Typography plays a massive role in communicating information and contributing to a design project’s overall look and feel.
So what is typography design?
Typography design is an intricate form of graphic design that requires immense attention to detail and takes technical know-how and creativity. The design industry relies on typographers and graphic designers to understand how to use, manipulate and create lettering that is legible, engaging, and on-brand.
In this article, we're going to dive into a bit of background on typography design, some basic concepts of the craft, types of typography to know, and some examples to help you understand and get inspired.
We'll end the article with some suggestions for further research so you can continue learning about this intricate craft. This is a beautiful, vital, and underrated aspect of graphic design, so we can't wait to give it the spotlight it deserves in this article. Let's get started.
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Some background on typography design
It all started with a guy named Gutenberg and a font called Blackletter.
Wait. Hold on. Let's rewind. It started before that. It technically began in Mesopotamia (present-day Iraq).
The first script to ever be developed was called cuneiform in around 3400 BC. This was made up of symbols carved into clay to communicate various languages in the written form. Then, around 3200 BC, the ancient Egyptians developed hieroglyphics, also a symbolic pictographic form of writing.
An early Chinese writing system seems to have emerged around 1300 BC from the Shang Dynasty. All three aforementioned were unique and independently created forms of writing. That’s evidence that it’s simply human nature to communicate language visually.
It was the Egyptians who started the art of writing with ink. This concept eventually made its way to the western world, where pictograms evolved into alphabets that led to the art of calligraphy, which involved beautiful hand-lettering done chiefly by monks.
Back to Gutenberg- this is where modern typography began. He invented the printing press in the 15th century, and the first named font known as "blackletter," catalyzing print design and typography as we know it.
Check out this video for a brief, to-the-point history.
Deep-diving into the history of writing is a rabbit hole that can last a lifetime, so we’ll leave it there for this article, as long as you get how vital text is to us humans! So, if you are a designer or typographer or thinking about pursuing the craft, your skills are indeed valuable.
Famous typographers to know
Believe it or not, there are plenty of famous type designers to learn about (ever wondered where some of those font names come from?
Well, a lot of them are actually named after their creators). Here are a few you might find interesting.
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Perhaps the most famous type designer, is the inventor of movable type and the “blackletter” font.
A significant figure in the development of graphic design in the 20th century, this typographer, calligrapher, and book designer built the principles of typographic modernism (not to mention developing the visual identity of penguin books).
Famously designed type for Adobe, and is known for her type creations “Trajan,” “Myriad,” “Adobe Caslon,” and “Chaparral.”
A British typographer from the 18th century who designed “Baskerville,” a font that still lives today.
Early 20th Century British designer who created the famous “Times New Roman” font.
Why is typography important?
Typography design is one of the most vital elements in graphic design and UX/UI.
Typography in design systems communicates a message, guides the experience, and emphasizes a brand identity. Typography is the foundation of print and digital experiences. Without it, we are not able to aptly communicate concepts.
A designer's typographic choices impact the look and feel of a brand or a design project, as well as the viewer's experience.
Types of type
What does that mean?
Typography can also be referred to simply as "type." And, ironically, there are a few different types of type, or, rather, styles of type. These are usually grouped into five main categories: serif, sans serif, script, monospaced, and display.
Within these, there are subcategories as well. We'll take a closer look in a minute, but before we begin, let's clarify something you might be wondering: what is the difference between font and typeface?
Font vs typeface
A typeface refers to the broader design style of a group of characters, while fonts are the variations created from that typeface.
"Arial" is a typeface, while "Arial Narrow” or “Arial Bold” is a font. There is a lot of argument and misunderstanding around these, but the main thing to know is that fonts fall under typefaces. A font is essentially a manipulated form of a greater typeface. Here’s an article that looks at it in-depth if you’re interested.
These are your traditional body copy styles, also used for titles and headlines. You'll see them in books, magazines, and newspapers. Serif fonts are defined by having a little stroke at the end of the main strokes that make up the character, like this:
You'll recognize "Times" as a serif typeface.
Sans Serif essentially means "without" (i.e., sans) that extra stroke. These typefaces are plainer. They are also common typefaces for body copy. These are generally the most legible typefaces.
These typefaces are used for headlines and make for more expressive fonts. They are generally cursive, less structured, and more graceful.
Similar to script, display typefaces and display fonts are used for titles and headlines. These also make for more creative and expressive fonts.
This is your typical typewriter typeface. They are most generally used for displaying code. Some monospaced fonts include Menlo and courier.
Some basic typography concepts and terms
A lot goes into typography design.
The designer has to take into account the legibility of the text, how much space they have to work with, the weight of the text, the spacing between lines, and much more. Let's look at some basic design elements that go into working with typography.
Letter spacing AKA “tracking”
The space between lines and around characters is just as important as the characters themselves. Working with space is an integral part of type design and graphic design. In typography design, adjusting the space between letters is called tracking.
