The Anatomy of Typography or How I overcame my fancy font obsession
A solid grasp of typography is essential to graphic design. Why? Because graphic design is about communication, and words are the easiest way to communicate with little room for misunderstandings. It follows then that designers should be warey of their typography, and the effects it can have on others.
For the longest time I have been crushing on extremely decorative fonts and type. Victorian era design is a favorite of mine – I adore gingerbread cottages (not the edible kind!) and ephemera of the era, particularly illustrations, but of course all of Victoria’s decorative opulence is on display with the typography of the era.
When I started using some intricate Victorian type for a presentation back in Uni, my lecturer complained that it was difficult to read. It hadn’t occurred to me that this would be a problem for others, however after considering the purpose of type and design, I realized that much of the decoration is very self indulgent and limits – almost excludes – some people from understanding the the design. Why even have words if they cannot be read?
So with all this in mind I developed some simple rules to keep my wide eyed enthusiasm for intricately decorative fonts on a leash, and began to foster an appreciation for simple letterforms. I decided to share them with the world here. I’ve also included a poster because why not?
The Anatomy of Typography
Headings are fine in a fancy font, but make sure they’re legible. Some script typefaces are okay to use in a heading, but only if you are going for style over substance. Take a look at any digital marketplace and check out their top selling fonts – nearly all of them will be scripts, which means nearly everyone else is going to be using them. Remember, fonts aren’t the only typography tool in your arsenal. With the pen tool you can break the monotony and customize fonts, or go one step further and hand letter your heading or logos. It takes a bit longer but it’s something truly unique.
Body text has its very own texture, and density. Don’t over-saturate the canvas. Remember when we discussed Blackletter typefaces? At small point sizes, dense and ornamental typefaces make the eyes work really hard. You don’t want to tire your audience out. Use a typeface designed for readability.
Old Style and Transitional typefaces evolved specifically out of a need for readability.
The length of your lines is another important factor to consider. The line length will decide the rhythm of your text, as well as provide a certain comfort level. Lines that are too long will tire and disorient the reader as it becomes difficult to pick up the next line. Too short and your rhythm can become disjointed. A very simple way to set type digitally is to use the alphabet twice over in your text selection then hit enter and you have a fairly simple line length guide. Don’t forget to delete it afterwards though!
A general rule of thumb for line length is between 45 and 90 characters, including spaces.
Use small caps to create emphasis instead of all caps – shrinking down caps doesn’t match weights with lowercase. Small caps is essentially an entirely different font which is designed to peacefully integrate with lowercase letters.
Alignment can set the tone for your document. Centered type is very formal – Tombstones have centered type, so this will create a fairly somber mood for your audience. Justified alignment is economical and creates a nice solid block, but holes (rivers) sometimes appear, and work is needed to make it look solid. Flush left has a very elegant feel. Hard vs soft edges. Flush right is unusual and dynamic, allows type to orient to designs. Gives readers a line to follow onto other content. Line spacing is used to create fields of type that have texture – that are lighter or darker.
Stick to emphasising what is the most important, space it out over many pages or interactions if necessary. Try to align to the x height not the cap height. It creates more stability.
The grid creates structure and uniformity. You can create a grid out of text and in white space, too. Breaking the grid is one method of creating variety with your type and layout.
The web loves Slab Serifs! Slab typefaces developed out of breeding serif and sans serif typefaces – the serifs became part of the architecture in slab typefaces. These typefaces really pop online because their chunky serifs give the eye something to really grab a hold of instead of fiddling around with little pointy serifs.
Loose tracking is designed to emphasise the square geometry of uppercase letters. Lowercase letters, especially serif lowercase letters, are designed to sit closer together, so it’s not a great idea to track out lowercase letters.
Typeface choice is very different to lettering. Figure out what content is most important. Figure out the your client’s or website’s needs when choosing or designing a typeface – global websites will have global needs (such as Arabic, Chinese or Cyrillic support.)
Watch your kerning. Some fonts will appear poorly kerned when an uppercase is next to a lowercase letter. This is really easy enough to fix, so there is no excuse for poor kerning in a heading or logo!
Try to limit your typography “pallet” to 3 typefaces at the most. Just like colours, too many typefaces can muddle the message. This limitation can really cause you to get creative with a really large font family (like Minion or Gotham for instance.) Try some contrast with stroke weight, or a serif and sans serif.