Typography is one of the most important elements in graphic design. It can make or break a design, set a mood, convey a message, and elicit an emotional response from viewers. Mastering typography is essential for any designer looking to create visually stunning and effective designs. This comprehensive guide will provide all the nitty-gritty details designers need to confidently utilize typography in their work.
An Introduction to Typography
Before diving into the specifics, it’s helpful to cover some typography basics. Typography refers to the style and appearance of printed text. It encompasses factors like:
- Typeface – This is the overall look of lettering. Popular typefaces include Times New Roman, Arial, Helvetica, etc.
- Font – This refers to a specific weight and style within a typeface family. For example, Arial Bold or Helvetica Ultralight Italic.
- Size – The height of characters, measured in points (pt). Standard sizes range from 6pt to 72pt.
- Leading – The space between lines of text, also measured in points. The baseline-to-baseline distance.
- Tracking – The space between individual letters across a block of text. Also referred to as letter spacing.
- Kerning – The space between pairs of letters. Kerning fine-tunes tracking for specific letter combinations.
- Alignment – The positioning of text within a container, like left-aligned, right-aligned, centered or justified.
Typography has the power to convey voice, set a mood, establish hierarchy, imply meaning, and elicit emotion. Careful typographic choices are crucial for effective visual communication.
One of the most important typographic decisions is selecting appropriate typefaces. With thousands available, this can be daunting. Below are some tips for choosing fonts:
Consider the Message and Audience
Fonts have innate personalities and convey certain feelings. For example, script and serif fonts imply tradition, while sans serif fonts feel clean and modern. Make intentional choices based on the message you want to communicate and your target audience. Playful, casual scripts would be fitting for a childcare brand, while sleek sans serifs work for high-tech companies.
Limit Font Pairings
Using too many fonts makes designs feel disjointed. Starting with one or two typeface families is best. For example, just use different weights and styles within the Helvetica family. If combining multiple families, ensure they work cohesively.
Pair Serif and Sans Serif Fonts
A classic combination is pairing a serif font with a sans serif one. The visual contrast can create hierarchy and add interest. Use serifs for headlines and sans serifs for body text.
Evaluate legibility and how fonts will be used. Display fonts may have intricate letterforms better suited for headlines, while text fonts should be clean and highly readable for long copy.
Before using a font, verify licensing allows commercial use and any other intended applications. Many free fonts limit commercial use.
Font Styles and Weights
Within an individual font family there are different styles and weights to provide further typographic flexibility:
- Roman – The basic upright style and regular weight of a typeface. Also referred to as regular or normal.
- Italic – A cursive version of the roman style that slants to the right. Used to emphasize words.
- Bold – A thicker, heavier version of the regular weight. Adds emphasis and makes text stand out.
- Bold Italic – Combines the thicker bold weight with an italic style.
- Light – A thinner, more delicate version of a font. Used for subtitles or de-emphasized text.
- Light Italic
- Medium – A slightly thicker version, between regular and bold. Provides added emphasis.
- Semibold – Similar to medium but closer to a true bold weight.
- Ultralight – An extremely light and thin weight. Mainly used for display purposes.
- Heavy – An extra bold weight. Heavier than bold. Used sparingly to draw attention.
- Black – The boldest weight available in a typeface. Very thick strokes making letters stand out.
Choosing appropriate font sizes helps establish visual hierarchy and improve readability:
- Display/Headline Text – For prominent text like titles and headlines. Generally 18pt and above.
- Subheadings – Used to break up sections of body copy. Around 14 to 16pt.
- Body Text – The main text. Recommended between 10 to 12pt for easy reading.
- Figure Captions – Supplementary text accompanying images. Usually 8 to 10pt.
- Fine Print – Detailed legal copy or disclaimers. Set around 6 to 8pt.
Ensure there is enough contrast between font sizes. Headings should be significantly larger than body text. Use sizes consistently throughout a design.
