A 20 Minute Intro to Typography Basics (2023)

A 20 Minute Intro to Typography Basics (1) Mark Bowley

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TechniquesAdobe Photoshop

Typography plays a big role in graphic design and can be one of the hardest things to get right. My aim here is to introduce some of the basics and the most common areas of typography that will be important in your design work.

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A Basic Introduction to Typography

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Typography plays a big role in graphic design and many designers are very passionate or opinionated about it. For this reason it is a very hot topic in design circles.

Developing your own skills in typography will take time and it can be one of the hardest things to get right. It is best to get a solid understanding of the basics as soon as possible in your education and career. However, it is a complex subject with a massive amount of detail which cannot be explained in just one article. So my aim here is to introduce some of the basics and the most common areas of typography that will be important in your design work.

So What is Typography?

Typography is an art form that has been around for hundreds of years. Words and text are all around us every day in almost everything we do. In every piece of type you see, somebody has considered how the letters, sentences and paragraphs will look in order for it to be read by us, or make us feel a certain way when we look at it. Sometimes it is done well, others not. Often it is us graphic designers who are the ones deciding how it will look, in our brochures, our logos, our websites and so on. The better we are at this, the more effective our designs will be.

Good typography comes from paying attention to tiny details as this can make the difference between graphic design work that is just acceptable or really good. There is more to it than just choosing fonts and making copy look good though – it is also about making things legible and readable (some of most basic functions of good typography) as well as making layouts look good in an aesthetic way.

Typographic basics

The following is an explanation of some common areas of typography.

Typeface or font?

Let’s get this one cleared up straight away! Designers are often unsure of the difference between these two, as they are both well used terms for the same thing. Actually, a typeface is a family of fonts (such as Helvetica Regular, Helvetica Italic, Helvetica Bold, Helvetica Black, etc.) but a font is one weight or style within a typeface family (such as Helvetica Regular).

Typeface classifications

There are many different classifications and sub-classification of typefaces, but the most common two types you will hear of are: Serif – these typefaces are the more traditional ones. They are distinguished by a short line or finishing stroke on the end of character strokes and stems (shown in the anatomy diagram below) and; Sans-serif – as the name suggests, these are distinguished by their lack of any Serifs. They only became popular in the nineteenth century and are considered modern as a result.

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These are some of the basic parts of the anatomy of typographic characters. There are lots more (which you can find out about here on Fonts.com) but I think it is better to start with a few first.

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What are glyphs? Most designers have noticed that there is now a Glyphs palette in most of the major software packages. The word essentially refers to all the available characters in a font, from letters to numbers and all the special characters.

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Kerning and Tracking

Kerning is the adjustment of the spacing between individual characters. Tracking, however, is the spacing of a group of characters. These two are often confused, but the way I remember them is that Tracking sounds like a long line of railway tracks, whereas Kerning sounds like kernel, which is an individual object.


Generally text should be left aligned, simply because we are used to reading that way. Without good reason, only consider centering or right aligning text if it is a small amount, such as a heading or caption. Also, justifying text (where it has a straight edge on both sides) should be used in moderation too. It looks nice and neat in some situations, but too much of it will make a layout look rigid. Additionally justifying in a small column size can cause irregular spacing as between words as the software attempts to adjust your text to fit.


This refers to the length of lines of text in a paragraph or column. Most people tend to just refer to it as column width though. Measure is an important thing to get right in typography as it can be crucial to the readability of the text. If the measure is too wide the text may be difficult to read as the eye has to move a lot more after each line is read. If it is too narrow it can also be tiring on the eye to read, as the eye is constantly moving back and forth. A narrow measure will also lead to a lot of hyphenation.


Vertical line spacing is referred to as Leading in typography and print, which is because in the old days of printing and setting blocks of type, strips of lead were inserted between the lines according to how much space was required. Leading’s role in typography is to generate sufficient space between the lines to make it readable. As with all matters of typography, it is a balance between reading comfort and aesthetic style.


