Considering that knowledge of typography seems to be a required skill for a graphic designer in almost any job ad you can find on the Internet, it might be useful to spend a few minutes defining what typography actually is (and what recruiters seem to think it is, for that matter). It is fairly obvious that typographic skill has something to do with letters, fonts and text in general. Unfortunately that is the extent of knowledge most non-designers possess, and even with many design professionals things are not obvious. That is not the case, of course, for graduates of some art colleges or typographic courses taught by authorities in the field. Still, individuals with a deeper understanding of type are uncommon and those who specialize in it may even seem like they practice a different profession altogether. So without further ado lets dive in, and try to answer the question: what is typography?
Defining the word
The word typography is composed of two parts. The first, typo, is derivative of the latin word typus which means a symbol, emblem and a greek word typos (τύπος)meaning a dent, a relief or an impression. The other part, graphy, comes from a greek word graphia (γραφία), meaning writing. So basically, at least as far as language is concerned, typography is an art of writing symbols and creating imprints. This makes a lot of sense, because typography is closely associated with the development of print. As a skill it had not existed until Johannes Gutenberg first envisioned his printing press with movable type. Which brings us to yet another word associated with our topic: namely type. By it we describe a block of wood or metal with a glyph (a letter or some other sign) carved into its face. These blocks, in traditional methods of printing, were set into lines and columns and, after covering them with ink, pressed against paper to create imprints. This basic process remained almost unchanged for roughly four centuries. During this time typography was done mostly by people called typesetters, who painstakingly composed text into composing sticks and type galleys. Only after they were done could the printing process begin.
Another group of people involved in typographic process were, what we would call them today, the type designers. Those were the people who drew the shapes of the glyphs, used later to create type. They were responsible for creating the designs, while still other people like punch cutters and type founders were tasked with bringing them to life. It was more complicated than that, of course, as all these different professions were often conflated in a single person. In the early days of print, printing house owners often designed their own typefaces, while later this area was taken over by professional punch-cutters who in turn gave way to fully fledged type foundries. These highly specialized companies took care of the whole process, from design stage to founding and sold their typefaces to individual printers. In that regard not much has changed to this day, even after the invention of a personal computer turned the typographic world upside down.
And boy, did it turn it. Even compared to such earthquakes as the appearance of hot metal typesetting in the late XIX century and phototypesetting in the second half of XXth, these new digital devices, represented a major shift in the way things were done for uncounted generations. Slowly but surely, they removed typesetters from their workshops and placed them behind computer screens, turning them into a kind of graphic designers instead of printing house workers. At first, Desktop Publishing (DTP), as that is how this new way of doing things was called, was quite primitive, but with emerging giants such as Apple and Adobe bent on bringing personal computers to the printing business, both software and hardware became more sophisticated every year. With the need of actually seeing what you were designing on the screen growing more urgent, digital typefaces transitioned to a revolutionary technology based on mathematical curves instead of pixels. A variant of this tech, called Open Type, is still very much in use today.
This bit of history should help us with coming up with some working definition of typography. I have browsed the Internet, but most short ones don’t really catch the essence of what we are discussing. Cambridge Dictionary has come close with:
Typography: the design of the writing in a piece of printing or on a computer screen.
Considering everything we have talked about, this works pretty well. With one exception. The word writing is completely out of place here. Writing involves using your hand and some kind of a writing utensil. Let’s try to go with:
[…] the design of the text in a piece of printing or on a computer screen
Which brings me to my next point. You now have a basic idea of what typography is. It is important to say a few words about what it is not, as there seems to be some confusion. When you type into your favorite search engine a phrase like typography inspiration, you will probably encounter something like this:
Now I am not saying this is bad work, quite the contrary. What I am saying is: this has nothing to do with typography. There are others crafts dealing with text and letters. Chief of them are calligraphy and lettering.
Calligraphy (καλλιγραφία from Greek) is the typography’s predecessor. In a direct translation it means writing beautifully. It is distinct from handwriting in its form and function: the form should be dignified and the function formal. Using this art books and peace treaties were created. Land grants, papal bulls, royal privileges were all written with most august scripts, by trained hands of scribes. This ancient craft shares with typography many of its principles. Actually medieval calligraphy is the source of most of the rules governing modern type. Also both calligraphy and typography aim to achieve similar effects: a large body of aesthetically pleasing and/or readable text. What separates the two are the tools they utilize. Calligraphers operate with pens, quills and nibs, while typographers use metal type or fonts in DTP apps. The first work by hand, the latter employ a range of automated processes to achieve their goal.
Hand lettering is a craft (or an art, depending on how you look at it) employed since ancient times to create signage for business purposes. It flourished right up to XXth century, because it was not really possible to use type for printing large-scale inscriptions on walls and signboards. Today, even though printing usurped much of its space, lettering is still going quite strong. Restaurants and bars often like to go for lettering’s handmade feel. What makes lettering confused with typography is the fact that its practitioners sometimes replicate the look of established typefaces. Very convincingly at that. The difference, again, is in the method: lettering is done by hand, while typography is not. The image above is an example of hand lettering.
As you could gather from the paragraphs above, typography has a long and complicated history. And even today the word may mean different things to different people. So here is a brief overview of typographic skills one can master.
