What's typography and why does it matter?

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You've probably heard the term typography tossed around by creative-types and wondered, "Why are they spending so much time on this and why does it matter?"

Well, typography is important, first of all. Not necessarily exciting, but important.

Typography is arranging type to make the spoken language readable. The days are long gone when typesetters or compositors arranged letters, numbers, and symbols into words to create printed pages via the letterpress.

Today, we use computers for all of our typographical needs. While the presentation of letters in type might not be top of mind, there are some basic things that you should know to help you better understand the branding, design and production processes. 

These days the term typeface and font are often interchangeable and misused.

Let's start by clarifying these terms:

  • Typeface refers to the family
  • Font refers to the weight and style. For example, you may choose Helvetica as your typeface but Helvetica Light is the font.

Serif Versus Sans Serif

Typefaces usually are most widely categorized as Serif and Sans-Serif.

  • Serif fonts have decorative strokes at the end of the stoke of the letter. Some examples of serif typefaces are Times New Roman, Baskerville and Georgia.
  • Sans-serif fonts do not have the decorative feature at the end of the stroke. Some popular examples of sans-serif typefaces are Helvetica, Arial and Lucida Grande.

Serif fonts are easier to read in printed or hard copy material. The serifs make each individual letter shape more distinctive and easier for the readers brain to recognize the letter shape quickly.

Sans-serif fonts are easier to read on screens or for very small type. Sans-serif fonts are usually used in these situations because the number of pixels required are less than what's needed for quality printed materials, allowing for the font to still be strong and legible.

As displays get better this practice is changing but you must think of your audience as a whole and you don't want your message to be missed, or worse, be illegible, because someone is reading a serif font on a low resolution screen. 

Typeface Best Practices

When choosing typefaces try to avoid using too many at one time. Typically, two contrasting typefaces is a good rule of thumb.

  • For example, use Sans-serif for headers and Serif for body copy. Using more than two typefaces make it hard for the reader. Too many fancy typefaces is overkill.
  • When choosing typefaces for the web, use web safe fonts, meaning a font that every user has installed in their browser. This ensures it will look the same for all viewers no matter what browser they use.
  • You don't want to select a highly unique font that looks fantastic on your screen but is jibberish or disrupts formatting on most other viewing screens.  

Other Typography Considerations: Readability is Key

There are some other important things to consider when making typography choices. Here are some helpful tips that will enable you to communicate more clearly with your designers or creative/marketing agency:

  • Capital letters should be used sparingly since type set in all caps is hard to read.
  • Some lower case letters have ascenders which are the upward vertical stem of the letter and descenders that are the downward vertical stem. It is this variation that allows our brain to recognize words based upon the varied shape of the lower case letters together.
  • Because all caps make every word appear as a rectangular shape your brain processes each individual letter to create the word. This does not mean to never use all caps but to use it in a targeted way for things like headings and short yet important pieces of information.
  • Paragraphs set in all caps are self-defeating because it's hard to read and information can be missed.
  • Paragraphs with bolded capital type only makes it less readable. Call attention to important words or phrases in other ways such as headings.
  • When using capitals in specific cases try not to use small caps as this also decreases the readability of the capital letters.

Typography, typeface and fonts...these items seem straightforward and simple but are deceptively complex and their misuse can have tremendous impact on your marketing materials and communication efforts.

Stay tuned for part two of this blog series on the complexities of typography coming in the near future.

If you have marketing, design, public relations or sales process questions, reach out to us. We'd love to hear from you.

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