Typography is an art form. It describes how we arrange sets of letters, numbers, and symbols to convey messages pleasingly and legibly. We don’t always think much about typography when we’re using it: As you’re typing a document, you might take for granted that the font you’re using is Cambria because you’re simply using the font as a tool. But your work is consistent and legible because, at some point, someone took the time to design that tool, purposefully shaping and arranging letters that would be easy to read and pleasant to the eye.

Typography and graphic design go hand in hand. Anyone whose job is to use visuals to tell stories needs at least a basic understanding of typography—both its origins and its modern-day uses and iterations. The way typography has evolved is indicative of the way our communication has shifted. If you want to communicate using typography, you have to understand how it was originally intended to tell a story.

Why does typography matter?

Readers associate different typefaces with different emotions and ideas. A bold, blocky typeface screams a message, while a curly script may elicit thoughts of romance and whimsy.

After all, every typeface was created with a purpose. Roman type originated in the 15th century as an alternative to the tough-to-read Blackletter that had previously been all the rage. (In many ways, Blackletter typeface almost resembles calligraphy, with thick vertical lines and thin horizontals.) Nicholas Jenson invented the original Roman type: Though he was French, he lived in Italy when he did most of his work, so he derived inspiration from Roman buildings and the letters often carved on them. Roman type was all about clarity—a vehicle for straightforward communication. The printing press was an established invention, so while distributing written messages had gotten easier, it was high time for a font that was just as easy to read as it was to print.

Student project by Jack Gudgin

Using different typefaces can make reading easier or trickier, but it can also inspire trust or skepticism. Several years ago, The New York Times published an experiment to assess whether readers “trusted” different typefaces. After readers took the quiz, which ostensibly sought to tell quiz-takers whether they were optimists or pessimists, they were asked whether they believed the quiz results. But some readers had seen the quiz in Baskerville, while others saw it in Georgia and still others saw it in Comic Sans. Readers who took the quiz in Baskerville, a classic Roman font with the serifs we’re used to seeing in newsprint, tended to trust in their quiz’s credibility. However, those who read the quiz in the regularly mocked Comic Sans dismissed the results. Typography can change the weight and the seriousness of the words we read, and learning to use typography effectively can be an enormous advantage as you share your message with the world. 

Design Custom Typography

Interpret creative briefs, work from references, and build a brand identity.

Typography vocabulary

  • As you learn about typography, you’ll need to know the terminology used to describe it. To get you through this history, here are some basic type-related terms.
  • Baseline: This is where the bottoms of letters sit. Think of it as a line in a composition notebook.
  • Descender: The part of a letter that falls below the baseline, like the lower part of a “y.”
  • Stem: The straight or vertical lines that make the base of a letter, like the vertical line in a “B” or the diagonal line in “z.” 
  • X-height: The midway point of a typeface’s total length. Most lowercase letters, such as “n” or “a,” reach as high as the x-height.
  • Ascender: The part of a lowercase letter that reaches above the x-height, like the top half of “h.”
  • Cap height: The length of a typeface’s uppercase letters.
  • Bowl: The hole in the middle of a rounded letter like “a,” “b,” “d,” or “o.”
  • Terminal: The curled end of a lowercase letter, like in an “f” or a “j.”
  • Crossbar: The horizontal line that connects different parts of a letter, like the middle of a capital “H.”
  • Serif: Serif typefaces include short lines, almost like little feet, at the bottom of letters like “l” or an “r.”
  • Sans serif: “Sans” means “without” in French, so sans serif means a typeface that doesn’t include serifs.
  • Typeface: This refers to the letter shapes someone took the time to individually design, and the specific style belonging to a certain collection of letters. Avenir, for example, is a typeface.
  • Font: A font, on the other hand, refers to the group of letters and other characters (punctuation marks, numbers) that have been designed to appear cohesive as a whole. Avenir Black Oblique and Avenir Demi Bold, both of which are fonts, use the Avenir typeface.
  • Typeface family: This one is pretty straightforward. Avenir Black Oblique and Avenir Next Demi Bold are members of the same typeface family. They’re related, but they’re unique—like family members. 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 can feature additional tweaks, like whether they’re serif or sans serif.

Basics of Typefaces and Fonts

Tackle the fundamentals of smart typography, from basic architecture to serif type families.

A Brief Look at the Origins of Typography

The concept of typography didn’t begin with letters. It started with pictures.

Ancient humans started making cave paintings as a way to visually communicate and record ideas as early as 38,000 BC. To this day, a good typography graphic blurs the line between art and letters.

Mesopotamians and ancient Egyptians took the next step toward creating typography by developing pictograms, such as hieroglyphics. These were organized, symbolic systems in which certain pictures corresponded to specific words or phrases. Mesopotamians also developed an early system of typing: Mesopotamians carved into bricks, creating stamps that could be pressed into clay. People in medieval times also used stamps, although calligraphy thrived in the pages of medieval religious manuscripts.

