It’s easy to take typography for granted: For the average person, choosing a font amounts to little more than scrolling through a list in Microsoft Word. The options may be comprehensive enough to satisfy the average user, but for graphic designers, a drop-down font menu doesn’t always cut it.

Typography is an integral part of communication within graphic design. Each font carries a unique attitude, conveying a completely different message from the next font over. Landing on the right typographical design to represent a product or brand is just as crucial as creating the perfect image to headline a client’s big marketing campaign. Graphic design is about telling visual stories, and typography tells a story in two ways: by spelling out actual words and evoking feelings with its aesthetics. Used properly, typography can be one of the most powerful tools graphic designers have in their toolkits. 

From Ellen Lupton’s Skillshare Original, “Typography That Works: Typographic Composition and Fonts”
From Ellen Lupton’s Skillshare Original, “Typography That Works: Typographic Composition and Fonts”

Here, we’ll cover a brief history of typography before delving into the basic vocabulary and fundamental ideas that a graphic designer needs to know, whether you’re brushing up on the basics or delving into the field for the first time.

A Beginner’s Guide to Smart Typography

Create clean, clear text in your designs with tips from Typography That Works: Typographic Composition and Fonts.

A Brief History of Typography

Typography’s history begins not with letters, but with pictures.

As early as 38,000 BC, humans were using cave paintings as a way to visually communicate and record ideas. (In fact, studies published in Science and Sciences Advances have indicated that some cave paintings predate humans, Neanderthals may have been the ones engaging in the earliest roots of typography.) Some early paintings, such as cave walls covered in handprints that have been discovered in countries ranging from Indonesia to Argentina, were more artistic. There were more practical designs, too, with many featuring humans and animals to presumably tell a story about a hunt.

Eventually, Mesopotamians and Egyptians developed pictograms like hieroglyphics, the next logical step in written visual communications. These were organized, symbolic systems in which certain pictures corresponded to specific words or phrases. Later, in the Middle Ages, writers developed calligraphy—words that looked like art rather than art meant to represent words.

Modern typography didn’t emerge until the era of the printing press. Invented by Johannes Gutenberg in the middle of the 15th Century, the printing press called for clear, catchy typefaces. Where we now use “clickbait” headlines, early news outlets required bold fonts to stand out to readers. Gutenberg’s first typeface, Blackletter, represented a cross between the calligraphy of old and the bold clarity readers would come to expect as the printing press gained its foothold in society. Later, Nicolas Jenson came up with Roman Type, which further simplified letters and served as a predecessor for popular modern fonts such as Cambria or Times New Roman.

Why is typography so important to graphic design?

Typography sets the tone for the words it communicates. A thick, dark, no-frills font says, “I’m loud, and I mean business—take me seriously.” You’d use this to deliver a strong campaign message, like Nike’s “Just do it.” Meanwhile, a thin script font with lots of curls suggests romance and whimsy. You might use it for a wedding invite, or for the kind of inspirational quote that would wind up on a pillow.

The use of different typefaces can also inspire trust or skepticism. In 2013, The New York Times conducted an experiment in which author Errol Morris had readers take a quiz, ostensibly to assess whether they were optimists or pessimists. In reality, the quiz wasn’t about optimism or pessimism. It was about typefaces and belief. Different quiz takers saw the quiz in different fonts. Some read it in Baskerville, others saw it in Georgia, and others viewed it in Comic Sans. Ultimately, the quiz actually aimed to assess whether fonts impacted how much readers believed the quiz’s results: Those who saw the quiz in Baskerville were the most likely to believe in the quiz’s credibility, while those who saw it in Comic Sans easily dismissed the quiz’s claims. 

By Mackey Saturday
By Mackey Saturday

This experiment is just one example of the way typography can change the way we perceive the world—and there’s more evidence all around us. Now that we’ve touched on the effects of different fonts, we’ll look at how to work with them. 

Typography and Logo Design

Join graphic designer Mackey Saturday for a straightforward how-to on creating a valuable, impactful logo using text.

Typography Basics

To understand typography, you have to know the terms that define it. From “kerning” to the difference between a “typeface” and a “font,” there’s plenty to learn, so we’ll go through the basic vocabulary one definition at a time.

The Technical Vocabulary of Typography

As a graphic design professional, you’ll need to have a handle on all the technical terminology when discussing typographic design. Using the right words can help you articulate specifics when discussing a project with clients or colleagues. Here are some words that will help you do that—followed by a few commonly confused concepts. 

Baseline: The baseline is where the bottom of letters lies—like a line in a composition notebook.

Descender: The descender is the part of a letter that falls below the baseline. The bottom part of a lowercase “y” is the descender.

Stem: The stem refers to the primary stroke of a letter, like the straight vertical lines in the body of letters such as “l,” “t,” and “r.”

X-height: The x-height represents the midway point of a typeface’s total length. Most lowercase letters reach as high as the x-height.

Ascender: The part of a lowercase letter that reaches above the x-height is the ascender.

Cap height: The cap height is the length of a typeface’s uppercase letters.

Bowl: A bowl is a hole in the middle of rounded letters like “a,” “b,” “d,” and “o.”

