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Typography: Basics Concepts and Techniques

Typography is both an art and a technique. The goal is to create readable content that is also visually appealing. Good typography enhances the readability and aesthetic presentation of any material. Bad typography will distract the reader's attention from even the most well composed and planned document. To create a good typographic layout or to evaluate one that has been produced for you, some knowledge of the basics of typesetting and typefaces is invaluable.

The General Principles of Typography

The art of presenting textual material in graphic form for transfer to paper (printing) or some other medium is called typesetting. The general principle is to attractively arrange the following elements for maximum readability and visual appeal:

body matter
other pieces of text

These three elements may be used together, separately, or in any combination but all are necessary to have a fully formed company logo.

History of Typesetting

The evolution of typesetting can be traced from the letterpress era when the process was strictly handled by specialists to our modern day desktop publishing software.

Letterpress Era

Until the end of the 18th century type was composited by hand in a process that involved:

arranging individual pieces of lead type into words and text

tightly binding the type in a page called a forme

ensuring all letters in the forme were of even height

inking the forme and mounting it on a press

making an impression on paper from the forme

Linotype Machines

Beginning in the 19th century type was set with either Linotype or Monotype (continuous casting) machines which:

mechanized the use of hot lead type

allowed one man to do the work of ten hand compositors

complimented hand compositing which continued to be used for specialty purposes

Digital Age

Computers have proven exceptionally well suited to typesetting documents. Computer-aided photo typesetting or imagesetting replaced continuous casting machines in the 1980s.

Such machines were made obsolete by fully digital systems (raster) that render an entire page into one high-resolution image.

In the late 1980s desktop publishing programs like Adobe PageMaker and QuarkXPress first appeared on the Apple MacIntosh platform.

By 2000 publishers were capable of using in-house technology to integrate typesetting and graphic design.

Basic Typesetting Terminology

Setting type involves combining typeface, type size, leading, kerning, and the use of white space. Some terms you may encounter in discussing type with a printer include:

Type Size - usually expressed in "pts" (points). Normally body text is set in 10 or 12 pt. text, captions in 8 or 9 pt. and headlines in 14 pt. or larger.

X-height - the distance between the baseline to the top of the main body of lowercase letters excluding ascenders and descenders

Baseline - the imaginary line upon which a line of text rests. The baseline is the line from which other elements of type are measured.

Leading: - the space between the lines, generally measured from baseline to baseline in points. The name derives from the days of hot lead type when strips of lead were used to create the line spacing.

Kerning - the adjustment of space between the pairing of letters. Kerning most often applies to tightening up or stretching out a headline. Some letters can be brought closer together without compromising readability, such as "Wa"," To" and "Ya." By the same token, letters can be spread slightly farther apart to fill up a line.

Justification - a term relative to the alignment of the top, bottom, sides, or middle of text or graphic elements. Text can be left justified (ragged right), right justified (ragged left), or full justified (aligned to both the right and left margin.)

White Space - the unused, blank space around typographic elements. Generally you will hear a designer refer to "trapped white space," meaning that an area of unused space has been boxed in so that the eye is drawn incorrectly to that area.

Basic Anatomy of a Typeface

Each of the following terms (among many others) is used to describe the unique characteristics of any given typeface:

Strokes - analogous to the strokes made with a pen when printing. Most letters are made up of several specific types of strokes.

Ascender - the upward vertical stem on some lowercase letters (such as "h" and "b") extending above the x-height

Descender - the portion of lowercase letters (such as "g" and "y" that extend below the baselinefer to "trapped white space," meaning that an area of unused space has been boxed in so that the eye is drawn incorrectly to that area.

Stem - the main, vertical stroke of a letter form. Not all letters have stems, some have multiple stems, and some stems are sloped or diagonal.

Arm - a horizontal stroke on some characters that does not connect to a stroke or stem at one or both ends. For instance the top of a capital "T" or the horizontal strokes of the "F" and "E."

Cross stroke - horizontal stroke across the stem of a lower case "t" or "f." Differs from an arm or crossbar because it intersects or crosses over the stem.

Tail - the descending, decorative stroke on the letter "Q" or the curved, diagonal stroke on "K" or "R."

Bowl - the curved part of the character enclosing the circular or curved parts of letters including "d," "b," "o," "D," and "B."

Spur - smaller than a serif or beak, often appearing at the end of certain curved portions or letterforms like "C," "S," or the middle of "G."

Beak - a decorative stroke at the end of the arm of a letter. Similar to a spur or serif but more pronounced.

Counters - the interior or white space within the bowl of a letter.

