Good typography is something that seems to be somewhat misunderstood or unrecognized in the world we live in today. It is, after all, something that we interact with throughout our lives. If you think about it, there is a real person behind every newspaper article: laying out all of the letters, words and sentences in a consistent, legible manor. Every time you go on your favorite website or blog to get caught up on all the latest news, someone thought about that and organized all of those headlines and article snippets in order of typographical hierarchy. When a book cover at your local Barnes & Noble catches your attention and you pick it up to flip through the pages take note that someone scrutinized the space between every single letter (also known as kerning, but we’ll talk more about that later) to make sure that every word was evenly balanced.
As I’m sure you gathered by now, encountering and interacting with typography is all but unavoidable. The reason for this is simple; typography is presenting the written language. The written language has become a part of the very fabric that bonds us together as human beings. It was created to serve a single function: communication. It’s used to communicate stories that can be passed down from generation to generation, critical data from one side of our planet to the other and to express feelings.
Since the written language is such a critical part of human interaction in this day and age, it is also important (dare I say equally important) to display that information in a way the viewer can comprehend. This is where proper typography practices come into play. Good typography allows the viewer to interpret and understand the information being displayed in the easiest way possible. If executed well enough, good typography can become an almost seamless interaction. Craig Ward once said, “Good typography is invisible”. I couldn’t agree more!
Now that we touched on the importance of proper typography practices, let’s dig in to some of the basic fundamentals of good typography and some of the terminology involved. We’ll start with general layout practices, terminology and then work into more specific fine tuning techniques for individual words and letters.
First up, leading! Leading is the space in between lines of text. This is something that can be used to completely change the look and feel of a paragraph by simply altering how much, or how little leading is present. When the leading on a paragraph is “just right,” it can also help legibility. Not enough leading and individual lines will be too hard to concentrate on. The copy will look awkward and cause the viewer to get lost from line to line if there is too much leading.
Next is tracking. Tracking is the overall spacing across an entire word or line of text. This is also something that, like leading, can completely change the look and feel of a word or line of text. If used well, the amount of tracking applied to a word or line of text can greatly increase legibility. When each letter has just the right amount of “breathing room,” reading a word becomes significantly easier.
Last, but not least, is kerning. Kerning is a way of adjusting the distance between individual letters or characters. This is often confused with tracking (and visa versa), but whereas tracking is the uniform distance across an entire word, kerning is the adjustment from one individual character, or letter, to the next. While kerning might not be as critical in creating legibility, it is still an important part of the design process and typography in general. Kerning is most critical in logos, headlines and shorter bolder pieces of text higher up on the hierarchy scale. A piece of stand alone text as short, yet important as a logo, has to have the strongest and clearest message possible. Kerning all of the characters within a logo to be evenly spaced and balanced is a critical part in achieving this.
In conclusion, a careful consideration of typography and it’s effect on communication, via the written language, can and hopefully will help to shape the future of how information is visually expressed and passed along for generations to come. After all, it is one of the small parts that make us human.
Stay tuned for the next part of this multi-part series on the fundamentals of typography!