We are surrounded by typography every day. A walk down your local high street will show just how many fonts we see in everyday use. Signage designs, adverts, posters, leaflets – typography is all around us. We consume text all day long, on our phones, in books, and in newspapers. Typography is a critically important element in graphic design.
The purpose of typography is to make written language readable and visually appealing and to communicate your message in the right tone and style. Graphic design is all about visual communication. While graphic designers do not typically create their own letterforms, we do employ combinations of existing typefaces and fonts to create our designs. Our role is to select the appropriate typefaces that complement the design and communicate the message with clarity, paying close attention to important aspects like text hierarchy, kerning, layout, and line spacing.
In this article, we will discuss the important role typography plays in graphic design, the key elements of typography, and best practices in implementing these elements into your designs.
Typography: The Basics
The terms ‘typeface’ and ‘font’ can lead to some confusion. A typeface is the design of lettering, that can include variations in size, weight, slope, and width. A font is a particular size, weight, and style of a typeface. There are thousands of different typefaces you can work with. Lettering in typography comes in many shapes and sizes. We usually divide these into three major style categories: serif, sans serif, and cursive.
The serif typeface was inspired by calligraphy and is characterized by extra details on the ends of the main strokes of the letters. These details are called serifs.. Serif fonts are typically used for longer passages of text as they are considered easier to read. Common serif fonts include ‘Georgia’ and ‘Times New Roman.’ Sans-serif fonts became more popular in the 20th century.
The lettering is more uniform, with straight ends and a clearer design. Popular sans-serif fonts include ‘Arial’ and ‘Verdana.’ Cursive fonts have to join strokes and other characteristics that mimic handwriting styles and can look sleek and formal.
Common cursive fonts include ‘Comic Sans’ and ‘Monotype Corsiva.’ The weight and stretch variables add more dimensions to fonts. The font weight (light, medium, or bold) can be used to add emphasis to particular words or phrases. Fonts can also be stretched – condensed or extended, allowing letters to be thinner and closer together, or thicker and further apart.
Serif fonts are often associated with tradition, trust, authority, and professionalism. They are commonly used in newspapers and books. Serif fonts are great for body text and can often be reduced to smaller scales whilst still retaining legibility. Sans-serif fonts are more commonly used in creative design, website text, and magazines. They tend to have a more friendly, informal feel.
Typography, Communication, and Design
Graphic design is all about visual communication. The tone and the message is the first thing we should think about when choosing the correct typeface and font. Who is the reader and what is the message? Typography can be used to heighten the message of a design. For an image-based design, like a poster or advert, the typography should be strong enough to stand out. If the design is text-heavy, we should choose a font that is easy to read and use typography to differentiate different sections and highlight important words or phrases.
In situations where important information needs to be clear, the typefaces should be very clean and simple, and easy to read. You will notice this on road signs, motorway signs, healthcare literature, and government communication. The message is more important than any flair in the design. A different scenario might be a poster for an event.
Ask yourself what the poster is for. What do you want people to do when they see it? What kind of event is it? If you’re designing a poster for a death metal band, think about the type of typeface that might be suitable. You might really like clean, sans serif typefaces but is that the right choice for death metal fans? Whether you’re a business or an individual, we should never underestimate the power of typography when it is used correctly.
We shouldn’t underestimate the effects of typography on our decision-making. A typeface or font has personality and associations attached. If your font isn’t a good fit for your message or communication, then it will compromise the design. Certain fonts create certain feelings and set the tone and mood of the message being portrayed. It’s important to choose a font that is suitable. You need to be able to connect with the target audience and be able to express the desired tone with typography.
The Importance of Hierarchy
Text hierarchy is the order in which you place your text within the space. A visual hierarchy is used to guide the viewer’s eyes across the page, allowing them to absorb the text more easily. The hierarchy is created by employing an appropriate mixture of weights, sizes, and colors.
Usually, a graphic designer would establish three levels in the text hierarchy – headings, sub-headings, and body text. A heading is usually at the top of the text hierarchy, and so graphic designers often employ a heavier weight and larger size, to help it stand out from sub-headings and the body text.
