Graphic Design: An Introduction to Typography

Typography is everywhere. But with the rise of word processors and automated design software, we think about it less and less every day. Our computers, great little machines that they are, have taken much of the leg work out of producing legible text blocks. But in letting computers do the work for us, we run the risk of losing something beautiful and good. Typography has a long and noble history that goes back to Gutenberg and his first printing press in 1440.
But don’t worry, I won’t regale you with the long history of printing, type-setting, and typography – but just let me say that for centuries the work of creating legible and beautiful text was an honored creative task. Graphic designers are some of the few remaining people who still appreciate the power and influence of typography.

What is Typography

At its most basic level, typography is the process of designing and arranging type to create a final, legible print. It dates to the original printing presses, where each letter was selected individually to compose pages of text and the basic idea has remained the same – although the process and medium have changed greatly. Typography focuses on five primary areas: typeface, point size, leading, tracking, and kerning. There are other elements to typography (like alignment and line length), but these five form the foundation of modern typography:

  • Typeface – commonly referred to as font family, typeface is a collection of closely related fonts. We are all familiar with fonts from using Microsoft Word or similar word processors, and the careful user will have noticed ‘font families’ or typefaces. These are all related fonts, but with subtle differences (condensed, bold, italic, serif, etc.). Selected the proper typeface is a critical step in typography, as it will govern many of the later decisions to be made.
  • Point Size – Another term that is familiar to word processor users, point size is a unit of measurement in typography. When your typing in size 12, that means it is a 12-point font. While it has varied over the history of printing, a modern point is equivalent to 1/72nd of an inch. Originally, the point measurement referred to the size of the metal backing on which a character was placed; but with the rise of computers the point size refers to an imaginary square called an em square. This em square determines the relative size of all the letters with a typeface.
  • Leading – Leading refers to the space between lines of text. More technically, it is the distance between baselines as the leading size is independent of point size. Most word processors have simplified this concept to ‘line spacing’ and is a close equivalent to leading for our purposes. Generally, tighter leading will drive a faster pace; while looser leading slows the reader down. Of course, an extreme in either direction will hamper the legibility of any text.
  • Tracking – With tracking, we get into features that are not commonly adjusted with word processors and more into the field of true typography and graphic design. Tracking is the space between letters within a text; and for most uses we are fine letting our computers handle tracking for us. But when it comes to design-heavy type, tracking can be increased or decreased to create a desired feel or effect. Short phrases or tag-lines usually look good with tighter tracking, while a long line of text benefits from a looser tracking (especially regarding legibility).
  • Kerning – As with tracking, kerning is generally handled for us by our word processors – but was a huge issue when printed text was still created using metal character blocks. Kerning is like tracking but refers to the spacing between specific pairs of letters. The common example is made by combining a capital V and a capital A: VA. To look natural, there should be no space between the top-right of the V and the bottom left of the A – the achieve this result, old type-setters had to manually trim (or kern) their metal plates. Today our computers generally handle this process, but there are plenty of examples of bad kerning out there (try a Google image search for a few good laughs).

Why Typography Matters

We’ve already talked about how typography affects legibility – which should be the primary concern when working with text, but it is certainly not the only concern. Typographic also affects character, pace, and style – even if it does so subtly.
The obvious place where typography matters is in branding decisions. We come to associate certain fonts and styles with certain brands, but beyond that does typeface, tracking, and kerning really make an impact with people? It does, even if we are not always aware of it. Even boring old Times New Roman communicates ideas of professionalism, while a more whimsical typeface will convey and ideas of fun and lightheartedness.
Like many art-forms, good typography isn’t noticed. But to understand why typography matters try substituting professional typography with some amateurish. Would you trust that academic paper if it was printed in comic sans? Would that billboard be effective if the leading and kerning made it difficult to read? Would a business flyer make the same impact if the type didn’t match the design style?
So why does typography matter? It matters because bad typography can ruin a good design, and good typography can salvage a mediocre design. Typography matters because it sets the pace, because it influences the style, and because it speaks volumes – even if at a whisper.

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