A Crash Course in Typography
by Alex W. White
Typography is the art and
craft of designing with type. Typesetting is not typography. Many designers are
mere typesetters because they are not fully informed about the traditions and
subtleties of type use.
Today’s use of type is based on 35
centuries of typographic evolution, on countless improvements based on our need
to record ideas in writing. Developments in the speed, accuracy, and precision
in both the marks we make and the way we reproduce them—in the paper, the
printing presses, and even the inks—are driven by technological
There are three basic letter
shapes—rectangular, round, and angular—and many ways to classify
styles of type. I prefer a relatively simple system of eight categories. Of
these, serif and sans serif are the most important, because they are the most
used. The fun tends to be in the display styles. My digital font collection,
housed in 11 binders, has four ?lled with display fonts, three showing picture
fonts, two with serif fonts, and one each showing sans serif and script fonts.
style=’font-size:11.0pt’> Has cross-lines at the ends of strokes, which date
from stone carving during the Roman period. Serif types are subcategorized into
Oldstyle, based on designs from
the Italian scribes in the late 1400s
Oldstyle, based on designs from
the 1500s and 1600s with greater contrast between thicks and thins
style=’font-size:11.0pt’>, with characteristics of both Geralde Oldstyle and
Modern, from the 1700s
or Modern, from the late 1700s,
with the greatest contrast between thicks and thins and unbracketed serifs
Serif, from the 1800s, with thick
serifs to darken the letters and increase visibility
serif. Type without serifs,
introduced in 1817, was embraced by the design avant-garde in early 1900s. Sans
serif types are subcategorized into three divisions:
and Neo-Grotesque, based on
earliest designs from the 1800s, so called because early type without serifs
was considered ugly
style=’font-size:11.0pt’>, developed in the Bauhaus and featuring circular
bowls and consistent character weight
style=’font-size:11.0pt’>, which looks organic and somewhat hand-drawn with
greater stroke contrast
and display. A vast category that
includes types that don’t ?t into other categories (and even some that do). By
de?nition, these typefaces would be illegible at text sizes.
style=’font-size:11.0pt’> Based on letters carved in stone. Usually all-caps.
style=’font-size:11.0pt’> Typewriter types in which each letter occupies
exactly the same space.
and hand-lettered. The closest
approximation of hand lettering. These types range from formal to casual.
and ornaments. Simple
illustrations and representational and nonrepresentational symbols.
also called Gothic and Old English.
The Northern European scripts in use at the time of Gutenberg’s movable type,
Punctuation developed as a way for
scribes to indicate reading speed for religious services. There were no
standards for the use of punctuation until the invention of printing. In
general, dots indicated word separations and were replaced by spaces by about
600 a.d. The dot, when aligned at
cap height, was then used to indicate a stop, like a modern period, and when
aligned at the baseline, to indicate a pause, like a modern comma. Aldus
Manutius, one of the ?rst printers in Italy, introduced the semicolon, question
mark, and the slanted, condensed humanist letterforms that came to be known as
marks were introduced in Paris in
1557 as a pair of sideways Vs. English printers eventually replaced those with
inverted commas (“) at the opening and apostrophes (”), which had been invented
in the 1600s, at the end of a quote.
spacing is the insertion of two
word spaces after a period to highlight a new sentence. French spacing was used
in monospaced typewritten copy through the 20th century. It is not necessary in
punctuation refers to the
placement of punctuation marks in the margin beyond the flush edge of a column.
It was ?rst used by Gutenberg in 1450. Software has only now surpassed
Gutenberg by making hanging punctuation an automatic process.
and dashes are horizontal bars. As
a hyphen, a short bar indicates breaks in words at the ends of lines or
relationships between paired words. The slightly longer en-dash is used as a
separator in elective situations, as between multiple compound words, and
between numbers. An em-dash is the longest—I believe too long—and
is used for sudden breaks in dialogue.
style=’font-size:11.0pt’>Legibility and Readability
Typography’s main goal is making
type both legible and readable. Legibility, which is closely related to the
design of the letterforms themselves, involves the ease with which type can be
understood under normal reading conditions. Readability involves attracting and
holding a reader’s interest.
something noticeable and interesting—often produces low legibility.
Beware of letting art obscure content.
Six aspects of typography affect
The inherent legibility of the typeface. If the reader becomes aware of the letterforms, the typeface was a bad
choice; it is detracting from the smooth transmission of the message within.