When parts of the anatomy of characters either clash or look too close together, they can be combined in what are called Ligatures. These can be for functional or decorative reasons depending on how obvious the clash is. Mostly this is only an issue with serif fonts although sometimes sans-serifs will need ligatures to be set too.

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You can find out a lot more about ligatures on Fonts.com and Adobe’s Layers Magazine.


Another one of those details you have to judge in typography. Hyphenation is not loved by designers or typographers but is considered necessary sometimes in order to prevent rag problems (there is a description of rag further on in this article). If you have to use them avoid having a lot of them in a block of copy, and especially avoid having one follow another. For more information on this try reading this page on Fonts.com.

Hyphens, En-dashes and Em-dashes

Another thing that can cause confusion the use of the horizontal line characters in a font, and which is the correct one to use. It is worth knowing the difference between a Hyphen (the short one) an En-dash (the slightly longer one) and an Em-dash (the longer one). Linotype and Fonts.com have useful guides on this subject.

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A Grid is a guide by which graphic designers can organise copy and images in a flexible way, whilst making this content easy to take in and understand. They can form the basis of a good typographic layout so it's good to get into the habit of using them in your work. Try looking at examples (such as a newspaper, a brochure, or a website with a lot of text content) to see how the type has been positioned and structured. The diagram below is intended to show in a basic way how different pieces of type can be positioned on a grid, and what the main parts of a grid are called.

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Find out more about using grids from The Grid System, a very useful resource.


This is the uneven vertical edge of a block of type, most commonly the right-hand edge, as in the case of left-aligned text. It is important to pay attention to the rag, as it can affect readability in a big way. If the rag is not very good, it can be very distracting on the eye, as you read down a column. Usually it can easily be fixed by reworking the line breaks, or by editing the copy.

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Widows and Orphans

If a single word or very short line is left at the end of a column it is called a Widow. Likewise if the same is left at the top of the following column this is called an Orphan. Both of these are considered bad typography as they cause distracting shapes in a block of type. They can usually be fixed easily in the same way as the rag, by reworking the line breaks in the column or by editing the copy.

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Keep learning more

Once you have digested these basics I have outlined, there is a huge amount of good quality typographic reference material online to help you learn more and improve your skill and judgement. Below is a collection of useful links to get you started.

Recommended reading

Two of the main international font companies both have some very good resource sections aimed at helping you master basic typography:


Have a look around on the web and get a feel for some great typography. Not only will you find a good variety of styles, but you can also see what other people consider good type. These are some good places to start:


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If you want to find out more about typographic terminology or just want to look up a word, these are useful websites:

General articles

These are some articles with general tips for improving your typography:

Web typography

If you are interested in reading about using typography in websites, try these useful resources:

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A 20 Minute Intro to Typography Basics (23)

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Mark Bowley

I'm a freelance designer in the UK creating print, identities and websites at Bowley Design. I sometimes work at design and branding agencies in London too, which you can see at mbowley.com. I also founded a resource website for freelancers called CreativeAgencyFreelancing.com.


How do I get good at typography? ›

Here are 12 typography tips for beginners looking to level up.
  1. Understand font families. The first and most versatile tool in your font tool belt is the font family. ...
  2. Use few fonts. ...
  3. Respect font integrity. ...
  4. The art of kerning. ...
  5. Hierarchy: How thinking gets done. ...
  6. Get on the grid. ...
  7. Compare and contrast. ...
  8. Improve hand lettering.
May 17, 2018

What is an example of typography? ›

Typography is the differences between different styles of text that create distinct appearances. For instance, one popular typeface in the Middle Ages was blackletter, which was used to print many publications, including the Gutenberg Bible.

Is typography the same as font? ›

Typography is how text is arranged within a design. It's the process of working out how to make the text fit in an aesthetically pleasing way that doesn't compromise its legibility. With typography, the designer isn't designing the actual letters, they're working with existing typefaces and fonts.

