Typography rules and terms every designer must know

Typography is, quite simply, the art and technique of arranging type. It’s central to the skills of a designer and is about much more than making the words legible. Your choice of typeface and how you make it work with your layout, grid, colour scheme, design theme and so on will make the difference between a good, bad and great design.

There are lots of typography tutorials around to help you master the discipline. But good typography is often down to creative intuition. Once you’re comfortable with the basics, visit some typography resources to investigate font families and discover some font pairings that are made for each other.

Choosing a font

There’s an astonishing array of paid-for and free fonts to choose from online. But with great power comes great responsibility. Just because you can choose from a vast library doesn’t mean you have to; there’s something to be said for painting with a limited palette, and tried and tested fonts like Helvetica continue to serve us well.

There is a vast selection of typefaces for you to choose from

A typeface, like any form of design, is created by craftsmen over a substantial period of time, using the talent they’ve been honing for many years. And the benefits of a professionally designed font – various weights and styles to form a complete family, carefully considered kerning pairs, multi-language support with international characters, expressive alternate glyphs to add character and variety to type-setting – are not always found in a font available for free.

Here are some of the most important typographic considerations the professional designers needs to take into account.

01. Size

All typefaces are not created equally. Some are fat and wide; some are thin and narrow. So words set in different typefaces can take up a very different amount of space on the page.

The height of each character is known as its ‘x-height’ (quite simply because it’s based on the letter ‘x’). When pairing typefaces – such as when using a different face to denote an area of attention – it’s generally wise to use those that share a similar x-height. The width of each character is known as the ‘set width’, which spans the body of the letter plus a space that acts as a buffer with other letter.

The most common method used to measure type is the point system, which dates back to the 18th century. One point is 1/72 inch. 12 points make one pica, a unit used to measure column widths. Type sizes can also be measured in inches, millimetres, or pixels.

02. Leading

Leading describes the vertical space between each line of type. It’s called this because strips of lead were originally used to separate lines of type in the days of metal typesetting.

For legible body text that’s comfortable to read, a general rule is that your leading value should be greater than the font size; anywhere from 1.25 to 1.5 times.

03. Tracking and kerning

Kerning describes the act of adjusting the space between characters to create a harmonious pairing. For example, where an uppercase ‘A’ meets an uppercase ‘V’, their diagonal strokes are usually kerned so that the top left of the ‘V’ sits above the bottom right of the ‘A’.

Kerning similar to, but not the same as, ‘tracking’; this relates to the spacing of all characters and is applied evenly.

04. Measure

The term ‘measure’ describes the width of a text block. If you’re seeking to achieve the optimum reading experience, it’s clearly an important consideration.

05. Hierarchy and scale

If all type was the same size, it would be difficult to know which was the most important information on the page. In order to guide the reader, then, headings are usually large, sub-headings are smaller, and body type is smaller still.

Size is not the only way to define hierarchy – it can also be achieved with colour, spacing and weight.

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