All caps are harder to read than lowercase letters.<span
space around lowercase words forms more distinctive shapes than the white space
around words in all caps, which look like nearly identical bricks. All-caps
settings should be no more than two lines deep. The mind perceives three of
anything as being many, so three or more lines of all-caps text is repellent.
Sans serif text may be harder to read than serif.<span
style=’font-size:11.0pt’> Serifs aid horizontal eye movement, so add extra line
spacing to sans serif settings.
Italics are harder to read than roman type.<span
style=’font-size:11.0pt’> Most italics are lighter than their roman
counterparts and contrast less with the paper. And readers are not used to
reading italics. Use italics briefly and for emphasis.
Shaded, outline, and inline faces
are difficult to read and should be used only for display purposes (inline
characters have part of the interior carved out for a highlight effect).
Any legible typeface becomes
useless in 6-point italics reversed out of 40 percent gray.
Type size. Ten-point type is
thought of as the smallest legible type, but some 8-point type looks as large
as some 10-point type because of relative x-height. The x height is the
distance from the baseline to the median in lowercase letters, so named because
it is the height of a lowercase <span
style=’font-size:11.0pt’>x, which has neither an ascender nor a
descender; the median—sometimes called the mean line or the waist
line—is the implied line that defines lowercase letters without
ascenders. Type size should be proportional to line length: the longer the
line, the larger the type must be. The ideal column width or line length
contains about an alphabet and a half to two alphabets (roughly 40–50
Letterspacing. Consistency is important
with letterspacing, and particularly important at display sizes where spacing
is most visible. Spacing should be in proportion to the letterforms; wide
letters need more letterspace than narrower letters; small letters need more
letterspace than larger letters; caps need more than lowercase letters.
style=’font-size:11.0pt’> alters letterspacing paragraph by paragraph. <span
alters letterspacing between specific character pairs. <span
conjoined letter pairs.
Word spacing. Cathedral
construction was judged by the quality and consistency of the mortar as much as
by the stonework itself. Similarly, typographers’ work is judged by the spaces
between letters and words. Word spacing should be invisible, just enough to
separate words cleanly while maintaining the integrity of the line, and not so
much that the reader perceives the presence of spaces and individual words.
Justi?ed type gets its even right
edge by forcing space throughout the line. Short lines of justi?ed type have
the least consistent word spacing because they have the fewest word spaces
The ?ush left/ragged right
paragraph style has consistent word spacing and provides a consistent visual
rhythm, regardless of line length.
Hyphenation in justi?ed text
allows more consistent word spacing, but hyphenation should never be used in
display type, where breaking for sense is more important than breaking to ?ll a
Linespacing. Since text should be
set no wider than 40 to 50 characters per line for maximum legibility, lines
with more characters must have added linespacing to give the reader an
effortless return path to the left edge of the column for the next line. Two
narrower columns are often better than one wide column. Experiment to ?nd the
optimal linespacing for comfortable reading. Every typeface and column width
combination has its own needs.
Linespacing must be greater than
word spacing, or the eye will ?ow down the column rather than horizontally
across a line.
Format. Readers recognize a few
key visual signals.
Paragraphing announces the
beginning of a new idea. Any new-paragraph signal will work. The most common
are indention and skipped space between paragraphs. Less conventional
paragraphing signals include the hanging indent, the whole-paragraph indent,
drop paragraphs, bold lead-ins, and initial caps.
Punctuation signals the pauses and
stops that occur in copy.
White space signals the way
elements are related. Elements that are close together appear to belong
Position on the page signals
importance. The top of the page usually holds the best stuff because the top is
where our eyes go naturally.
Type set in a funny shape draws
attention to itself rather than to its content, which is counterproductive.
The Purpose Parameter
Good design reduces the effort of
reading as much as possible, thereby encouraging reading and understanding.
Readers respond to consistent page structure. The goal is not to fill in all
the space to impress the reader with sheer quantity. In design, more is not
better. Aim for economy in using type and imagery, or marks of any kind. If it
hasn’t got a purpose, it shouldn’t be used.
Despite the abundance of busy,
overproduced design work we’ve seen in recent years, the excellence of a design
is in direct proportion to its simplicity and clarity.
Alex W. White, an
award-winning graphic designer, has taught design for 20 years. He serves as a
consultant to many publications, lectures often on typography, and is the
author of several books on the subject. This article is adapted from <span
class=8StoneSans>The Elements of Graphic Design,
which is available in bookstores and can be ordered from Allworth Press via
800/491-2808 or www.allworth.com.