There are more terms out there to describe lettering, like “terminal” (the curled end of a lowercase “f” or “j”) and “crossbar” (a horizontal line that connects different parts of a letter, like the middle of a capital “H”). As in every aspect of design, you’ll pick up more terminology along the way. 

What’s the difference between a typeface and a font?

A “typeface” describes the look of a certain text. Have you ever noticed that single fonts, like Avenir, come in many forms, from Avenir Black Oblique to Avenir Next Demi Bold? In this case, Avenir is the typeface, as all the different varieties of Avenir have the same core design and use the same letter shapes. Really, typeface refers to art—the letter shapes someone has taken the time to individually design. 

Lettering by Skillshare Original teacher Brandon Rike
Lettering by Skillshare Original teacher Brandon Rike

Meanwhile, Avenir Black Oblique and Avenir Next Demi Bold are both fonts. A “font” describes the group of letters and other characters (punctuation marks, numbers) that have been designed to look cohesive as a whole. If you appreciate someone’s visual text choice, you’ll want to say you love the typeface they chose—not the font. 

Lettering and Adobe Illustrator

Learn the basics of adding text to your digital designs with graphic designer Brandon Rike in his Skillshare Original.

Serif vs. Sans Serif

A serif is an extra line, kind of like a little foot, that extends off the ends of letters. Typefaces like Cambria and Georgia are serif fonts. Sans serif typefaces lack those feet. (“Sans” means “without” in French, so it might be easier to think of sans serif as simply “without serif.”) If you were to write something by hand, your letters would probably not include serifs. Helvetica—which you’ve seen used by American Apparel, Target, and Toyota—is a sans serif typeface.

When you’re compiling a font system, whether it’s for your personal website or a digital publication’s design, it’s standard practice to use one serif and one sans serif font. You may use a serif font for your headers and a sans serif for body text, or vice versa. This helps titles stand out from the rest of the text on the page and provides some variety for viewers who might otherwise experience typeface fatigue from wading through too many blocks of Verdana.

But this isn’t a hard and fast rule. While most designs that entail more text than a short slogan should feature a couple of different fonts, they don’t have to include one serif and one sans serif. Just be sure to choose two fonts that have a matching overall shape on the page. The letter sizes in one should line up with the letter sizes in the other, and you’ll want to avoid putting a script font next to a futuristic one. Otherwise, you risk looking mismatched.

Kerning and Tracking

Kerning and tracking are vitally important to a font’s overall presentation: A typeface can include beautiful letters that are individually attractive, but it will still look like a mess if they’re aligned poorly. 

Kerning refers to the spacing between any two letters in a typeface. The roots of the word come from Latin’s “cardo,” which means “hinge.” This makes sense, as a hinge is where two items join together or attach. Adjusting kerning means modifying how two letters fit into each other.

While kerning applies to the spacing between two letters, tracking dictates the spacing of all the letters in a word. Kerning lets you make specialized adjustments when the shapes of two specific letters interact uniquely while tracking changes the overall look of a word’s layout. You can add more spaces between letters to make them easier to distinguish, or you can squeeze them in close if you need to make more room on a page.

Typeface Families

We already touched on typeface families briefly when discussing the differences between typefaces and fonts. Avenir, Avenir Black Oblique, and Avenir Next Demi Bold are all members of the same Avenir type family. Different fonts in typeface families share the same x-height, cap height, and overall proportions, but they differ in terms of weight (aka, thickness) and other qualities, such as whether they’re serif or sans serif.

Graphic designers often use multiple fonts from a single typeface family to keep a design consistent while still distinguishing between the importance of certain messages. The boldest font in a family may be best to use for a product’s name or a brand’s short, catchy slogan. Meanwhile, one with thinner letters might be easier to read in smaller sizes, making it ideal for body text, like a detailed product description or company mission statement.

Making Image-Words and Applying Typography Know-How

Now that you know how to talk about lettering, it’s time to think about how to use it. Many graphic designers work with Adobe programs, such as Illustrator and Photoshop, in their work. This software allows you to apply a wide variety of textures to your words (like those of metal or water) as well as shine, colors, and shadows. You can also use text to take the form of different shapes: Squeeze your words inside the shape of a heart, or curl them into sunglasses on a human face.

Class project by Heba A.
Class project by Heba A.

When using any program from the Adobe suite, professionals have the capabilities to expand beyond a traditional typeface’s styles and formats in many different ways. Still, sometimes simplicity is best: You don’t want to distract viewers too much with an elaborate typographical design when your real aim is to direct their attention to the words you want them to read. As typography embodies pictures and words, skilled graphic designers know how to choose the right type and combine words with images to put forth a compelling message.

Turning Words into Images

Practice hand lettering and creating image-words with the silhouette of your favorite animal.

Explore More About Typefaces—or Create Your Own

Getting familiar with a wide range of typographic options helps you set the perfect tone when working on your next graphic design project. Now that you’ve got a grasp of the basics of typography, start exploring custom fonts—or move on to creating your own typefaces. Google Fonts offers plenty of free fonts to play with as a beginner, and artist sites like Dribbble and Behance feature artists’ typefaces you can use to gain inspiration (or, in some cases, even download for free). For a skillset you’ll be able to carry with you throughout your career, consider trying a typography course, be it a course on hand lettering or a primer on composition and fonts. You’ll be surprised at how often these skills will come in handy—and your design work will certainly change for the better.