Tag Archives: type

A Whistle-stop Tour through the Basics of Typography

“Words have meaning and type has spirit, and the combination of both is spectacular”

Paula Scher –  Designer and Typographer

For me, the quote above from the wonderful designer and typographer Paula Scher sums up the essence of what typography is all about. For a long time, the art of typography has fascinated me, the illustration of language creating design that has meaning on both a visual and linguistic level . So this 3 week brief based around typography has been the perfect opportunity to find out a bit more about the anatomy and mechanics of typography, in order to appreciate typography for both its aesthetic qualities and its science, as after all, it is this combination that defines design.

The Formation of Type – Letter Anatomy Key Terms

Base Line – The line upon which the letters sit. A crucial element for text and or image alignment.

Cap Height – The distance between the base line and the top of a capital letter.

X Height – The height of the main body of a lower case letter x, excluding ascenders and descenders.

Stem – Often referred to as ‘the main body of a letter’, the Stem is the main vertical (or diagonal in ‘V’) stroke of a letter.

Bowl – a circular line that encloses an interior space.

Serif – A flare at the end of a letter terminal, originating from the naturally wider strokes that occur at the end of a brush stroke.

Descender – The lelement of a letter that extends below the base line.

Ascender – The element of a letter that extends above the cap height.

Ligature – A ligature is the term used to describe the crafting of two letters into a single letter form , or ‘glyph’, e.g.  ff, fl, fi, ffi and ffl.

Finial – The tapered or curved end of a letter.

Spine – The central curved stroke of a letter.

Cross Bar – The horizontal lines within a letter.

Counter – The space enclosed by the bowl.

Positioning Text

Of course it’s not just the formation of individual letters (or ‘glyphs’) that has to be considered when designing type, the way that characters sit in relation to each other and line spacing also has to be carefully designed so that batches of text looks clean and even. This is governed by kerning, tracking and leading.

Kerning  is the adjustment of space between letters. There are several different methods of kerning- metric, which uses the kerning built into the type by the designer; optical, involving automatic adjustment by a page layout program which considers the shapes of all characters, and additionally manual kerning by the designer.

Tracking is the overall spacing across a word, line or column of text (don’t confuse with kerning which deals with individual pairs of letters) Like kerning, tracking can be manipulated automatically or manually in order to achieve the desired effect. Positively tracked text has much more empty space between characters (loose tracking) making it appear confident and free standing feel, whereas negatively tracked text brings text closer together, adding a sense of urgency. Positive tracking is used much more frequently than negative.

So, I understand that this post has barely touched the surface of the complexities of type design, however, in order to understand the detail you have to cover the basics. There are some fantastic resources online to help you to find out more about typography, here are the ones that I’ve found particularly useful-

  • “Thinking with Type” – The essential online companion to the popular book Thinking with Type: A Critical Guide for Designers, Writers, Editors, & Students, by Ellen Lupton (both links are very similar however each use different graphics and information, useful to see both)

http://papress.com/thinkingwithtype/text/tracking.htm http://www.thinkingwithtype.com/contents/text/#Project:_Space_and_Meaning

  • ILoveTypography.com – One of the most comprehensive of online typography resourses from a real type fanatic. Here you’ll find everything from the history type, to designer interviews, to debates over typefaces. Get your geek on.


  • Karen Kavett’s YouTube channel – A graphic designer/nerdfighter/photographer/video blogger whose YouTube channel is full of really handy tutorials on typography and other areas of graphic design. Concise and to the point with that essential design geek twist, thanks Karen!


I’m learning pretty quickly that you either get typography or you don’t, as for me, I’m hooked.

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