Welcome to Type Fun01, a fun and engaging introduction into the world of typography. Type Fun01 was created to show the bare bone basics of typography in an intuitive and easy to digest way. Ready to go?!
While sporting strong typography skills is an important tool for designers, it's good knowledge for non-designers to have as well. Knowing and understanding good typography can improve common tasks like writing a paper, article, invitation, resume, cover letter, or even whipping up a digital presentation.
Type Fun01 will introduce some of the concepts, jargon, tips, and techniques to using type properly. And once you've learned the basics, you'll start noticing bad type all over the place.
You mean there's more to typography than computers and printers?
Sure is! Books, posters, letters, and every other form of printed type was inscribed or written by hand until typography and printing were revolutionized by the invention of movable type. The earliest known movable type system was created in China in the early 11th century, followed by the first metal movable type system in Korea in the early 13th century. Unfortunately, due to the ridiculous amount of money and labor it took to create and manipulate the thousands of characters in Asian alphabets, it never really took off.
Somewhere around the mid-15th century, a man by the name of Johannes Gutenberg broke typographical ground with his invention of the printing press. He created a practical method of mechanical printing using movable type, kicking off the printing revolution. The Gutenberg press allowed the operator to turn little lead blocks of single letters into pages of text. Best of all? You could print a couple hundred pages in an hour. While arranging type letter by letter may seem tedious nowadays, it still sounds a lot better than writing two hundred copies by hand.
Setting type on letterpresses was the primary printing method for hundreds of years until the digital era, and is still used today in a world dominated by computers. Learning how to use a letterpress is a great way to see what printing was like up to the mid to late 20th century. Nothing makes you want to hug your computer more than painstakingly digging through drawers of metal rectangles trying to find a lowercase "t".
Photo by Livy Hoskins
Photo by Willi Heidelbach
But there’s so many kinds of typefaces! How can I tell them apart?
With a little bit of practice you'll be able to spot typefaces like a hawk. You might be thinking, "Hey Will, why do you keep saying typeface? Do you mean font?" Sort of. Nowadays the two terms are often used interchangeably, but there is a difference. Think of it this way: a typeface is what you see, and a font is what you use to see it. When talking about the Jonas Brothers' hot new jam, you don't say, "I love that .MP3", you say "I love that song." Typeface is to font as song is to digital audio file. Easy, right?
Once you learn the general differences between styles, you'll start noticing small details that distinguish one typeface from another. Before we take a look at some common styles, a word of warning: classifying typefaces isn't always cut and dry, and it's pretty common for a typeface to fall into more than one category. Some people are very picky when it comes to talking about type, so don't sweat it if you say a font is a display face and someone else screams that it's ornamental.
A serif typeface is—in the most generic sense—a typeface with serifs, the little feet-like strokes at the end of certain letters. Some people believe that serif typefaces are best for setting large blocks of body text because they are easier to read than sans serif and help guide the eye along lines of text. While there's currently no scientific evidence to back that up, serif typefaces continue to be the go-to choice for magazines, newspapers, and books.
Sans serif is—you guessed it—a typeface without serifs. Sans serif (occasionally referred to as "gothic") typefaces have less contrast and variation in stroke width, and are typically used in headlines and signage since they usually appear "blacker" than serif typefaces.
Slab serif (sometimes called "Egyptian") typefaces are a sub-category of serif typefaces, characterized by having thick, block-like serifs. Since they naturally tend to be quite bold, slab serif typefaces are often used in headlines, posters, and advertisements.
Display faces are the oddball of type styles. While some people classify a display face as simply a typeface set at large or "display" sizes, many people consider the fun, quirky, decorative, doesn't-really-fit-in-any-other-category typefaces to be display faces. Display faces are typically used in specific situations and are almost never suitable for body text.
Script typefaces can be considered a sub-category of display faces, and typically resemble cursive handwriting. Script typefaces have been traditionally used in elegant situations, but there are definitely some fun looking ones out there too.
Monospaced typefaces—as the name might imply—are typefaces whose characters each take up the same amount of horizontal space. This means that a lowercase 'i' is just as wide as a capital 'M'. Monospaced typefaces were originally designed for typewriters since they could only move a set distance forward after each letter was typed. They are often seen in some command line programs like Windows' Command Prompt and OS X's Terminal.
You're saying a letter has different parts?!
Yep! Lots of 'em. When talking about type, it's important to know the name of the part you're describing. Plus, you'll sound like you really know what you're talking about. Instead of saying "That part sticking up is too long" or "There's not enough space between lines," you can say "That ascender is too long" and "The leading is a little tight."
But just like when talking about the style of a typeface, there's more than one way to describe parts of a character. You might call the open space in a lowercase 'e' a counter, whereas somebody else might call it an eye. No need to get in a fight and insult each other's mothers; you're both correct!