Line Spacing (Leading)
The space between lines of text, called leading (pronounced “ledding”), impacts readability. Insufficient leading causes letters to crash into each other while excessive leading creates disjointed paragraphs:
- Too Tight – Text feels cramped and dense. Avoid less than 1-2pts between lines.
- Too Loose – Lines appear disconnected and hard to follow. More than 4pts makes reading difficult.
- Just Right – Ideal leading is 120% of the point size. 10pt text would have 12pt line spacing.
Leading should be greater for large text like headlines and reduced for smaller text. Play with leading to fine tune paragraph spacing.
Letter Spacing (Tracking)
Tracking refers to the uniform spacing between all letters across a text block. It should be adjusted for proper readability:
- Too Tight – Letters crash into each other, reducing readability. Avoid tracking below -10.
- Too Loose – Gaps between letters make words disjointed. Don’t track wider than +50.
- Just Right – Normal tracking ranges from 0 to +10 for easy reading. Headlines can be set slightly wider.
Tracking should be adjusted based on the font and point size. Tighter tracking works better for display fonts and larger sizes. Use looser tracking for lengthy body copy.
Kerning controls the spacing between specific letter pairs like A and V or T and Y to create visually balanced typography:
- Too Tight – Letters collide into each other making words hard to decipher.
- Too Loose – Excess space between letters looks awkward and hinders readability.
- Just Right – Ideal kerning eliminates collisions while maintaining an even texture.
Many font families include customized kerning. Designers can also manually adjust kerning as needed. Use tight kerning for display fonts and loosen for text.
Paragraph formatting like alignment and indentation can greatly impact readability:
Left Aligned – The default alignment. Text lines up along the left margin. Used for most body copy.
Right Aligned – Text lines up along the right margin. Used sparingly but can work for short captions.
Centered – Each line is centered within a paragraph. Mainly used for concise text like titles and subtitles.
Justified – Text aligns along both the left and right margins. Creates solid blocks of copy by adding spacing between words. Use minimally as large word spacing hinders readability.
Flush Left/Ragged Right – Paragraphs align along the left but remain uneven on the right. Easier to read than justified text.
Paragraph Indents – Indenting the first line of a new paragraph about 1⁄2 inch improves readability by clearly separating paragraphs.
Hanging Indents – Indenting all but the first line of a paragraph. Commonly used in works cited pages, outlines, etc.
Negative Indents – The opposite of a paragraph indent. Should only be used intentionally for aesthetic purposes.
Establishing proper typographic hierarchy allows viewers to intuitively navigate designs by emphasizing certain elements over others:
Strategies for Creating Hierarchy
- Vary Font Sizes – Use larger sizes for headings and smaller sizes for body text
- Increase Weight – Make key text bolder through fonts like bold or black
- Use Contrasting Fonts – Differentiate elements by pairing serifs with sans serifs
- Add Space – Increase leading and tracking for emphasis
- Use Color – Make important text stand out with color
Common Visual Hierarchy Structures
- Body Text
- Image Captions & Credits
Maintaining consistency across hierarchy levels is crucial. Format related text elements the same way throughout a design.
Contrast refers to visual differences. Intentionally creating contrast between typographic elements adds interest and helps establish hierarchy. Ways to contrast type include:
Size Contrast – Pairing large display text with smaller body copy
Weight Contrast – Combining thick, bold fonts with thinner light ones
Style Contrast – Mixing elegant script fonts with a simple sans serif
Color Contrast – Using different colors, like black and white
Placement Contrast – Positioning text in different areas of a composition
Too much contrast can feel chaotic while too little comes off as dull. Find the right balance for your designs.
Display or headline text encompasses larger typography often used for main titles, subtitles and callouts. Below are tips for stylish display text:
Choose a Display Font
Opt for typefaces specifically designed for large-scale settings like headlines. Avoid text faces only meant for reading sizes.
Play with Leading
Increase line spacing between stacked headline text to make it more dramatic and attention-grabbing.
