For the Love of Fonts 3: Typography Tips & Terms for Beginners

Now that you know how to pick the perfect fonts and match them up, I’m sure you’re eager to start using them. For me, there’s nothing more satisfying than turning everyday words into something eye-catching, effortless, and effective. Which is deeply ironic, since text-only design used to be the bane of my existence. Ah, if Past Elza could only see me now…

Despite our rocky beginnings, typography is an integral (and enjoyable) part of my graphic design work. Today, I’m going to help you begin to make sense of the various concepts, common terms, and techniques that make up the world of typography.

Typography: the art of text design, especially when using fonts.

The applications of typography are infinite. Things we read every day are arranged to be as legible and likeable as possible—from web pages and candy wrappers to book covers and brochures. If you see words on something, you’re usually seeing typography in action.

As with any artform, there are technical aspects working behind the scenes that make the results oh-so appealing. This is why, even when you pick really beautiful fonts, you can still end up with sad-looking typography. Fonts are, after all, only one piece of the puzzle.

Typeface: the overall design of lettering for print or digital application.

We’ve discussed some of the artsy tasks fonts are able to fulfill, but typefaces are also designed with practical jobs in mind.

Example of a display style serif font vs. a body style serif font.
  • Display fonts are eye-catching and packed with personality. They’re great for imparting style to your design, but don’t read very well in large blocks or at smaller sizes.
  • Body text is the paragraphs or articles that you read in books or on websites. Typefaces for text body are designed to be legible at any size.
  • A headline or main header is generally the largest block of text in a design. It’s always located at the focal point of a design.
  • A subhead is smaller than the headline, but larger than the body text. It’s usually located directly underneath the headline and adds clarity or detail to the message.
  • Additional headings can be found in some designs. They’re usually smaller than the subhead, but larger than the body text. These can be chapter titles, paragraph headings, or maybe an important bit of information, like a website.
  • An ornamental font is made up of symbols, icons, or decorative frames. They’re sometimes included in font families so you can add further detail or additional flourish to a design.

Look at what kind of text is going to appear in your design. Then, find a typeface that’s designed to fulfill that job and suits the style/mood you’re aiming to create. It’s a great way to narrow down your options and find fonts faster!

Visual Hierarchy: the organization of design elements according to their importance

You’ve probably noticed that book titles are generally larger than an author’s name and artsy lettering makes some words look fancier than others. Well, alternative text isn’t just there to look cool.

Example of typography featuring alternating fonts and text sizes. Features lyrics from Owl City's WEST COAST FRIENDSHIP. "Are you out there when the rainy days begin to feel rather sad."

Adjusting the point size, changing font styles, using different colors, applying effects, or varying text placement will transform your entire design. Used correctly, these details help us digest information more intuitively.

If you put emphasis in the wrong place, or use too many attention-grabbing things on one graphic, your design is going to look awkward. This is why it’s important to read your copy and get organized beforehand.

Example of typography designed for a menu. Text reads "Beans + Bags: Coffee and tea house" and includes two sections, one with a variety of teas which reads "Leaf Water" and a second for coffees that says "Bean Juice". Drinks and prices are listed below. An additional notation at the bottom reads "Add a pump of flavored syrup for fifty cents."

I like to find “anchor” words or key information and build the entire design around those things. Doing this first means I can make intentional decisions and produce purposeful graphics with a clear focal point.

Composition: the arrangement of separate elements to create a cohesive design

Typography shouldn’t look like it’s free floating on top of the canvas or crammed into leftover spaces as a total afterthought. Each element needs to fit together as one seamless piece. There’s nothing sadder than seeing good design ruined because the text didn’t get enough TLC.

Many designers use blocks to map out their design. This is a fantastic way to see if your composition is balanced, and can help you learn to use the canvas space more efficiently.

I personally start with a rough (worse than a doodle) pencil sketch of the basic design. This will help me go in with a stronger idea of what I want the final product to look like, even if I change my mind along the way.

If you’re interested in text design, I recommend researching more about typography, visual hierarchy, and composition, and encourage you to try it out for yourself! Bringing it all together may take some patience and practice, but they’re awesome skills to have in your back pocket.

If you have any questions about fonts, typography, or graphic design in general, please drop me a comment!

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