is the portion of the letterform that extends above the median. The ascender height is the imaginary line that defines the height of all the ascenders. A descender is the portion of the letterform that extends below the baseline, and the descender height describes the distance between the baseline and the end of a descender.
The x-height of a typeface is the distance from the baseline to the top of a lowercase “x” in that typeface. Typefaces with large x-heights can appear to be condensed and more difficult to read in body copy. Smaller x-heights make ascenders and descenders more pronounced.
Leading is the spacing between the baselines of text. Many programs automatically set the space to be 120 percent of the type size, but heavier or lighter fonts may need special treatment. If leading is too narrow, the lines of type may appear crowded, and if leading is too wide the paragraph may look more like black and white lines instead of a body of text.
Kerning vs. Tracking
Kerning is the adjustment of the space between specific letters in a word to improve the overall legibility of the word. Kerning can be applied to specific letter pairs that need a better visual alignment. Tracking also controls the spacing of a word, but it affects all letters in that word equally.
Line length refers to the number of characters in a line of text before the line “breaks” and continues to the next line. If the line length of a paragraph is too long, it can be tiresome for the eye to read. A good rule of thumb is to try to keep a line between 35 to 65 characters long when working with body text.
Font vs. Typeface
A typeface is made up of one or more fonts that share similar characteristics. Each font within a typeface, or “font family,” has a specific weight and style. “Font” is also the technical term for the digital file of a typeface.
Text Type vs. Display Type
Text type is type that is intended for presentation between 6 pt and 12 pt. Display type is typically meant to draw attention, and is typically presented at 18 pt and above. Display type tends to be much more characteristic and styled than text type and is, therefore, more difficult to read at smaller sizes. As typographer John Kane explains, “Display typefaces are meant to be ‘seen’ more than ‘read.’”
A serif typeface has “serifs,” or slight projections, at the ends of the letterform that often resemble the shape of a pen mark. Serif typefaces may also be called “Roman” typefaces. Examples of serif typefaces include Times New Roman and Georgia.
Sans serif typefaces are those without serifs (sans in French means “without”). These typefaces are sometimes called “Grotesque” or “Gothic,” and include typefaces like Arial and Helvetica.
Selecting A Typeface
If your project requires more variation than one type family allows, consider adding a second, complementary typeface. Be careful, though — incorporating too many typefaces in one design can quickly look amateurish and illegible. Try to use no more than two or three typefaces at one time.
There are many different aspects of typography to consider when selecting the best typeface or font for your project. Now that you are familiar with the key elements of typography, you can make informed decisions about what typeface best suits your needs.
Below are some great resources for learning more about typography.