Display text can handle more generous letter spacing. Tracking between +20 to +100 improves readability at large sizes.
Reduce kerning in display text so letters appear closer together but don’t actually collide.
Applying color to display text makes it bolder and more eye-catching. Just ensure sufficient contrast with the background.
Body copy makes up the main text content. Follow these practices for highly readable body text:
Choose a Text Face
Opt for typefaces designed specifically for lengthy reading like Baskerville, Times, Georgia, etc.
Add subtle letter spacing of +5 to +15 for easier reading over long copy. Avoid large gaps.
Use slightly looser leading around 120-150% the point size. Allows space between lines.
Left aligned or flush left body copy is most readable for western languages. Avoid justified or centered text blocks.
Use Good Sizes
Ideal body text sizes range from 10pt to 12pt. Ensure consistency throughout all body paragraphs.
Carefully arranging typographic elements creates organized, harmonious designs:
Establish Visual Hierarchy
Make key text prominent through size, color and placement. Supporting text remains subdued.
Align and Group
Align text elements and group related components to keep the layout organized.
Pair both serifs and sans serifs together but use consistently across hierarchy levels.
Balance Text and Negative Space
Prevent clutter by allowing sufficient breathing room around text areas.
Use typography to lead the viewer’s eye through the design in a methodical, intentional flow.
Textured and Distressed Typography
Adding texture provides dimension and a handcrafted vibe to typography for these effects:
Rough – Ragged edges emulate paint strokes. Works for vintage looks.
Grunge – Grimy textures with scratches and stains. Suits edgy aesthetics.
Distressed – Faded, worn down letters. Conveys old, weathered texture.
Ornate – Intricate embellishments and patterns. Provides classic elegance.
Watercolor – Bleeding, pigmented letters. A softer, artsy vibe.
Use sparingly to maintain readability. Texture works best on display text and short copy.
Creatively Styling Text
With endless ways to manipulate text, designers shouldn’t limit themselves to plain type. Get creative with:
Overlapping Letters – Stack and overlap characters to form abstract shapes.
Unconventional Rotation – Tilt and angle text for dynamic impact.
3D Effects – Make letters appear three-dimensional by adding depth and perspective.
Kinetic Effects – Mimic motion with blurred repetition and streaks.
Fragmentation – Break apart and scatter letters. Shows motion or transition.
Don’t go overboard. Use restraint to keep text legible and readable where needed.
Typographic Mistakes to Avoid
While typography involves creativity, designers should avoid the following pitfalls:
- Using too many fonts and styles randomly. Stick to one or two families.
- Making body text justified. Left aligned paragraphs have best readability.
- Setting body text in bold, italic or ALL CAPS. Use for occasional emphasis only.
- Using excessive letter spacing. Track and kern conservatively for readability.
- Not having enough contrast between fonts. Differentiate elements clearly.
- Overusing display or decorative fonts. Use sparingly and minimally.
- Setting any text smaller than 6pt. It becomes impossible to read.
- Stretching or condensing letterforms disproportionately. Maintain the original font proportions.
- Using low-quality fonts with jagged edges. Stick to high-quality typefaces.
Making typography readable for all viewers should be a top priority. Here are some accessibility tips:
- Use sufficiently large font sizes, at least 12pt for body text
- Maintain adequate contrast between text and background colors
- Avoid low quality decorative fonts that hinder legibility
- Allow text elements to be resized without breaking layouts
- Enable justification and hyphenation to improve paragraph readability
- Support screen readers and text-to-voice software when possible
With forethought, designers can create typography that effectively conveys messages to diverse audiences.
Typography is a complex art that greatly impacts design and communication. Mastering the intricate details of working with fonts enables designers to make typographic choices that not only look good, but also strategically enhance their visual storytelling. By harnessing the psychology behind fonts, using principles like hierarchy and contrast, and avoiding common mistakes, typography can elevate designs to new heights.