Hover over the colored circles below to see the names and brief descriptions of common terms used when talking about typography. Once you think you've mastered them all, try quizzing yourself by naming them without peeking.
I think I get it. Am I a typographer now?
Easy there, Speedy Gonzales! First we have to look at all the little intricacies that go into setting type, from the different ways text is aligned to the spaces between letters. It all contributes to the overall look and legibility of the type, so pay attention! Click the examples to the right to zoom.
PUMP 'EM FULL OF LEAD
I'm sure you already know this from the anatomy section above, but leading (pronounced "ledding") is the measurement of vertical space between baselines in a block of text. The term originates from when type was set by hand (you remember learning that too, don't you smarty-pants?) and strips of lead were placed between lines of type. When saying the point size and leading of type, say "(point size) over (leading)." For example, a paragraph set in 9 point Helvetica with 12 point leading would be described as "Helvetica 9 over 12" (written as Helvetica 9/12).
You might be asking "Okay, so how big should my leading be?", but unfortunately there's no magic number. Many word processors and page layout applications have an automatic leading option, but you'll probably have to tweak that to get the optimum results. Start somewhere around 120-150% of your point size and go from there.
WHEN STARS ALIGN
You’ve probably noticed in programs such as Microsoft Word that there are several ways to align type. The most common is flush left (also called left-aligned or flush left, ragged right), where the left side of each line of text is aligned. This is how the majority of books are aligned as it’s the easiest to read (well, at least in countries that read left to right).
Flush right (also called right-aligned or flush right, ragged left) is the opposite of flush left, where the type is aligned to the right edge of the text. Large chunks of text set flush right can be difficult to read since the reader’s eye no longer has a sharp left edge to come back to.
Centered text is aligned to an imaginary vertical line down the center of the text. Centered text can often be found in poetry.
Justified text adjusts the word and letter spacing within each line of text to create a sharp left and right edge. This works great for magazine and newspaper articles, but can often yield undesirably big spaces between words. More on that later.
TOO LONG; DIDN'T READ
Line length is pretty self-explanatory, it's the length of a single line of text (known as a "measure") before it gets "bumped" down to the next line. How many characters/words there are in a line of text plays a big role in legibility. If lines are too long (imagine one column of small text that spans across an entire sheet of 8.5x11" paper), it gets confusing to the reader as they may have a hard time finding the beginning of the next line. Contrariwise, if the lines are too short, the reader might get annoyed having to jump down to a new line after every third word. It's much better to have two skinnier columns than one as wide as the Mississippi.
Like everything else in typography, there's some discrepancy when it comes to ideal line length. Some say 40 to 50 characters, others say 39-45, and other others say anywhere between 45-75. Aim for somewhere around 50 characters and make tweaks from there.
RIVERS, WIDOWS, AND ORPHANS.
Rivers are the wide gaps of white space that form when a block of text is justified poorly. An orphan is a single line of text left all alone at the bottom of a page or column. Similarly, a widow is a single line at the top of a page or column. A widow can also be a single word left at the end of a paragraph.
THE SPACE BETWEEN
Kerning is the adjusting of space between two letters. Manual kerning is often necessary for pesky letter pairs (ex. AV, TA, P., To, Ty, Wa) that would otherwise appear to have an unsightly gap between them.
Look at the top example over there; When the right edge of the A is lined up with the left edge of the V, a big blob of nothing opens up between them. They look much better when kerned so their edges overlap a bit.
Tracking (or letterspacing) is the adjusting of space between a group of letters. It is often used to tighten or loosen a block of text to take up less or more space, respectively. The second example is kerned and untracked, and the third is tracked 180/1000 em. An em is a unit of measurement relative to the point size of the type. In a 12-point font, 1 em is equal to 12 points. In a 9-point font, 1 em is equal to 9 points. Got it? Good.
CAN I HAVE YOUR NUMBER?
Many fonts come with different types of numbers. The kind you’re probably most used to seeing is lining figures, numbers that sit on the baseline and have the same height as uppercase letters.
The other kind of numerals are old style figures (also called non-lining), numbers that have varied heights and often dip below the baseline to mimic lowercase letters. Old style figures are designed to be used in blocks of text instead of lining figures, which appear jarring and out of place. Lining figures work best when used in tables or with uppercase type.
Type is the bee's knees! Where can I
That's the attitude, you newborn type-lover! Type Fun01 has gotten your feet wet, but there's a lot more to typography than what you saw on this page. If you're still eager to get further edumacated on type, have a look at the links below.
The Art of Hand Lettering
Fonts In Use
Friends of Type
Hoefler & Frere-Jones
H&FJ: Four Techniques for Combining Fonts
I Love Typography
Lost Type Co-op
The Ministry of Type
Thinking With Type
Typography for Lawyers
We Love Typography