Choosing a typeface for a project is one of the more pleasing moments in any typographic work. It is also an important one, as your choice can make or brake the design. Picking the right typeface requires you to really examine your project goals. What are you going for? Does it need to be modern? Or quite the opposite: old-style? Do you need the text to scream at the reader? Or should it convey the message subtly? What are you designing? A website? A business card? A book? All of them? Will you need a large font family? Or just the one? Who is the target audience? How do they communicate? Will you need numerals? Will you need italics? Will you need to use more languages than one? Are there going to be tables in your design?
Most graphic design work involve some amount of text, so wrestling with these questions is something many creatives do on a daily basis. Therefore knowing how to pick the right typeface for the job is a crucial skill for any graphic designer and art/creative director to have.
Before you even begin scrolling all these beautiful fonts, looking for the one that will make your project a resounding success, you have to know what to look for and what to look out for. In that regard at least rudimentary knowledge about how type is made can be a huge help. You should be at least aware of such terms as serif/sans-serif, contrast, axis, x-height, ascender/descender length. This will help you narrow the search, as most websites you can obtain fonts form, have some type of sorting mechanism utilizing these phrases as tags or categories. Also, especially if you are browsing free typefaces, it might be a good idea to look for errors: check if there is tapering of the strokes at the joints, if round and pointy glyphs have overshoots, and if proper kerning was applied. It is quite surprising how many popular fonts have some kind of an error hidden somewhere.
As you can see, knowing the basics of how type is designed, can speed up the process of choosing a typeface and protect you from picking something less than ideal, which can lead to huge problems late in the project.
If you already know how the sausage is made, why not take it a step further and design your very own typeface? It might seem like a logical step… but it really is not. It is one thing to be a connoisseur of fine wine but to become a winemaker is a completely different thing. It might be a nice exercise to draw a set of good-looking letters, and transform it into a workable font, but designing a fully functional typeface is an endeavor that can take months, or even years, to accomplish. For the most part, this skill will prove useful only if you plan on going into type design all the way. And if you do, you probably will not be doing much else.
As a side note: this state of affairs has changed, if ever so slightly, in recent years with attempts to automate type design. Apps like Prototypo allow you to exercise a certain level of creative control, while not forcing you to draw each glyph separately. Will it dethrone the reigning typeface design applications? It seems doubtful. But some creative agencies have used it with some degree of success, so it might be worthwhile to take a look.
As I briefly mentioned, typesetting is the art of composing text in a visual medium. There are many ways to practice it, but most practitioners do it with the help of a computer and an appropriate application. Typesetting mechanics are present in pretty any graphic design program, so delving into technical details would be beside the point, as operating each of these programs is a bit different. Theory, on the other hand, stays the same throughout all the apps you could use. It as a broad issue, so obtaining comprehensive understanding of the subject might seem a bit daunting. Still, learning just a few basics, can significantly improve almost any project. Such topics as typographic hierarchy, rules of text alignment, relationship of column width and leading with text readability should be among the first areas to improve your skills.
Two applications to mention is Adobe InDesign and Affinity Publisher. They are so called desktop publishing or DTP programs, mentioned earlier. What these applications do best is preparing multi-paged documents, both printed and digital, with a lot of text in them. So if you plan on designing books, magazines or just pdf presentations for your clients you might do well to accustom yourself with one of these apps.
Web typography is, obviously, the most dynamic area among those mentioned here. Its importance has been recognized for some time now, and no-one denies that it is one of the key aspects of a successful project. And with the Internet having such an impact on our lives, it is no wonder that much is happening here. There are new ideas and solutions introduced almost every other day, and the possibilities grow slowly but steadily. There is a sizable and involved community out there to learn from and exchange ideas with. In summary, web typography is a useful set of skills to have for any front-end developer and UI/UX designer.
After reading all this you should have some idea about what typography is, what it is not and what skills can be considered a part of it. It is, obviously, just a starting point. Where you go from here is up to you. There are many books and articles on these subjects, and I will also do my best to cover them too in future articles. So, if you liked this one, stick around. There is a lot more coming.
Also, as I promised, a word on typography as a requirement in job postings. What do people mean when they demand this profound knowledge typography or an impeccable typographic taste? In short: it depends greatly on the company doing the hiring and on the type of job. If it is an established agency with a specialization towards one type of design, or possessing many teams with distinct areas of expertise, and if we are talking about a senior position, chances are they know what they are asking for. It may even happen, they say it straight in the ad. Applying for these kinds of jobs, be sure to really know your stuff, as you will be expected to bring your knowledge to bear, if you get hired. On the other hand there are posting from low level agencies, and for entry-level jobs. In that case things are muddy. It is my experience that typography finds its way to these ads simply because its everywhere else. If you land this kind of job, and you actually have a good grasp on typographic principles, you may find it both a blessing and a curse. Burdened with knowledge, if you will. You may often find yourself doing things, you know are wrong, because reasons: the client likes it that way, empty space is bad, it has always been done like this around here etc. So what typography means in this kind of job postings is anybody’s guess.
You have made it to the end! If you liked this article, be sure to let me know by leaving a comment. And if you think it may prove useful to someone else, please share it on social media.
Thank you for your attention, and, hopefully, see you in the next one.