Student project by Sandra Grbic

All of this predated modern typography, which didn’t emerge until the era of the printing press. Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press in Germany in the middle of the 15th century, after which he came up with the first typeface, Blackletter. Jenson followed up with Roman type, after which came italics. Today, we just use italics for emphasis, but back then, italics served a practical purpose: Printers could fit more italicized letters on a page, so they’d use fewer pages when printing, ultimately limiting their costs.

Old Style and Baskerville

The next big typeface innovations didn’t come until the 1700s when William Caslon in England produced Old Style. Old Style typefaces feature fairly uniform thickness throughout each letter— for example, the vertical lines share a similar weight to each part of the bowl, and so on. The serifs in Old Style are also considerably thick. Then came Baskerville, a typeface created by Englishman John Baskerville in the 1750s. You may remember Baskerville as the font readers trusted when participating in that New York Times quiz experiment. Baskerville represents a “transitional” typeface, marked by serifs of medium thickness and moderate contrast between the thick and thin parts of a letter. This makes for more tapered serifs and more angular bowls.

Baskerville originally got a mixed reception, with many critiquing its readability. Critics claimed the typeface had a blinding effect because the contrast between thick and thin strokes throughout the lettering was so stark that it made the letters difficult to interpret. But others congratulated Baskerville on a fine typographic invention. The opinion of those who lauded the typeface eventually won out: It remains widely used today, especially in literature.

Modern Styles and Sans Serif

Modern styles took transitional typefaces a step further by sharpening the contrast between the thick and thin parts of each letter and featuring even slimmer serifs. The first modern typeface, created by Firmin Didot, is said to have debuted around the 1780s, followed shortly after by one made by Giambattista Bodoni, an Italian designer.

Modern typefaces were still in their heyday when sans serif typefaces were born. Sans serif typefaces formally debuted in 1816 thanks to William Caslon’s great-grandson, William Caslon IV. Some argue that sans serif marks some of the oldest lettering styles in history—if you look at Etruscan writing from as far back as 700 B.C., you’ll see stamped letters with no “feet”—but this writing predates type by thousands of years.

Student project by Jonathan Ball

Still, Caslon IV’s sans serif typeface paved the way for other footless fonts. In 1920s Germany, Paul Renner came up with Futura, which came to be known as a “geometric sans” typeface because it relied on geometric shapes for its form. Renner wanted simplicity, and to rid his typeface of the frills and fancies common in previous letter designs. Futura became known as “the typeface of today and tomorrow.”

“Humanist sans,” consisting of typefaces created by Edward Johnston and Eric Gill in the UK, came out around the same time. Johnston’s teachings shaped Gill’s work, and together, they helped define this specific typeface genre, marked by inspiration from calligraphy. While Johnston and Gills stuck to more geometric forms, other humanist sans typefaces began to more closely resemble handwriting as the style evolved.

The next big sans serif to emerge, Helvetica, went on to gain widespread popularity. Notable for its high x-height and the way each letter ends in a straight line rather than an angle, Helvetica was created by typeface designer Max Miedinger in Switzerland in 1957. Today, you’ll spot the beloved typeface in advertisements for Target, Texaco, Nestlé, Verizon, J.C. Penny, and Jeep. Helvetica’s popularity even spurred a documentary film, Helvetica, in 2007.

Helvetica inspired several subsequent typefaces, including Arial, which was created in the early 1980s and ends its letters on a slant rather than a straight line. Today, if you open up a Google word document and start typing, you’ll likely be doing so in Arial. 

Create One Beautiful Letter

Embark on your typography journey with a straightforward project—designing a single beautiful letter—with the help of letterer and illustrator Jessica Hische.

Contemporary typography

Computers opened up a world of previously unexplored typographic possibilities. It also democratized the art: Today, anyone from professional typeface creators to ten-year-old kids experimenting with Photoshop can come up with new typefaces.

Due to this freedom, modern typographers go by many names, including more general terms like “lettering artist.” They’re less tied to traditional forms and freer to explore outside the box. Today, when it comes to defining typography, graphic design is often top of mind.

Take the work of lettering artist Jessica Hische. Her fonts rarely make you think of typefaces:  Instead, they look like pure art, as one-word loops underneath the next, or drop shadows lift her letters right off the page. Typographic design offers an unprecedented kind of freedom, and designers of all types are taking advantage. For example, the capability to upload hand-drawn letters into computer design programs has allowed many artists to capture unique styles right from their sketchpads. An illustrator, like lettering specialist Mary Kate McDevitt, can draw a one-of-a-kind “A,” and then replicate that “A” countless times over after she scans it into her computer. Someone could even turn their handwriting into a typeface—albeit probably a messy, idiosyncratic one—if they wanted to. With today’s tools, the options are truly boundless.

Design a Cohesive Lettering System

Mary Kate McDevitt shares the process behind creating a series of letters.

Start experimenting with typography today!

When learning graphic design, typography should be one of your key focus areas. Now that you have a basic understanding of how typography developed over the years, you’ll have a better idea of where you can take this art form next. Enroll in a hand-lettering course, learn the fundamentals of logotype, or explore vintage packaging for fresh ideas inspired by timeless styles. There’s always more to learn—and your work will be better for it.