Typography 101: A Crash Course

Typography is a discipline that goes back many centuries. With the revolution of desktop publishing came a level of typography that was only known to a select few. Today, the use of type by graphic and web designers has developed into an art in itself. Now sophisticated software enables anyone to be a type expert!

Communication Through Typography

In verbal communication there is a transfer of information between speaker and listener. So that your message is understood, you choose words that are pertinent to the conversation and you speak in a tone of voice in order to communicate an idea. To communicate in print is a bit more challenging. However, the basic goal is to get the message across as successfully as possible.

In print, the appearance of text enhances the message the author is trying to convey. By changing the appearance of the words, you can make a connection with the reader. Without typography the words would be left to the unvarying typewriter-style font.

The Beginning of Type

For many years the only way to reproduce information was for each copy to be handwritten. The development of print by Johannes Gutenberg in the 15th century changed this and enabled the mass production of moveable type.

Gutenberg developed a system to produce type more quickly. Each letter was carved into steel which was then cast into molds. The letters were assembled into words and lines which were then assembled to create a page. Gutenberg’s invention revolutionized printing and formed the basis of all printing for centuries to come. He paved the way for the publishing world to produce type more effectively and efficiently.

Anatomy and Development of Type

Each letter on a printed page has been stylized and cast in a “glyph”, or graphical character. Over the years a terminology has developed to include:

  • Stems – the main vertical strokes in characters such as i and t
  • Counters – the half-enclosed spaces in the letters c and e
  • X-height – the height of a lowercase x
  • Ascenders – lines which extend above the x-height
  • Descenders – lines which extend below the x-height
  • Bowls – the enclosed looped spaces in the letters b and d
  • Serifs – ornamental ticks on certain typefaces as in the font Times New Roman

Each of these elements are put together to give each glyph its own character. There are many possible glyphs for each letter. The typographer’s art is being able to create unique and recognizable typefaces.

In the beginnings of type, the handwritten style was replicated often, but eventually the angles, fluidity, and serifs were reduced to increase readability. A trend eventually emerged where typefaces had no serifs at all. Nowadays you will see many combinations of old type and new type.


Each font has its own unique shape and personality. The computer user has literally thousands of different typefaces to choose from. As a type designer, the goal is creating a character set, or “font”, that shares a unique look and feel. As a graphic or web designer, the goal is to choose the type of font that fits in with the project and will produce a particular effect.

Early typecasters used the “point” to measure type size and this measure is still used today. There are 72 points to an inch and each point is 1/72 of an inch. The main text used to read falls in between 9 and 12 points.

For most projects it is recommended to use as few fonts as possible so that it does not distract from the message. It’s much better to use simple combinations of fonts.

Layout and Spacing

Composing the type to fit a line takes some skill and little bit of strategy. An important factor to remember is that the line can neither be too short nor too long because the reader may find it tiring to read. A rule of thumb is that a line should have around 10 words on average. The ideal line length is not a hard-and-fast rule, so it is advisable to just experiment.

Another important aspect of typography is how the letters are combined to produce an attractive and readable arrangement. There are many ways of balancing letter and word spacing. “Justifying” or the alignment of text to the left, center, or right produces different effects on a printed page. Another way to handle space on the page involves choosing the ideal space between each line.

Computer Type and the Web

The advent of the computer and the internet has revolutionized the world of typography. Thanks to companies such as Adobe, Quark XPress, and Microsoft, it has become easier to publish and share information universally and instantly. Designers now have the flexibility and are able to control their type directly on the page just as it would appear in print. The possibilities are endless.

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