Typography Essentials – A Getting Started Guide

What is typography? And why is it so important to graphic designers? As long as you spell everything correctly and make sure the message is what the client wants to see, why does the font style make any difference?

Because everything you touch, see and create is impacted by the use of writing styles and techniques. There are a lot of reasons why designers need to have a solid foundation when it comes to the use of typography.

By understanding the underlying message that your choice of text contains, you will become more effective as you design and layout projects containing words and phrases. A picture may be worth a thousand words, but you have to know a thousand words to replace it.

Typography is the art and process of arranging type for a variety of media purposes and is made up of several parts. Take a look at the image below. Depending on the font style some or all of these parts will always be present.

Typography Essentials

Understanding The Basics

  • The Type Size, also called the Cap Height, is the overall height of capital letters in the formation of words.
  • The Ascender is the upward tail on letters like h, l, t, b, d, and k.
  • The Descender is the downward tail for letters like g, q, and y.
  • The Counter is the white space located inside letters like o and p.
  • The X Height is the height of the letter, and does not include ascenders or descenders.
  • Baselines are the boundary that the lowest part of the letter rests on. Take a look at the y, p, g, p and y letters in the illustration above. The solid line they are resting on is the baseline.

Have you ever seen a paragraph or advertisement that made the letters appear either s p a c e d w a y out or scrunched all up so it was hard to read? The effective use of kerning and leading will fix that problem. Kerning is the space located between individual letters of a word. If you can remember the kernels on an ear of corn, it’s easy. When the kernels of corn line up, it makes a nice neat row.

If the kerning is off, so will the appearance of the word or line of text you are working with and it will be harder to read.

Kerning - Typography

Leading is the space between the lines of text. If you look at the illustration above, you will quickly notice the space between line one and two is too close, giving the impression of not enough space. By adjusting the amount of leading between lines, the text becomes much more readable and less pinched.

How do you want your text to line up? Is this a standard body of text, a headline or are you in need of a more professional finish? Depending on the type alignment, you may inadvertently create the wrong impact based solely on the placement of your message.

Type Alignment - Typography

Type Alignment

  • Default writing techniques will use left alignment to create easy to read text for the reader. Casual letters, unpublished manuscripts, and basic paragraph styles tend to fall into this category.
  • Center alignment is used to draw attention and is used a majority of the time for Headlines or Titles. Newspaper headers, book titles, and report titles are excellent examples of center alignment.
  • Right Alignment is a clean crisp professional look and is used quite a bit for corporate business letters, return address labels, business cards and a variety of other applications where a formal style of alignment is needed.
  • Justified alignment is usually reserved for newspaper print and body text for textbooks, and is more difficult to work with. This type of alignment creates perfect alignment on both the left and right margins without regard for the actual characters. This can lead to a condition called tracking, or the creation of “rivers” of white space throughout the text body. If this happens, reduce the tracking gradually to correct the illusion.

Now that we know how to identify the parts, make sure the spacing is correct and we’ve decided on the image we want to portray, selecting what your message will look like is paramount to leaving the gravy off the mashed potatoes at dinner. You’re still going to have a nice dinner, but if you want to get saucy, pick a type category that fits.

  • Serif type has extensions or strokes on the ends of the letters. Times New Roman is a perfect example of this. This type of font is easy to read for longer pieces and tends to be a little more conservative. If you do not deliberately choose another font, most programs default to the Times New Roman style.
  • San-Serif does not have extensions or strokes on the ends of the letters and are used heavily for labeling, headlines and titles. This is also easy to read with a more contemporary feel to it. Children’s books use this because it is more easily identifiable as children are learning the alphabet.
  • Script, symbols and decorative type are all styles of type categories to create a specific image or message. Weddings might lean more toward the fluid motion of a script type while a child’s birthday might be more inclined to like a decorative font from a favorite movie.

Whatever font family you choose bears careful consideration in the design of any piece. Here are a few suggestions to get you started:

  • The font you decide on should not dominate the piece. Fonts are like exquisite jewelry to be placed in just the right context to insure maximum results.
  • Use care when mixing fonts. It’s kind of like mixing stripes and plaids. When in doubt, stay with something a little more conservative then add one splash of notice me.
  • Use consistency in your layouts. If you start out using an Arial font for the headers, stay with the same font throughout the piece.
  • Newsletters with columns will look better if you use the Justified Alignment. Make sure you don’t create rivers of white space though.
  • Use an 11 or 12 point font size and a serif type for maximum readability.
  • Use Italics and Bold to point out areas of interest or draw quick reference to information.
  • Use color for emphasis. Remember, reds draw the most attention if used correctly. It is amazing what one spot of red can do for an ordinary ad.

More resources and posts on typography:

Helvetica Film

Hope you found this useful, please share your thoughts in the comment section below! And feel free to link to your own articles about typography! :)


  1. says

    What an awesome post. People really do need to pay more attention to typography.

