Elements of Type 101

Five things to note when selecting type

Last week I wrapped up the 36 day social media challenge,”36 Days of Type.” Each day I posted typography from my environment, including signage in my neighborhood, wayfinding,  and door numbers. As a professional designer, who studies typography, I know the importance that it plays in design and communication. The right font captures the personality of a business, impacts the legibility of a document, and can deliver a simple message with impact. My recent exploration reminded me that it is not just designers who make decisions about typography, we all do. From the font we select in a Google document to the number we put on our front door we all make decisions about typography.

There are five main classifications (serif, sans serif, slab serif, script, and decorative) for fonts and thousands of choices within each classification. With so many choices, not to mention an ability to bold, italicize, or underscore, where to begin?!  A few things to consider:

Use. When selecting fonts it is important to consider how they will be used. If you have a long document that requires legibility, select a serif. If you need to make a bold statement sans serif will probably be the best choice. And just because you want something to feel celebratory does not mean you should select a script face.

Size. I often hear people refer to fonts in a general size with a confidence that they understand the nuances. 10 pts. in a serif font can optically read the same as 8.5 pts. in a sans serif font. It is important to select fonts and view them in the final form and when pairing fonts size them optically. 

Spacing. The space between the characters (kerning) can alter the legibility, personality, and even meaning. In the same way the font size will impact the legibility the line spacing (leading) also plays into legibility and presence. 

Styling. How many times do you get an email and large portions are in bold to emphasize importance? Within the bold are all caps for further emphasis. Perhaps some color added in. The end result is a block of screaming text that no one can or will read. Typography is about details, about translating messages on to a page, whether it is printed or digital. Select fonts for visual harmony and balance, or the opposite if that is the goal.

Personality. The door numbers that I photographed told me a lot about what to expect inside. Some had a modern aesthetic, while others were ornate. One resident had fun altering the orientation to play off the interaction of two numbers. Just two characters made a statement. The fonts you select for your brand and communications will convey a story beyond the words. Select them with consideration.

If you want to nerd out on typography here are some great resources:

The Elements of Typographic Style by Robert Bringhurst

Thinking with Type by Ellen Lupton

Flexible Typesetting by Tim Brown