It’s not exactly breaking news to anybody with any level of experience in graphic design that typography is important, but I encourage you to take a step further and really think about how critical typography is to nearly any type of design practice. To fully understand the importance of typography, we must first consider language: the spoken or written method of human communication, using words in a structured and conventional way. Language, whether written or spoken, is used by humans to send messages to other humans.
Pretty obvious, right? Let’s dive a bit deeper. The ability of the message to be understood by those receiving it depends on the skill of the sender in expressing the intent of the message; in other words, the message depends on both the sender’s ability to use language to express themselves accurately as well as on the ability of the audience to interpret and understand the language of the sender.
This is where typography itself begins to matter. The dictionary definition of typography is “the style, arrangement, or appearance of printed letters on a page.” I’d like to expand that a little bit to something more like “typography is the style, arrangement, or appearance of letters” without limiting it to the printed page, but I digress. Typography is the visual representation of words and letters, which are the abstract symbols used to represent language, which is the medium by which one human can communicate to other humans across time and space. Powerful stuff.
Therefore: typography directly influences the ability of a message to be understood by the audience. This is a big deal. As designers, we are middle men between the sender of a message and the receivers of that message, translators making typographic choices that should not interfere with the intent of the message, but that should instead ensure that the message is conveyed as accurately as possible.
This may all sound have sounded grandiose and a bit abstract, but it is nevertheless true. Would the Nike logo communicate speed and performance if it was set in lower-case Times New Roman? Would the masthead for the New York Times feel like a longstanding, trusted source for news if it were typeset in Circular or Apercu or any of the other recently trendy geometric san serif fonts? If you were excited to read a novel but opened the first page to discover that the body copy was set in 48 point bold all caps, would you want to finish reading that novel? These examples are exaggerated, but all illustrate the point that typographic choices matter in conveying the intent of a message. Even the smallest choices – things like deciding between 10 point and 12 point type, or having thoughts like “the way the capital ‘Q’ looks in this typeface is too whimsical,” or realizing that there needs to be more space between two columns of type – can make a huge difference on how the audience will perceive and understand the message.
As designers, then, we should strive to understand typography and how to use it. One of the most famous pieces of writing about typography is the very short essay called The Crystal Goblet by Beatrice Ward. In her example, typography should be an invisible neutral vessel for content, so innocuous the the reader simply reads, able to process the content with no friction from the typography. Read this essay if you have never done so! And then understand that sometimes typography can be used to do the exact opposite of what she describes; it can be used to enhance a message, as is often the case with branding. Again, the use of typography should depend on the intent of the sender of the message.
Designers should understand the technical things like the anatomy of type and the variety of typographic terms like grids, kerning, tracking, leading, line length, gutters, orphans, widows, space afters, indentation, and so on. The most canonical typography book ever written is The Elements of Typographic Style by Robert Bringhurst, and deservedly so; every designer should own a copy and refer to it throughout their career. Other essential typography books include Grid Systems by Josef Muller-Brockman Making and Breaking the Grid by Timothy Samara, Thinking with Type by Ellen Lupton, and my personal favorite new typography book, Explorations in Typography by Carolina de Bartolo.
There are some excellent interactive websites that allow you to practice and explore working with typography. The Kern Game tests your kerning skills and is more fun and challenging than it sounds. The interactive website for Explorations in Typography does an excellent job of instructing on how various typographic choices can affect a layout with a website that updates itself as you play with it. Shape Type forces you to consider letterforms as you try to redraw letters to match the originals from your browser. Typeconnection teaches valuable lessons in the art of pairing typefaces, but treats it like a dating game.
Finally, a key component in being able to use typography to communicate effectively depends on the designer’s knowledge of what is actually out there to be used. There is no shortage of typeface resources on the web, but here are a few of the best to assist in typeface selection, pairing typefaces, and just keeping abreast with what’s new in the world of typography. I Love Typography is packed full of superb content, showing what are truly the best new typefaces (there are many similar list sites and articles where the quality control is very questionable) as well as getting into type design process and type design history. Typewolf and Fonts In Use both excel at showing great examples of typography being used in the real world, always identifying the font being used and what they are paired with.
Typography is critical aspect of graphic design; typography matters for everything from designing call to action buttons on websites to typesetting an entire dictionary. Typography is one of the fundamental building blocks of what we do as graphic designers – the typographic decisions we make all the time quite literally impact the ability of a message to be understood correctly. We should take it upon ourselves to strive to become excellent users of typography, and to study it constantly throughout our careers as designers. Typography is one of the most effective and powerful tools in your design toolbox, and can communicate as much in a single moment of the audience’s attention as the most powerful sound byte or image. Design accordingly.