    I have been a designer for many years but have been frustrated that my lack of web knowledge has been stopping me from getting quality onto my websites. Luckily I am getting to a stage where I am starting to be able to implement good design onto the web pages. It’s a long, important and hard journey though!

  2. says

    Excellent topic choice. A change of font can make a huge difference to the perceived value of an article or blog post. I’ve tested my own content on different wordpress testbeds, and it’s amazing how the exact same content looks more important in one place and boring and unreadable elsewhere.

  3. says

    Hey guys, when I first started out with a campaign for Times of India’s “Ashok Jain Awareness Advertising” I was working a mech engineer way back in the ’80’s, and had no idea what’s a font or typography. But in retrospect, I see that I loved Helvetica, was bored with Times and Courier.

    And all the ads I wrote were created in a “hi-tech” studio and the technician would come out with strips of text printed in Helvetica and guess what I was mesmerized by them. Wow… I was gonna be in print!

    This post is a great reminder to me like from where I’m coming.

  4. says

    i loooove this website .. great idea i was so confused about life before and now i understand and i would love to share this with all my friends and family. they will be so amazed. im like a magician to them they never seen anything like that you know ? this website gave me some amazing and wonderful ideas about typography life is great and wonderful and typography gave me the knowledge and courage to see life in a different light. God gave me this wonderful gift and i would love to share it with the whole world and all the little children who live in the villages and in the tents those littles one ! one day i would love to inspire someone like me .. i was depressed about life, had no job, no money and then one day i woke up and saw this website and it changed my life i was so interested!! now im a rich man with a wonderful life and a gorgeous looking wife, life is great so please dont hate, i gotta go to dinner at like eigth , yea my life is sick and i might act like a prick but its all good because i tell her to s*** my d*** ! no im just playing do you know what m saying ? i just bought myself a civic93′ like how great is life ive always wanted a honda civic its two door all black, dumped to the ground, mint condition, tinted windows, vtec and soo much more that i dont want to brag. anyways ill talk to you all pretty soon i hope all of you keep in touch and call me up for coffee one day so we can sit and chit chat in my car and have a boogie .. okay ? love you all my number is (416)738-9385 bye now !

  5. dave says


    No offence, but a lot of this info is wrong.
    Basline is where the bottom of the X sits. Type is made of glyphs not fonts. Font is the means by which a Typeface is produced although, people often use the word font when they mean typeface.

    I suggest anyone who is truly interested in this subject buy a book on it. That way you know the information is correct.

  6. Del says

    A couple of the comments here are correct — the definition of baseline is incorrect. The x-height of the characters sits on the baseline, i.e. the base of the type characters not including any descenders (not the boundary where the bottom of the descenders sit).

    My cred: Over twenty-five years in graphic arts; my first five years spent working for a typographer; 10 years freelancing; 10 years for design agencies and companies (so far).

  7. Del says

    If you’re going to let a typography class reference this, you may want to point out that some of the information is wrong – specifically the definition of what a baseline is in typography (see some of the earlier comments).

    Any typography authority, expert or textbook will contradict this information and it’s a shame that an erroneous description of such a basic type essential is contained on an otherwise good page.

  8. says

    Thanks for the article. Shame the example image for alignment is so poorly aligned!! Also, the jury’s still out on whether Serif typefaces are more readable. This is particularly dubious for on-screen text.

  9. Chris says

    Your explanation of tracking is poorly written. Tracking—also known as letter spacing—is the overall spacing between all letters. Kerning is the spacing between two letters. Correct tracking avoids rivers, poor tracking causes rivers.

    Font is the typeface at a specific size. Times New Roman at 12pt is a font. The letter forms themselves are glyphs.

    We read left to right. Left aligned type forms a hard left hand edge which guides us as we read. Right aligned text is a poor choice for legibility, but can be applied to secondary information, such as the date/business name/address etc on a letter.

    Newspapers have large amounts of copy per page. Justified type forms distinct columns of text. This plus grid structure, type size, type choice, leading etc creates visually distinct articles.

    Serifs form horizontal weight to guide our eyes from left to right. Their job is to prevent our eyes from wandering up or down to the next line.

    I realise this is a guide to the basics, but I don’t think you know enough about type to be teaching. Typography is a science, and you don’t appear to understand the why, only the how. Read and study books on typography, don’t just read “50 best examples of X” online. You and the people you write for will benefit greatly.


  10. says

    Good article, nice informations. I have just to point out that you should never use justify in the web because you don’t have hyphenation so you will have a lot of white space for sure!


  1. […] Getting Started – A Beginners Guide 10 Typography Tips 40 Killer Typographical Posters (Advanced Effects) Share this:TwitterFacebookDiggReddit This entry was written by Kevin Woods and posted on 18/01/2012 at 14:52 and filed under Design. Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post. Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL. « Talking to the customer or talking at the customer? […]

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