We use text hierarchy to help the reader navigate, to guide them through the information intuitively. When designing a poster advertising a theater production, for example, you need to decide what is the most important information and what information you want the viewer to read first. Once you have established this, you can then decide what you want the viewer to read next and navigate the viewer through the text and layout to the call to action.
Always Be Legible
The most important thing with regard to your choice of typeface and font is to make sure it is always legible. You want your message and communication to be crystal clear. If this is not clear and the viewer doesn’t intuitively grasp the message, then the design has failed. You can be creative with your typography, but you must make sure that the important information is always easy to read. Harmonious design and visual consistency will help make your message more visually appealing and easier to read.
Attract the Reader’s Attention
There are many opportunities to be creative with typography. You can make changes to the fonts and alignment and create something unique. This is particularly useful for posters or flyers to really catch the attention of the viewer. Typography can be employed to make a word or phrase stand out in the design. By increasing the size, changing the color, or changing the font, you can easily highlight the most important information.
You can also customize your chosen typeface. Think about how the text relates to the other design elements in the space you’re working with. If you want the typography to be the main element of the design, then you need to think about the scale of the images and graphics you’re using alongside it.
Typography and Brand Recognition
You may have noticed that large brands use the same font and typeface throughout their branding and literature. Brand consistency is crucial in developing and maintaining brand recognition and in gaining the trust of customers.
Disney and Coca-Cola are just two examples of brands that have used distinctive typography to enhance brand recognition and familiarity. Typography can be used to visually signal a brand’s values. Typography can be used to indicate that a brand is playful or edgy or refined.
We get used to seeing the same typefaces used over time and begin to associate that typeface with the business. If your business has two typefaces as part of the brand identity, then they should be used throughout all branding such as websites, social media, flyers, posters, and so on. Don’t use different fonts for different situations if you have a company typeface. Always stick to your brand typeface as it helps to create familiarity and attachment.
Kerning is the process of adjusting the spaces between letters to achieve more clarity in text and a more visually appealing effect. Even if you’ve never heard of kerning, you will have noticed when it’s been done poorly or not at all in a design. Kerning can make or break a typography design. It can really refine a design but also it adds so much to the legibility of the text. Poor kerning looks unprofessional, and often lead to difficulties reading the text. In some cases it can also completely change how a word looks. Without paying attention to kerning, you risk letters and words becoming muddled and unclear and changing the meaning of the message. See the example below. The whole message reads incorrectly because of poor kerning between just two words.
You can see more examples of what can happen if you don’t pay close attention to kerning.
Choosing and pairing typefaces or fonts.
In graphic design, the general rule is to not use more than two different typefaces in the same design. Selecting and pairing complementary fonts is an important task. They should fit the tone of the message and be easy to read.
Below is an example of a poorly selected typeface. The typography used to advertise Willie B. Good conveys a mood that would not be considered appropriate for a defense attorney.
Fonts in Design
Two typefaces can really complement each other and help with creating harmonies and hierarchies. If you use two typefaces, they should be suitably different. If the difference is too subtle, it can go unnoticed or muddle the design. You could use two different fonts within the same typeface, or two contrasting typefaces to achieve this. It is recommended to pair a serif and sans serif for the best contrast. Using more than two typefaces can dilute the design and confuse the reader. A mistake many people make is thinking ‘more is better.’ However, this causes confusion and affects the clarity, and makes it much more difficult to create the harmonies and hierarchies that are important to the design.
As you can see, typography is one of the most important design considerations for a graphic designer. There is a lot to consider when selecting the appropriate typeface and fonts for your design. Try an experiment and make a list of how many fonts you can see in your home and think about how they are used. What information are they providing? Can you see a theme? There are excellent sources online, like typekit and fontspring where you can browse many different fonts to help you select the right fonts for your design.
If you approach your designs with these foundations in mind, you can be creative as you like and be experimental with typography. Always remember the basics first and make sure that whatever your message or tone, pay close attention to legibility, hierarchy, kerning, and harmony.