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Typography design: Rules and terms every designer must know

Typography design

1. Bowl; 2. Stem; 3. Counter; 4. Arm; 5. Ligature; 6. Terminal; 7. Spine; 8. Ascender; 9. Apex; 10. Serif; 11. Ear; 12. Descender; 13. Crossbar; 14. Finial; 15. Ascender height; 16. Cap height; 17. X-height; 18. Baseline; 19. Descender line

Typography design is the art and technique of arranging type. It's at the centre of a designer's skillset and is about much more than simply making the words legible. The typeface you choose and how it works with your layout, grid, colour scheme and so on will make the difference between a good, bad and great design.

The field of typography is fraught with jargon – covering everything from the correct names for the different parts of your letterforms, to the terms relating to arranging them within a design. This post will present a thorough glossary of typography terms to make things clear. Jump to page 2 to take a look. And on this page, we'll cover the basics you need to know to get started working with type.

Can't find what you're looking for? Explore our roundup of great typography tutorials, or explore these perfect font pairings.

01. Font selection

Typography design: font selection

There is a vast selection of typefaces for you to choose from

Font design is a long and involved process. Typefaces are created by craftspeople over a substantial period of time, using talent honed over many years. The best, professionally designed fonts come with various weights and styles to form a complete family, plus carefully considered kerning pairs, multi-language support with international characters and expressive alternate glyphs to add character and variety to typesetting. 

So while there's an astonishing array of free fonts to choose from online, you'll need to check the one you choose includes all the options you need to create a great design. 

Even within the paid-for options, so much choice can be overwhelming. It can be tempting to stick to the classics. If you want to branch out and are in need of some inspiration, take a look at these inspired alternatives to Helvetica.

02. Size

All typefaces are not created equal. Some are fat and wide; some are thin and narrow. So words set in different typefaces can take up a very different amount of space on the page.

The height of each character is known as its 'x-height' (quite simply because it's based on the 'x' character). When pairing different typefaces, it's generally wise to use those that share a similar x-height. 

The width of each character is known as the 'set width'. This spans the body of the letter, plus the space that acts as a buffer between one letterform and the next.

The most common method used to measure type is the point system, which dates back to the 18th century. One point is 1/72 inch. 12 points make one pica, a unit used to measure column widths. Type sizes can also be measured in inches, millimetres, or pixels.

03. Leading

Leading describes the vertical space between each line of type. It's so named because, in the days of metal typesetting, strips of lead were used to separate lines of type. For legible body text that's comfortable to read, a general rule is that your leading value should be anything between 1.25 and 1.5 times greater than the font size.

04. Tracking and kerning

Kerning is the process of adjusting the space between characters to create a harmonious pairing. For example, where an uppercase 'A' meets an uppercase 'V', their diagonal strokes are usually kerned so that the top left of the 'V' sits above the bottom right of the 'A'.

Kerning is similar to tracking, but they are not the same thing. Tracking is the process of adjusting the spacing of all characters in a word, and is applied evenly.

05. Measure

The term 'measure' describes the width of a text block. If you're seeking to achieve the optimum reading experience, it's clearly an important consideration. If your lines are too long, your reader can easily get lost, while a too-short measure breaks up the reading experience unnecessarily. 

There are a number of theories to help you define the ideal measure for your typography. One rule of thumb is that your lines should be 2-3 alphabets in length (so 52-78 characters, including spaces). 

06. Hierarchy and scale

If all the type within a layout looks the same, it's difficult to know which is the most important information. Size is one key way in which typographers create hierarchy and guide their readers. Headings are usually large, sub-headings are smaller, and body type is smaller still.

Size is not the only way to define hierarchy – it can also be achieved with colour, spacing and weight.

Next page: Glossary of typographic terms