Image above by Diego Schtutman.
Whether you’re new to typography or a seasoned pro looking for a refresh, these ten mistakes are easy to make but even easier to fix with a few simple tips.
Before you draft your next ragged paragraph or neglect a few pesky orphans, make sure to brush up on what to avoid below.
Mistake #1: Avoiding Classic Typefaces
There’s a reason why vintage cars and fine wine have such dedicated followings—sometimes you simply can’t beat a classic. Typography is no different, with century-old serifs and midcentury sans-serifs often trumping their contemporary counterparts for beauty and functionality.
Before you get carried away with that free script or new novelty font, consider using one of these tried-and-tested classics instead. You’ll be pleasantly surprised by how relevant they still look in graphic design today.
Serifs that will never let you down:
Sans serifs that still look fresh:
Mistake #2: Not Choosing Typefaces with a Wide Range of Weights
Often type designers will tempt you into buying a full font family, which includes a variety of weights such as bold or italic, by offering one weight at no cost. As tempting as it is to dabble with these cheap one-weight beauties, it doesn’t make for versatile typography and can impact the quality of your design.
Most pre-installed or classic fonts (see above) will be ready for you to use in a wide variety of weights. This variety is essential for formatting lengthy chunks of text, such as typesetting books or flyers. A complete font family will let you format quotes, titles, subheadings, page numbers, and drop caps to your heart’s content.
If you have your heart set on a paid-for font, make sure to buy the full font family. It’s the best way of ensuring you’ll get the most from your font.
Mistake #3: Not Creating Hierarchy in Your Typography
Ever looked at a layout and not known where your eye is meant to land first? It’s likely that a lack of hierarchy is the culprit, resulting in a muddled effect.
Hierarchy is really simple to impose on your typography. Work towards creating an ABC effect, with A being the largest, most prominent heading (set in bold or all caps for extra impact), B being a slightly smaller sub-heading (try semibold or italic weights for contrast) and C being smallest-scale body text.
You can’t go wrong with establishing hierarchy. It gives an instant calming effect to any layout by helping to guide the eye from A to C.
Mistake #4: Sacrificing Legibility for Style
There’s a time and a place for script fonts, and I’ve got news for you. It ain’t as part of a paragraph of lengthy text, or even in a one-sentence subheading.
Use fonts that are more difficult to read than your average serif extremely sparingly and only in the most necessary of circumstances. This includes script styles, handlettering fonts, and novelty typefaces. Unless it’s a wedding invite or a children’s party invitation, steer clear!
Another common mistake is making the font size too small. Increase the point (pt) size in your design software to at least 10 or 11 pt for comfortable reading. Also, print off drafts frequently to test how the font size renders in print. If you have to squint or bring the page up to your nose the font size is too small.
Mistake #5: Not Tweaking Leading and Tracking
If your text looks a little squashed, it’s likely you’ve neglected to adjust the leading (line-spacing) and/or tracking (letter-spacing) of your typography.
Making your leading generous (a little more than the auto-applied 120% setting in InDesign) helps type to breathe, and is an instant way of making your paragraphs look more elegant and breezy.
Tracking is another instant game-changer. While some typefaces won’t benefit much from increased letter-spacing as they’ll have generous tracking wired into their design, other fonts will appear much more polished and professional with a little extra letter-spacing applied. Tracking also works especially well on headings and sub-headings that need to be ultra-legible.
Mistake #6: Not Choosing the Best Alignment for Paragraphs
Flushing, pushing, aligning—there’s a reason designers have a number of terms for the way paragraphs align. It’s because it’s important, and has a completely transformative effect on your typography. There’s nothing more jarring than a paragraph that’s aligned centrally when it should be flushed against the left margin, or vice versa.
Look for the paragraph panel in your design software (in InDesign, go to Window > Type & Tables > Paragraph), and set your cursor in the text to apply the alignment settings to the whole paragraph.
If you’re looking to give facing-page layouts a symmetrical effect, try setting the text to align towards the spine.
Mistake #7: Neglecting Ragged Paragraphs
We all have unkempt days, but unfortunately in typography there’s no place for scruffiness. Paragraphs with ragged edges, where individual words jut out into space, look downright messy.
Similarly, there’s also a time and a place for justified text. This refers to the alignment where all lines of text have extra spacing applied between words to stretch the type across the text frame. Justifying your text can be a great quick fix for neatening text. But, many typographers would argue that a bit of attention given to remedying overly ragged edges is a more professional solution.
Ragged paragraphs are simple to remedy. Simply break lone words onto the next line manually, or consider using hyphenation to neaten the far edge of your paragraphs. Print newspapers commonly employ hyphenation to neaten columns and save space.
Mistake #8: Not Kerning Upside-Down
Kerning is the process of adjusting the spacing between individual letters or characters. It can improve the visual aesthetics or symmetry of type. But, it’s often overlooked by even professional designers.
A great tip for improving your kerning process is to flip type upside-down before adjusting the spacing. This way you won’t be distracted by the content of the type, and you can focus solely on the visual symmetry of the letters instead.
In InDesign, select your text frame and Right-Click > Transform > Flip Vertical, before adjusting kerning from the Character panel (Window > Type & Tables > Character).
Mistake #9: Not Tidying Up Widows and Orphans
As Dickensian as it sounds, these are actually typographic terms for lone words which appear at the end of a paragraph (termed widows) or at the start of a page (orphans).
Neglecting to tidy up widows and orphans is a surefire way to make your typesetting look messy. It’s also inefficient on space.
You’ve got a few options for solving the problem. One is to tweak the tracking (letter-spacing) of the paragraph or line containing the widow/orphan. If that doesn’t resolve the problem, try adjusting the text frame width to pull short words onto previous lines. Still no luck? Apply optical margin alignment (see below).
Mistake #10: Neglecting the Fine Details
Amateur typographers might sit back and admire their work after following the tips, but a seasoned typographer would not consider their work finished quite yet!
Adjusting some of the finer details of typography may seem to be taking things too far. Regardless, they really can make a huge difference to the professionalism of your typography.
Make sure to adjust the following to take your typography to the next level:
- Optical margin alignment: This instant tweak shifts small elements like serifs and commas to the outside of a text frame, which creates a neater edge to your paragraph. In InDesign, go to Window > Type & Tables > Story and check Optical Margin Alignment.
- Indentation: Indent the first line of paragraphs slightly to give emphasis to the break between one section of long text and another. This is a common technique used by book typesetters to visually break up long chapters.
- All caps: Set titles or subheadings in uppercase letters (termed as All Caps in InDesign and other design software) for extra impact and to improve hierarchical flow (see Mistake #3, above).
Looking for more typography tips?
If you’re looking to pick up more typography skills, make sure to check out: