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Typography 101 for the Beginner

When you read the word typography, what immediately comes to mind? A man sifting through metal letters by hand for a printing press? Choosing between Times New Roman and Arial in a document? The utter crime that is Comic Sans?

All of the above are correct. A more medieval definition would focus on the man and his printing press, when moveable type sparked one of the world’s first information revolutions. However, as this is the digital age, a more modern definition of the function of typography would be “to document, preserve, and replicate word-based knowledge and to place it firmly at the core of modern communication design”. In other words, typography is the physical appearance of words and letters on a page or screen to communicate information.

But is that it? Is it just picking a font from a list?

Not quite.

Choosing a specific font, or type, for your design is as much an aesthetic choice as it is a functional one. For example, serifs, or the little “feet” on certain fonts, can determine how readable your information is in specific formats. Professors have long requested Times New Roman for college essays not because the type’s title sounds academic or simply because; as a serifed font, it is easier to read in long chunks of body text on printed pages.

Conversely, a sans-serif font, or one without the feet, is more suited to online documents, computer screens, and headers. Helvetica is a common example of a sans-serif font widely used by tech companies such as Apple. Take a look at your iPhone. The first letters you see on the screen are a variant of Helvetica.

There are other design principles behind typography, such as hierarchies of information and spacing, just as there are hundreds if not thousands of fonts available. Carefully consider the environment in which your audience will be reading and your intended goals for specific information. Choose wisely. And avoid Wingdings.


We’re just not sure what to make of that.

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