The Art of Typography

I wrote this piece last summer as part of my English Language iGCSE coursework. After many months of stress and feverish revisions, I submitted it along with a Literature essay and various other small bits and pieces to the exam board, AQA, last Monday. Having done that, I'm free to publish it - and as a few of you have expressed interest, I thought I might as well do so. You better appreciate the styling, becuase I had to write out all the <span> elements you can see in the source by hand to get it looking like my Pages document.

Note: the previous typo in the title was not part of the submitted coursework.

Ever since the invention of the Gutenberg Press, typography has had an enormous influence on culture and has shaped our interpretation of every piece of written language - from road signs all the way up to novels and scientific proofs.

In order to explain further why typography is so important, it is worth mentioning what it is, and what scope it covers. The art of typography is broadly divided into three separate areas: the letters themselves, text as a whole, and the layout of the text.

There are several aspects to crafting letters, the most important of which is typeface (sometimes also known as font). Depending on the style of document or text being typeset, you’ll need to choose between a serif and a sans-serif typeface. Serif typefaces include small lines that trail from the end of the letter forms, and tend to be used as the body typeface in formal documents or other long-form text. Sans-serif typefaces are mainly used for titles, as well as informational or lighthearted pieces. Typefaces can also be broken down differently, not by their use of serifs, but by their style. Common examples of these include ‘script,’ which is used to emulate handwriting; ‘slab serif’ which has little or no variation between the thickest and thinnest part of the letter; ‘modern’ with large differences between the thickest and thinnest points; and finally ‘old-style’, which is a tribute to the origins of physical typesetting. Finally, there are ‘decorative’ typefaces that don’t specifically fit into any of the above categories - and should not be used for anything other than titles, if at all. There are other variables that can be set when styling a letter, such as weight: the thickness of the letter. Increasing it is often referred to as ‘bold’ in word processors - but in reality weight can also be adjusted the other way. Both this and this share the same typeface, but at different weights. A thicker letter often gives a heavier and old-fashioned feel, whereas a thinner letter gives a lighter and more modern impression.

The look of the text can be shaped by several factors that determine the relationship between each letter. Line-height, or the space between lines of text, is also very important in discerning the ‘readability’ of a piece of writing. Thin line-height is often harder to read, but exaggerated line-height can make a paragraph feel more like a series of separate ideas, which can confuse the reader.

Finally, while standard kerning does not have a direct impact on the reader, an inco rrect kerning can have the opposite effect and disconcert the reader. Kerning is the space between each letter, and is used to stop letters from touching accidentally. It is especially important when designing titles, as the reader does not necessarily ‘read’ the text, but sees the shape of the words and interprets them visually - and thus any discrepancies can throw the reader off-balance.

Once you have decided on a style of lettering and text, the next important aspect of typography is to consider the layout of the text which tends to be driven by a (normally invisible) grid system. Without you realising it, every time you open a new Word document you create a grid system of a set of margins and one column. Margins are part of a much larger idea of ‘whitespace’, which is another hugely important aspect of typography.


seems much more important than the rest of the text here because of the amount of whitespace surrounding it, despite the fact that all the text has the same size and weight. A few words with a large whitespace emphasises the type, whereas a large block of text with small margins can be difficult to read and can cause the reader to accidentally skip lines.

The Golden Ratio is a design theory invented by the ancient Greeks, and it was used heavily in the designing of their temples and other buildings. Typography borrows from architecture in its use of this rule, which can be employed to create more pleasing layouts; however some designers claim that it is no better than other methods for creating layouts, and a good design originates more from the size and aspect ratio of the paper used.

A grid can also be made up of margins that cross text horizontally, to create space between paragraphs. This type of lateral whitespace is called a hang line, and is commonly used to maintain the flow of a piece where an image is used to illustrate the point being made on the right or left of the text.

And so now you know what typography is, it is worth explaining how it works. Throughout the years, various typefaces have gained a reputation in the industry for their effect on readers, and their characteristics. Helvetica was one of the original sans-serif typefaces, freeing designers from the standards of Times New Roman and other serif fonts since its creation in 1957. It allowed the designers to create modern designs for modern times, and is a ‘trustworthy’ typeface, with no frills and no surprises - every letter is consistently designed. It has been used by thousands of international companies over the past 56 years, with variants appearing in the branding of Jeep, American Airlines, Microsoft, Post-It, and even British Gas - and through this use it has become somewhat of a stereotype. To begin with brands used it because of its sensibleness, then others started using it by default, with the result that it has now become severely overused. That is not to say that you should not use it in designs, but you should also be aware of alternatives that could fit your designs better.

On the opposite end of the spectrum however, we have Comic Sans. This is a good example of where typography should be used with caution: typography has such an influence on how the reader interprets text that a wrong choice can often be catastrophic. Comic Sans was initially designed for use in comic book speech bubbles, and quickly became popular in primary schools and other children’s literature due to its inclusion in all variants of the Microsoft Windows operating system since Microsoft Bob in 1994. At one point it even had an eye in its character. Eventually, however, people started using Comic Sans for all types of documents, driven by its popularity and child-like appearance: hospitals and even governments were using it for official documents. This resulted in serious information being conveyed by a comical typeface. All typefaces have a place and a purpose, and inappropriate use of Comic Sans can mean that people do not take the information seriously, thus rendering the document meaningless.

The importance of choice of typeface can be well demonstrated by a real-world example from 2009: IKEA changed their standard typeface. This sort of change is not remarkable in itself; many brands change their branding ‘identity’ often to keep the customers interested and to ‘stay fresh’. Normally customers do not notice or discuss such changes, but in this case everyone had formed an opinion, and there was much argument both online and in other media such as newspaper columns and BBC radio. The general consensus was that Futura was a much more elegant and appropriate font than Verdana, which they made the change to. Typography makes up part of IKEA’s public identity, and a switch from a well-established image resulted in lack of consumer confidence, and even a small drop in sales.

IKEA’s change was mostly decided upon in order to keep their design consistent between their printed information and their website, which had always been set in Verdana. This was because in 2009, Verdana was one of the only fonts that could be used on the web, as it is included by default on all computers. In 2009, new web technologies such as HTML5 and CSS3 had not yet been invented, meaning that website designers could only use fonts that everybody already had. However, in December of 2012, these new technologies were officially standardised, and included a feature called ‘@font-face’. This feature allows web designers to embed fonts into web pages, without the user needing to have them installed on their computers; as well as freeing them from the constraints imposed on them by technology, it allows them to create more diverse designs and fulfil their vision onto the screen. This change is important as, whether we like it or not, eventually print media will begin to disappear as more people move to the web. The extra variety in typefaces that this change allows will encourage people who care about typography to be less sceptical about the web, and to embrace the new technologies associated with it.

If this change had not occurred, typography would be the limiting factor in people’s appreciation of content online. Now designers can use whatever typeface they want, provided they have the relevant licence to do so - delimiting the influence of typography on modern culture.

Typography has always been relevant to the way people perceive the written word, and with the advent of the web and social media spreading links to articles and information, its relevance is only going to increase over time.