How do I make my font look professional? ›

Read on for 5 actionable tips for making professional looking designs.
  1. Keep it consistent. With so many incredible fonts on offer, it can be tempting to mix and match with every new creation. ...
  2. Pay attention to alignment. ...
  3. Quality is key. ...
  4. Don't forget about good writing. ...
  5. Ensure your text is readable.

What is the meaning of typography? ›

Typography is the art of arranging letters and text in a way that makes the copy legible, clear, and visually appealing to the reader. It involves font style, appearance, and structure, which aims to elicit certain emotions and convey specific messages. In short, typography is what brings the text to life.

What are the 4 major font types? ›

There are five basic classifications of typefaces: serif, sans serif, script, monospaced, and display.

What are the 3 common types of fonts *? ›

Some of the most popular types of fonts include serif, sans serif, slab serif, script and decorative.

What are the two types of typography? ›

Typefaces can be divided into two main categories: serif and sans serif. Serifs comprise the small features at the end of strokes within letters. The printing industry refers to typeface without serifs as sans serif (from French sans, meaning without), or as grotesque (or, in German, grotesk).

Why is typography important? ›

Typography has two main purposes in graphic design. The first is to promote legibility, and the second is to help communicate the messaging, tone, and sentiment of a design piece. Another function of typography revolves around aesthetics. We're drawn to visually attractive designs that are clean and easy on the eyes.

What type of design is typography? ›

What is typography design? In short, typography design is the art of arranging a message in a readable and aesthetically pleasing composition. It's an integral element of design. Typography doesn't ask the designer to draw their own letterforms, but to instead work with typefaces that already exist.

Which are the most 3 basic font categories? ›

Although there are innumerable fonts available today, the vast majority of them can be organized into three distinct categories. These font types include serif, sans serif, and formal script.

What are the three elements of good typography? ›

The three elements — visual appeal, readability and legibility — form the ViRL framework for good typography.

What are the three elements of typography? ›

Three fundamental aspects of typography are legibility, readability, and aesthetics. Although in a non-technical sense "legible" and "readable" are often used synonymously, typographically they are separate but related concepts. Legibility and readability tend to support aesthetic aspects of a product.

What font should be avoided at all times? ›

Apart from being unprofessional, Comic Sans is one of the most common and undesired fonts that you'd want to stay away from even in dealing with children's stuff.

How do you break a line in typography? ›

To line break with Typography, set the display prop to block, which will break the line before the text inside. Example: <Typography display="block"> My text will be on the next line </Typography .

Which font is more attractive? ›

Playfair is a beautiful serif font that's perfect for a classic, traditional look - with an editorial twist. It was once used to great effect on the Vogue website: It carries an air of tradition and formality, but is much less common - and more interesting - than stock fonts like Times New Roman.

What is the most attractive font? ›

Beautiful Internet: 10 of the Best Fonts for the Web
  • Alternate Gothic.
  • Open Sans. ...
  • Alegreya. ...
  • Titillium Sans and Dosis. ...
  • Merriweather. ...
  • Yellowtail. ...
  • Playfair Display. Playfair is a unique font, created by Claus Eggers Sørensen. ...
  • Arvo. Arvo is a very good slab serif font family, created by Anton Koovit. ...

What font is pleasing to the eye? ›

Stick with sans-serif fonts - As mentioned earlier, fonts without serifs, such as Arial, are much easier on the eyes.

What is typography beginner? ›

Typography is the art and technique of arranging type, type meaning letters and characters. Notice that it's about more than just the design of letters and characters; the arrangement of those letters and characters is just as big a part of it all.

What is the basic typography element? ›

The good news is, there are eight basic, universal typographical design elements: typeface, hierarchy, contrast, consistency, alignment, white space, and color. Even a basic understanding of each of these elements can revolutionize any design project.