Kerning refers to the space between characters and is both a noun and a verb, or a term and a process. It is both the space between the letters and the process of adjusting that space. This is an important technique in design that makes text stand out and is quite in-depth. That’s why we’ve written a whole article on kerning.
This refers to type sizes. Type scale affects the legibility and layout of a piece of text. Playing with type scale can be an opportunity to get creative with a design and also used as a technique to guide the eye.
Think of this as a “user experience” technique for type. Typographical hierarchy uses font size, weight, and even color to guide the eye through the text.
Refers to how “light,” “heavy,” or “bold” a piece of text is.
This is an umbrella term for many smaller concepts that exist within typography design. It gets very technical and looks something like this:
Refers to how body text is arranged on a page. Even if you’re not a designer, you must have encountered a Microsoft word document or a google doc where you have “aligned” your text to the left, right, or center.
An important element for body text, grids frame the text- they can take the form of columns, squares that leave white space to emphasize a call out, or a mixture of interesting shapes in which the text sits. You’ll see what we mean in the examples further down.
Let’s look at some examples of typography to get a better idea of what’s possible, understand what we’ve discussed above, and give you ideas for your next design project!
This cool example of typography design shows what you can do with a bit of imagination. This designer has married typography with an everyday object to capture the essence of the word visually. The shoelace is perfect for creating text, and the added animation element makes this piece of type even more engaging.
This cursive, script-style font looks great as a 3D rendering. The type is the main element of this design. If you look at the full case study, you’ll see how this typography design evolved and came to life from a basic drawing.
A similar strategy to the sneakers image, this piece of typography uses imagery associated with the word.
This design does a fantastic job of capturing the feeling of the words. Pastel colors and a vintage-inspired font that evokes the feeling of freedom make the viewer feel relaxed and at ease, as the words “let go” suggest.
This image uses a simple blurring technique to create an interesting play on words. The typography is so simple, just a basic serif font in black on a white background, emphasizing that the one simple design technique of blurring a few letters to create a message is enough. Cool typography-central designs don’t need to be anything elaborate to impactful. The simplest, clever idea works too!
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This tantalizing tongue-twisting typography design creatively uses a tongue as the basis of the text. Again, allowing the words to guide how you design the type.
This design combines photography with typography. For an added element of creativity, you can let a photograph guide how you might design type. You could conceptualize first how you’d like the type to look in terms of what you want to communicate; for example, this designer may have come up with the idea of the words “don’t touch” being squished by a pair of hands to create a cool paragraph before sourcing the photograph.
Alternatively, you could make a fun design project out of taking and sourcing photographs you like and fitting text into the photograph to create an interesting visual story where the text and photo work with and contrast one another.
Ok, we’re using a lot of examples where the text is made up of objects that relate to the word. You get it; we get it; we’re just trying to inspire you with typography that looks awesome. We hope you like it. That’s all.
Anyone else craving cheese?
This design plays with the shape of the text to visually communicate a sense of weight, as well as using heavily-weighted (i.e., bold) type to communicate the same thing.
A beautiful example of type combined with photography. Also, note the technique of combining multiple typefaces in one piece of text to make for a more visually engaging experience.
Vintage vibes for the win! There are many awesome fonts to play with when it comes to a vintage look and feel. This is just one example of so many out there. Notice how multiple typefaces from sans serif to script are used here.
This is an example of typographic hierarchy. See how the different font sizes show the reader where to look and guide them through the experience of the information in the most logical and easy way?
Check out how alignment is used creatively with a right-justification and white space as the central attraction for the eye creates a light and airy, minimalist design.
The Bauhaus movement gave rise to its own typeface, and Bauhaus-inspired typography can still be chic and fun in a design to this day.
Tips and takeaways
Type tells a visual story
Text is so much more than body text in a newspaper or website. The text itself tells a story (and we don’t just mean the words). As you’ll have noticed from the examples, using objects, textures, and elements of nature turns the text into a story and make it intriguing.
Font affects feeling
Or should we rather say “typeface?” The typeface or font has a big impact on moos. As you’ll have noticed in the examples, a serious serif portrays a very different mood to a light and bubbly vintage script.
Typography is very technical
It’s the detailed technical things that have the most significant impact on typography design. These designers have to have a very sharp eye and have to care about kerning, line spacing, grids, and all the tiny things that go into typography anatomy.
Designing typography with Linearity Curve (formerly Vectornator)
Linearity Curve (formerly Vectornator) is an excellent tool for designing typography.
You have access to all the text-related tools you could need at your fingertips, not to mention numerous drawing tools to have fun with your hand lettering.
Be sure to check out the app if you haven’t already, and share your awesome typography designs with us.
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Adí is an SEO developer working for Linearity in Berlin. Her hobbies include drawing comics, yoga, swimming, infinite scrolling, and birdwatching.