Because it has the burden of carrying layout meaning, typography can make or break a good design. However, it is not only thought by artists and advertisers. People from all walks of life can benefit from understanding how typography works.
To take full advantage of typography, you have to understand the elements that go into it. We’ve put together a glossary of basic terms along with their explanations that will help you navigate the world of typography.
Fonts and Fonts
What we usually refer to as fonts, such as Arial and Times New Roman, are not really fonts. They’re typography.
A typeface, also known as a font family, is a set of fonts that share the same basic design elements. On the other hand, fonts are specific variations within the family based on a number of characteristics, namely:
- Weight: This refers to how thick or how light the font is. Most typography has a spectrum of weights with descriptive names, from ultra-light or thin to thick or heavy. The middle part of the weight range is called “medium” or “regular.”
- Italics: This refers to whether the letters are italicized to the right or not. Italic fonts are called “italics” or “italics.”
- Condensation and Width: This refers to how wide or how narrow the width of the font is. When a font is narrow, it is usually referred to as “condensed” while a broad font is referred to as “wide” or “expanded.”
- Style: This refers to a change in the presentation of the typeface rather than its core design. For example, some families have “outline” fonts, which are basically the same as regular fonts except that they only show the outline of each character.
To get a better idea of this, we’ll use the most common font in design – Helvetica Neue – as an example. Helvetica Neue is a typography, as there are many fonts in its family.
Under Helvetica there are various weights, such as black, medium and thin. There is also an expanded and condensed version. For every weight and width, there is a suitable slanted version. All of these weight, width, and italization variations are fonts in themselves.
Serif, Sans-Serif, and Script
If you’ve ever been around a designer, you’ll know that one of the first things they think of when designing a layout is whether to use Serif or Sans-Serif. But what do these two things really mean?
“Serif” means “tail” in Latin, while “sans” means “without”. Therefore, a serif is a typeface with a tail at the end of the body. On the other hand, sans-serif refers to a typeface that does not have a tail.
In addition to sans-serif and serif, there are three additional classifications that designers use to refer to typography. A script refers to a script that simulates handwriting or calligraphy. It is very popular for wedding invitations.
Screens have unique and eccentric characteristics and are usually meant to be viewed at a large size. This is the font you see on Halloween posters or billboards.
Lastly, a monotype typeface has characters that are all the same width. Programmers use this to view code blocks more easily.
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Here are some examples of each you might recognize, as they are the default word processor:
- Serif: Times New Roman, Georgia, Garamond
- Sans-Serif: Arial, Helvetica, Calibri
- Script: Lucida Handwriting, Brush Script, Rage Italic
- Appearance: Chiller, Bauhaus 93, Jokerman
- Monotype: Lucida Console, Courier New
If you’ve ever used a word processor, you probably already know what alignment is. This refers to which side of the margin of a block of text.
Paragraphs can be aligned left, center, or right. By default, you should try to keep most blocks of text aligned, as the human eye automatically starts reading from the left.
Most programs have a fourth alignment option, which is justified alignment. Justified alignment means that the lines in the text block align themselves to both sides of the margin. This is usually achieved by changing the width of the spacing between words.
The justified alignment can further be divided into four types, depending on which side the finish line is aligned on. If a block of text is fully justified, it means that all lines in a block of text will be aligned on both sides. This usually looks a bit messy but can be useful when designing certain materials.
Contrast and Hierarchy
In the image below, your eyes may immediately see the second sentence. That’s because of the size, variety of fonts, and the use of striking red. The second sentence uses the principle of contrast.
In design, contrast refers to the idea of creating a noticeable difference between elements in a layout. When working with typography, that means changing anything from typeface and weight to text color.
On the other hand, hierarchy refers to the use of contrast to highlight the importance of certain elements over others.
For example, in a typical PowerPoint presentation, the slide header is usually the largest element and uses a bolder font. On the other hand, in a research paper, the citation at the bottom of the page has a smaller font size than the rest of the text.
Tracking, Redirecting and Kerning
One of the most confusing things for novice designers is the difference between tracking, redirecting, and kerning.
Tracing refers to the change in spacing between all characters in a line. When you increase word tracking, you uniformly increase the spacing between each letter. Tracking changes are common for print posters and social media layouts. And this is the tool you need to create shareable social media images.
This is different from kerning, which refers to changing the spacing between individual characters. In the example above, the kerning between the letters “K” and “e” is reduced, while the kerning between the other letters remains the same. You usually consider kerning when you’re designing a very large layout with multiple characters.
On the other hand, alignment is the amount of space between lines in a block of text. In word processing, when you convert a paragraph to “double space,” you are doubling the lines between lines. Briefing is especially important if you’re typing something with a large amount of text, such as a report or magazine layout.
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