The Joys of Typography
Last week, as my fiancee searched through the clothes in our favorite thrift store, I visited the books. And my time was well spent; I discovered two textbooks on typography.
Now at first thought you might assume this is a dry and emotionless aspect of design, but I personally love the grace of the letterforms as well as the nuances of emotion contained therein. Depending on your choice for body type or headlines, you can give an entirely different tone or feel to any piece you design, from a type-only book cover treatment to a vehicle wrap.
The typography textbooks I found were Exploring Typography: An In-Depth Guide to the Art & Techniques of Contemporary Typography by Tova Rabinowitz, and Designing with Type: The Essential Guide to Typography, by James Craig and Irene Korol Scala. Just paging through them, I thought "type classification" might be a good starting point. This is just a beginning. There’s a huge amount of information out there on typefaces, legibility, and such.
In addition, I’d encourage you to find your own books on typography just to get you started looking closely at type. The more you learn about type and the closer you look, the more nuances you’ll see.
Typefaces can be sorted into five classifications, based on their dates of origin, according to Designing with Type. These include Old Style (1615), Transitional (1757), Modern (1788), Egyptian (also known as slab serif) (1894), and Sans Serif (1957). To this I would personally add "Script" typefaces, which approximate cursive handwriting.
If you get a book of the kind I described, you will see page after page of alphabets in distinct typefaces, including all the capital letters, lowercase letters, numbers, ligatures (two letters, such as "fl" or "fi" that are combined—visually--to represent one sound), and punctuation marks. If you look closely and just live with them for a while, you will see the differences.
Among these, Old Style would include such typefaces as Garamond. Transitional would include Baskerville, Modern would include Bodoni, Egyptian would include Century Expanded, and Sans Serif would include Helvetica.
Old Style typefaces have relatively thick strokes and minimal contrast between thick and thin portions of the letterforms (think of them as brush strokes, as if you were painting the horizontal, vertical, and diagonal strokes of a letter, which is how type forms originated). They also have "bracketed" serifs (the little tails on the ends of the letters that facilitate reading by leading your eyes from one letter to the next). Bracketing means the serifs are attached to the body of the type forms with a slight curve rather than an abrupt and angular change in the stroke.
There is also a diagonal stress in the letterforms. That is, if you draw a line from the top thinnest point of a letter "O" to the bottom thinnest point, the line will be slanted.
As you move to the Transitional typefaces, the contrast between the thick and thin strokes of a letterform becomes more pronounced. Thin strokes are thinner than in Old Style typefaces, and thick strokes are thicker. If you look closely at the vertical stress (the line from the thinnest point at the top of a letter to the thinnest point at the bottom of a letter), you’ll see that the slant is less pronounced than in Old Style typefaces.
In Modern typefaces, there are almost no brackets (curves attaching the serifs to the strokes of the letterforms). In addition, the contrast between the thick and thin strokes of a letter is even more pronounced than in Transitional typefaces. If you look at the diagonal stress, the letterforms are now almost completely upright. There is almost no slant or tilt.
Moving on to Egyptian typefaces, you’ll see squarish serifs that are visually very heavy, and you’ll again see less contrast between the thick and thin strokes of a letterform. (These typefaces were very popular with advertising designers in the Wild West of the United States. You may recognize slab serif type in the posters made during this period.) Again, the thick serifs usually have vertical and horizontal edges. (That is, there’s far less of a slant than in Old Style serifs.)
Sans Serif typefaces lack the little "tails" on the ends of the letterforms entirely (hence the name, "without serif"). For the most part, sans serif typefaces are block letters, very bold, very simple. Letterforms are usually equally thick throughout each printed character (in contrast to the thick and thin portions of the serif fonts, which hearken back to the hand lettering of earlier historical times). Also, sans serif typefaces usually have no "slant" or "stress."
Why You Should Care
Typefaces are very different from one another. Therefore, it helps to be able to fit them into a handful of categories. When you start to categorize typefaces in this way, you’ll begin to see two things. You’ll start to see the slight (or pronounced) differences each time you come upon a new typeface. You’ll see the letterforms with fresh eyes. In addition, you’ll start to see that each category of type, when set as a headline, or as a block of text type, has a "personality." You will be able to associate certain qualities with each kind of type. (For instance, you can provide a more stately overall appearance to a publication if you set the type in an Old Style font. Or you can provide a more contemporary look if you chose a Modern typeface or a Sans Serif typeface.)
In addition to making the appearance of your type design more closely match its content, you can also improve the legibility of the text depending on your choice of type.
Here are two ways to improve legibility.
First, by choosing a serif typeface (such as an Old Style typeface) for a text-heavy book, you can make the type more legible. Or, if you’re designing something for viewing on a computer screen, you can improve legibility by choosing a sans serif typeface.
Second, you can improve legibility by choosing a typeface with a large "x" height. This is the height of all lowercase letters--like an "x" or an "e"--without the "ascenders," which rise to the height of the capital letters (like the top of a lowercase "h").
More than anything, learning the classifications of type will help you see differences in type whenever you’re reading anything. You’ll stop reading for a moment and start looking at the appearance of the letterforms and the "feel" or tone they impart to the design. Then you’ll think about how the design of the type reinforces the meaning of the text. This is subjective. It is also mostly subliminal. However it is a very powerful component of design.
Parts of Typefaces
Here are a few terms referring to parts of an individual letterform. The amount of information you can learn about type would fill at least one textbook, so this is just another starting point in your study of typography.
1. Ascenders and descenders—These are the parts of a letterform that rise above the "x" height (as noted above). The vertical extension of a lowercase "b," "d," "h," and "k" is an "ascender." The part of a lowercase "j," "g," "p," and "q" that drops below the baseline (the imaginary horizontal line on which each letter in a typeset word sits) is a "descender."
2. The bottom curve of a "g" (the part below the baseline, or its descender) is called a "loop." If you look at this part of a "g" in a variety of typefaces in a book of type, you’ll see that each of these "loops" differs slightly, or dramatically, from those of other typefaces.
3. The top of an "A" is called an "apex." It can be pointed, flat, rounded, or oblique (slanted).
4. The bottom of a "V" is its "vertex." It can also be pointed, flat, rounded, or oblique.
This is only a handful of terms for describing the parts of a letterform. You would be surprised at how many other distinct parts each letter can have.
Why You Should Care
It’s the same as with the categories of type. When you start to look closely at each letterform, and when you have the names with which to identify each part of a letter, you will start to see the nuances of difference. Then you will start to see the artistry of each typeface along with the subliminal tones and shades of meaning you can convey to reinforce the meaning of the content itself. And you will see what design choices can improve, or detract from, the legibility of the type.
[Steven Waxman is a printing consultant. He teaches corporations how to save money buying printing, brokers printing services, and teaches prepress techniques. Steven has been in the printing industry for thirty-three years working as a writer, editor, print buyer, photographer, graphic designer, art director, and production manager.]