Key terms every graphic designer should know

typography saying blowish angels with numbers

Can you name all these typographical elements?

Put simply, typography is the art of arranging type. It's one of the fundamentals of graphic design and a topic every designer should read into in great detail.

The difference between good type and great type is often what sets brilliant designers apart. A great place to start your typography education is our comprehensive article Typography rules and terms every designer must know.

However, to get you started, we've rounded up some of the most often confused terms here.


Kerning is the adjustment of the spacing between characters in a font to make a more aesthetically pleasing result. For instance, you might want to increase the space between a ‘t’ and an ‘i’ to stop the arm of the ‘t’ merging with the ‘i’, making your type illegible. You’ll also want to make sure your kerning is correct when using a capital such as ‘T’ or ‘A’ in a headline. 

In applications such as InDesign CC, kerning can either be applied via the context-sensitive Control Panel using numerical entries, or, more frequently, by using shortcut keys to kern by eye. Automatic kerning is almost never good enough for use in headlines, where your type is more noticeable due to its size, so should always be done manually.

For body copy – or longer passages of text – you can use either Metrics or Optical tracking in InDesign. After all, you’re not going to want to kern each letter in reams of text, are you? Metrics pulls the kerning pairs that are included in most fonts, whereas Optical bases kerning on the shapes of the letters. Some fonts have comprehensive kerning pairs, some don’t. Optical is usually the best choice if you’re unsure.


Tracking is uniformly increasing or decreasing (although more likely increasing) the spacing between letters in a line or block of text. For instance, you may want a headline to span across the width of a page with equal spacing between each letter. Again, you can track type either manually or using number inputs in the likes of InDesign.

Whereas tracking is a horizontal spacing methods, leading is a vertical spacing method – essentially the space between two lines of type. But more accurately, leading is the spacing between the baseline of one line of type and the baseline of the next line of type. The amount of leading applied depends on your font and the type of document. A column of normal body text will require less leading than a few lines of elaborate script, for instance. It’s really about making sure your type is legible and the descenders don’t run into the lines below. 

Oh, and it’s pronounced ‘ledding’ because the term dates back to when typographers used to separate the lines by hand with strips of lead.

Orphans and widows

widows and orphans examples

Two typography sins: a single word on the final line of the paragraph, and a widow

If you’re working with long passages of text – and you don’t have the services of an excellent proofreader – you need to watch out for widows and orphans. Hell, even if you’re just working on small passages, you need to know this. 

In typesetting, widows are paragraph-ending lines that fall at the beginning of the following page or column. Orphans are paragraph lines that start at the bottom of a page or column. Both look ugly, and should be padded out with more copy (usually the best fix) or fixed by the designer. Also, look out for single words falling on the final line of a paragraph – they're unsightly.

Next page: Graphic design terms you should know

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Rob Carney

Rob is editorial, graphic design and publishing lead at Transport for London. He previously worked at Future Publishing over the course of several years, where he launched digital art magazine, ImagineFX; and edited graphic design magazine Computer Arts, as well as the Computer Arts Projects series, and was also editor of technology magazine, T3.