Aperture - the partially enclosed and somewhat rounded negative or white space in characters such as "n," "C," "S," and the lower part of "e."

(If you see a typeface that you like, but you do not know its name, try to zero in on some of these characteristics. If you can describe them to a printer, he will most likely be able to help you find the typeface you want.)

Understanding Typefaces by Classification

The primary aspect of a typographic layout is the selection of a typeface or font. Typefaces establish mood and tone. All types fall under a general classification based either on the time period in which the type first appeared, the person who designed the type, the common usage of the font, or the individual letter parts and their shapes. (Note that it is possible for a font to fall within more than one classification.)


Blackletter types are based on early forms of writing and feature elaborate thick to thin strokes and serifs (the little "feet" on the letters.) Such types are:

ornate and difficult to read

reserved for special purposes like diplomas, certificates, and formal invitations

examples include Black Forest, Linotext, Goudy Text, and Wedding Text


Italic typefaces slant to the right and comes in three forms.

A true or pure italic type is drawn from scratch and has unique features not found in the Roman (upright) face of the similar type.

Related italic typefaces are designed to accompany and to blend in with the similar Roman type.

Matching or "fake" italic faces are identical to the specific Roman face. (This is the form created by choosing the "italic" feature in word processing and desktop publishing programs.)


These typefaces were developed in the late 18th century. They are high contrast types with a mix of thick and thin strokes and flat serifs. Such types are:

harder to read than earlier or later type styles

best suited for specialized purposes, not text

examples include Bodoni, Dido, and Bernhard Modern Roman

Old Style

Old Style types were developed in the Renaissance to replace Blackletter and are based on ancient Roman inscriptions. These types are:

characterized by low contrast thick and thin strokes

suitable for text in small chunks

examples include Garamond, Centaur, Goudy Oldstyle, Century Oldstyle, Palatino, and Sabon

Roman (or Serif)

Roman types enjoy the widest use of all typefaces and are the most readable types for large blocks of text. These types are:

upright serif types based on the style of ancient Rome

widely used in books and newspapers

the best known example of this family is Times New Roman

Sans Serif

Sans serif types do not have the "feet" or extra strokes found at the end of the main vertical and horizontal strokes of the letter. They became popular in the 1920s. Such types are:

clean and highly legible

best used for display and special emphasis but not for large bodies of text

examples include Arial, Helvetica, Verdana, Futura, Univers, and Franklin Gothic


Transitional types have a medium contrast between thick and thin strokes with less emphasis on a left-incline. Such types are:

extremely well suited for text

highly regular and precise

examples include Baskerville, Times New Roman, and Bell Perpetua

Decorative and Display

These types are sometimes referred to as "novelty" or "occasional" fonts. They are:

reserved for highly specific purposes

most effective when used at larger sizes as in headlines and titles

popular for advertising purposes

Decorative types have proliferated with the rise of computers and are too numerous to list. Any type that is unusual or unique, whimsical, or special-themed (a Halloween font, for instance) falls within this category.


These types are designed to resemble handwriting and can be used for a variety of purposes from the formal to the whimsical. These types:

should never be used in all caps

are reserved for announcements, invitations, greetings, and some ads

usually feature the word "script" in the name


These types are designed to resemble handwriting and can be used for a variety of purposes from the formal to the whimsical. These types:

should never be used in all caps

are reserved for announcements, invitations, greetings, and some ads

usually feature the word "script" in the name

Mixing and Matching Typefaces

When using typefaces the general rule of thumb is the tried and true "less is more." Confine your use of typefaces to no more than four in one document. Other things to remember include:

use contrasting styles, avoid mixing two highly similar typefaces (they do not provide adequate contrast)

be consistent in the use of typefaces (all headlines in one type, all captions in another, and so on)

don't make sudden typeface changes in a paragraph

dto create variety use different sizes and weights (bold or italic) of one font or use different colors

use serif types for the text and sans serif types for headlines

If you don't know where to start, consider that the following types are regarded as the most readable for text:

stone serif

It may be easiest to select your body type first, then find sans serif types or complimentary serif types for elements like headlines and captions.

Computers and Modern Typography

Although many typefaces or "fonts" available for computer use do not use the traditional names due to copyright issues, you can still make intelligent decisions about typefaces by considering:

the presence or absence of serifs
the inclination of the type (whether it leans to one side)
and the mood the type evokes in the viewer

Always remember that the goal of any typographic layout is to create a document that can be read easily with a minimum of mechanical distractions to pull the eye away from the intended message. When typography works, it does so seamlessly. Your reader will enjoy looking at your document or display without even realizing the myriad of factors that went into its production.

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