Typography for all: Demystifying text for high-impact messages

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Text is incredibly powerful—whether you’re making a business card or a garage-sale sign, you’re sending a message. The look of that message influences the way the receiver reacts: If the message is visually pleasing, the reaction is generally positive, but if the text is hard to read, that feeling of difficulty transfers back to you, the messenger. Here we’ll cover the basics of everyday typography, font pairings that are pleasing to the eye, practical formatting tips that work with a variety of software, and common mistakes to avoid.

Basics of typography

Before diving into formatting, let’s get a grasp on the lingo. Point size refers to the actual size of the text. The base line is the imaginary line on which text sits. The x-height is the size of the main character body, excluding any ascenders (bits of the character that extend above the x-height, such as in f or h) or descenders (bits that extend below the baseline, such as in g or y).

Here you can see the different components of text.

Font family refers to the character design, whereas font style refers to variations of that same design, such as regular, light, bold, italic, and so on.

Fonts also come in different categories such as serif, which has lines extending from the main stroke of each character that resemble tiny feet (think Times or Hoefler); sans serif fonts don’t have feet (think Arial or Helvetica). Other categories include slab serif (same as serif but thicker in weight), decorative and display fonts (characters with ornate shapes or those that are really thick), and scripts (those that look like cursive handwriting).

You’ll find font families and styles in separate menus in most programs (except Microsoft Word, which groups them into a single hierarchical menu instead).

Tracking refers to uniform spacing between letters. It’s handy when you’re trying to make text fit a small area, and you can use various amounts of tracking to enhance your design.

In the example below, the word conference has been “tracked out” to stretch from the i in digital to the last a in camera. Because the large amount of space is uniform and obviously deliberate, it becomes a design element (and it’s also one of the few ways all-caps text looks good—the extra space makes it seem less like screaming). In both Apple Pages and Keynote, tracking is called character spacing.

To adjust tracking in the Pages or Keynote Text Inspector, position your cursor within the line of text you want to adjust (no need to highlight anything) and then drag the Character spacing slider to the left or right.

Leading controls the amount of space between lines of text. If you’ve ever added extra returns to create space, or wondered how designers make lines of text look squashed together, you’ve encountered leading. In both Pages and Keynote, leading is called line spacing.

To adjust leading in Pages or Keynote, first open the Inspector window by pressing Command-Option-I and then click the black T button. Place your cursor within the paragraph you want to adjust, and then drag the Line spacing slider to the left to decrease leading or to the right to increase it. You can also use the Before Paragraph and After Paragraph sliders to precisely set the space before and after a return.

You can adjust leading in Adobe Photoshop Elements, too. Highlight the lines of text you want to change, and with the Type tool active, choose a point size from the leading pop-up menu in the Tool Options area (which is located at the bottom of your screen in Elements 11).

Font pairings that work

Although you’re always safe in pairing different font styles within the same font family (say, Hoefler Bold for headlines or subheads paired with Hoefler Regular for paragraphs), it’s also nice to pair a serif with a sans serif, using one for headlines and the other for body text. Of the fonts installed with the Mac OS, try pairing Gill Sans with American Typewriter, Copperplate with Hoefler, or Arial Narrow Bold with Baskerville. If you’re trying to pick a font to use for the Web or your email program, Verdana is a great choice because its larger x-height makes it easier to read.

If you’ve installed Adobe software (say, Photoshop Elements), you have a veritable smorgasbord of fonts on your Mac. Try these winning combos: Helvetica with Garamond, Frutiger Bold with Minion, Garamond Bold with Futura, or Myriad Bold with Minion.

If you have Comic Sans, do everyone a favor and don’t use it. It has been incredibly overused for a long time, and thus conveys (at the very least) a lack of creativity.

 In previous versions of Elements, the leading menu is in the Options bar at the top of your screen.

Typographic offenses

To make sure your text is sending the right message, you should avoid several common mistakes.

Typing a double-space after each period: This blunder is a holdover from the days before word processors, when people used typewriters with monospaced fonts. Because every letter had the same width, it wasn’t always obvious when a sentence ended; two spaces helped signal the end to the reader. Also, a period is really small—if the hammer didn’t strike properly, or if the ribbon was low on ink, it might not show up. Since any font you’re likely to have nowadays uses proportional spacing, you have no reason to use two spaces (look at any professionally published book or magazine, and see how many spaces it uses). Granted, some readers may never have seen, much less used, a real typewriter; but outmoded habits from the past can linger.

Serif fonts are great for large blocks of text, while sans serif fonts are suitable for headlines and subheads (though sans serifs appear a lot in text blocks, too). Use slab serif, decorative, display, and script fonts sparingly; they’re harder to read.

Underlining text that isn’t a hyperlink: Underlined text signals to the reader that it’s a Web link, so use bold or italic styling for emphasis instead.

Using all capital letters: All-caps isn’t really harder to read—we just read it more slowly because we’re not used to it. The offense is that it implies screaming.

Incorrect ellipses: An ellipsis indicates an omission, interruption, or hesitation…in thought (like the dramatic pauses Star Trek’s Captain Kirk was famous for). It consists of exactly three periods—not four or five—with or without a space before and after the ellipsis. To make one on the Mac in any program, simultaneously press Option and semicolon.

Professional typographers used to apprentice for years before they gained permission to create text for the public or a client. While today’s digital tools make the process of creating text much easier, the guidelines above will help you ensure that your text always communicates effectively and professionally.

This article was updated on April 24 at 6:00 pm to correct a reference to x-height and to clarify the range of ellipsis usage. 

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