Why this module is important

Typefaces are designed to work in different settings with diverse functions and requirements. The choice of an inappropriate typeface can determine whether products succeed, stall and even fail. Typography is successful in the details. Letter, word space and line feed are vital ingredients, as is the measure and type size used in setting. Typography builds into a system of interrelated elements, each dependent on the other.

Typefaces are designed to serve different functions. Used appropriately, they are hardly noticeable, used poorly they immediately jar and effect readability.

1.2 Why type does what it does

Thousands of typefaces

There are thousands of typefaces available for digital and print design, with new ‘families’ coming onto the market daily.

The majority of type users interact with type inside word processor software (Word, Google Docs, etc.) social media and apps in a passive way – meaning type is provided and not carefully selected and managed beyond the obvious functions.

Before we all used computers, typography was practiced as a trade, with professionals serving apprenticeships to learn long-standing conventions and traditions.

Millennial users rarely have a basis to understand typefaces, beyond the appearance of a font (it looks good/ I like it), or whether a typeface is supported by browsers, operating systems, device formats and software.

There are however a series of conventions and ‘rules’ that designers should understand in order to make the necessary choices that the situation requires.

After all, if you’re going to break the rules, it’s good to know what rules are being broken and why…

Type choices communicate values and function

On the face of it, Helvetica and Akzidenz Grotesk are very similar, but they are quite different typefaces in character and design.

To the trained eye, both are instantly recognisable by their differences. In use, although they have a similar feel, they are different on a screen or page.

Typefaces are the same and different

Each typeface has its own personality and values. That’s why some fonts feel better in certain applications than others. It’s also why designers and typographers talk about the ‘appropriateness’ of a typeface for a function.

Typefaces communicate an instantly recognisable character or atmosphere. It’s why brands use type to differentiate themselves. 

Typefaces are designed to work for different functions

Sans-serifs are ‘clean’ and less-fussy than serifs, which have little barbs connected to the extremities of letters.

Sans-serifs are popular for information solutions and low-resolution formats. A sans-serif’s less complicated forms are better for lower resolution screen formats and have been popular in web and app design as a result. As screen resolution has become sharper, this has led to the adoption of more serifs for digital products.

Body text

Serifs are traditionally used for body text as it is believed that they are easier to read over longer texts than a sans-serif. While this may not be completely proven, it is useful to work with serifs for ‘long-reads’ and to think about using san-serifs for shorter pieces of information.

As a result, it’s possible to see why most novels are typeset in a serif typeface, while maps and signs commonly use sans-serifs.

Technology defines use

Typographic conventions are largely defined by the technologies of the age they were used in. For most of the twentieth-century type was set in grids and measures because:

  • it made sense to organise content in formats
  • the technology of wood, metal and computer setting defined type in that way

During the desktop publishing revolution of the late 1980s and ‘90s, designers started to layer typography, break away from grids and challenging the time-honored rules and conventions of the previous 100 years.

Why? Because technology enabled them and so they did. A case of why not?

Commercial drivers

Today digital publishing enables designers to further challenge the status quo. Despite this, the main commercial perspectives are the same; to build compelling user experiences (UX) that:

  • enable quick easy recognition
  • provide easy interaction
  • make easy decisions possible, for example, navigating a page, discovering/collecting information and purchasing

Typographic traditions

Typography builds into systems to aid the communication of content; be it data, information, news, ideas or creative fiction, writing, and these days, fake news.

Type serves content

Typography has an explicit relationship with the subject it supports. Typefaces and letter characters have an innate identity to communicate emotional values. It’s therefore important, that as a designer using type, users understand what is being communicated in order to shape choices about how the content should look and feel.

Type: symbiotic systems, all content relates

There is a relationship between type and the design elements used to build a page (digital/print). The choice of typeface, the weights and sizes used, its measure and the hierarchies used to structure and organise the copy should, in most circumstances, compliment the content and extend the overall content message.

Design is an organising principle

Effective visual communication creates meaning, extends the purpose of the text and enables the cognitive understanding of content. On the surface all typefaces communicate.

Letters make words, the sentences words make inform and describe situations.

Beyond the words, typefaces carry a value in the way they are designed, how they look and how easily they are read.

Everything is important

The relationship between typefaces, typographic styles used, page layout (grids) and the content hierarchies (style sheets) used to organise texts is therefore key to creating better interaction between pages and readers.

Everything contributes to the experience.

Typography on a device/page has a natural horizontal and vertical rhythm that has to be managed in design. Type size, word space, line length, line feed (leading) and alignment (justified, range left-ragged right, centred).

Style sheets provide further rhythmical nuance to text and provide designers with the opportunity to prioritise messages with frameworks that pull out key pieces of information to help readers to understand content. Form follows function – the medium is the message.

Top 3 module take-homes

  1. Typography is a sequence of controlled decisions shaping size, format and relationships of letter forms to content
  2. Typography provides context and meaning for content, sometimes supporting and sometimes leading
  3. Typography supports strong user-experience and understanding of content