What is the most important consideration for typography? ›

8 Typography Design Elements To Consider for Print & Web Design
  • Color Contrast. Good color contrast may seem like an elementary concept, but there are some easily overlooked things to note when selecting colors for your typography and overall design. ...
  • Font Size. ...
  • Leading. ...
  • Kerning. ...
  • Hierarchy. ...
  • Whitespace. ...
  • Serif vs. ...
  • Using Webfonts.
Jan 24, 2012

How can I learn typography for free? ›

They can, for example, trigger an emotion or tell a story.
  1. Beginning Graphic Design - Typography. ...
  2. The 33 Laws of Typography. ...
  3. Introduction to Typography by the California Institute of the Arts. ...
  4. Introduction to Typography: Design fundamentals for beginners. ...
  5. An Introduction to Web Fonts & Modern Web Typography.
Sep 11, 2021

What to expect in typography class? ›

What you will learn
  • Review the terminology and measuring system used to describe type.
  • Explore how typefaces tell stories and understand the historic evolution.
  • Conduct a peer-reviewed typesetting exercise.
  • Design of a full-scale typographic poster.

What is Golden Rule in typography? ›

Simply multiply an element's size by 1.618 to figure out the size of another element, or overlay the Golden Spiral to adjust their placement. You can use the Golden Ratio to guide you in your layouts, typography, imagery and more.

What are the 4 basic principles of design rules? ›

Effective design centres on four basic principles: contrast, repetition, alignment and proximity. These appear in every design.

What are the 5 rules of design? ›

Principles of design
  • Balance.
  • Alignment.
  • Proximity.
  • Repetition.
  • Contrast.
Feb 27, 2019

What are the 3 golden rules? ›

Rule 3: Debit All Expenses and Losses, Credit all Incomes and Gains.
Golden Rules of AccountingReal AccountNominal Account
DebitWhat comes inAll expenses and losses
CreditWhat goes outAll incomes and gains
Jan 31, 2022

What are the 3 parts of the golden rule? ›

The Three C's that Make the Golden Rule
  • Civility – What you say and how you say it does matter.
  • Common good – It cannot be all about “you.”
  • Curiosity – There are so many good ideas out there.
Mar 17, 2017

What are the 2 most important principles of design? ›

The fundamental principles of design are: Emphasis, Balance and Alignment, Contrast, Repetition, Proportion, Movement and White Space. Design differs from art in that it has to have a purpose.

What are the 3 pillars of design? ›

So there are three kind of pillars of design systems and they are the design language, the component library, and the style guide.

What are the 4 D's of design? ›

Design Thinking methodology involves FOUR distinct stages – Discover, Define, Develop and Deliver. Collectively, this is known as the 4D Framework.

What are the seven 7 elements of design? ›

The elements of design are the fundamental aspects of any visual design which include shape, color, space, form, line, value, and texture.

What is the 80/20 rule in graphic design? ›

The 80 / 20 rule states that 80% of the effects in any large system is caused by 20% of the variables in that system. What this essentially implies is that, the 20% is what causes the 80%. Look at 80 as the effect produced and the 20 as the cause of the effect.

What are the 10 tips for working with graphics? ›

10 Tips for Working With a Graphic Designer
  • Know Your Audience. Knowing your audience is central to your marketing strategy. ...
  • Know Your Brand Color Codes. ...
  • Know Your Fonts. ...
  • Provide Quality Images. ...
  • Be Realistic with Timeframes. ...
  • Provide Examples. ...
  • Give Timely and Quality Feedback. ...
  • Ask Questions.
Jan 8, 2021

What are 5 essential traits of a successful graphic designer? ›

10 essential traits of a successful graphic designer
  • Communication. ...
  • Curiosity. ...
  • Passion and Drive. ...
  • Openness. ...
  • Ability to Take Criticism. ...
  • Problem Solving. ...
  • Self-doubt. ...
  • Patience.
Oct 23, 2015


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