Typography is an incredibly broad subject, and many graphic designers don’t have the time to fully explore the world of type design. However, knowing even a few typography tips for formatting text will improve your designs in an instant.
Typography is a transformative element of design, knitting together your layouts and giving your designs a distinct personality, style, and voice. Read on to discover five typography tips and techniques to make your type-based layouts the best they can possibly be.
1. Start with great ingredients
A meal is only as good as the ingredients you cook with. Typography is no different. Unless you’re designing custom typefaces, fonts are the fundamental building block of any great type layout.
Google ‘fonts’ and you’ll find thousands of sites offering free fonts available for instant download. What’s the catch? For one thing, these fonts are rarely high quality – there’s a good reason they’re offered free of charge. Free font sites thrive on advertising revenue while providing ‘novelty’ fonts for visitors. Avoid these sites if you want to up your typography game.
If you’re working on a big-budget project there are a number of celebrated foundries to source superlative fonts from. These guys design incredible typefaces that would entice any typographer. Lineto, Neutura and The League of Moveable Type are just a few.
If your budget is a little tighter, there is also a range of fantastic online font shops with stock foundry-generated typefaces, as well as offerings from independent type designers. You’ll also find modernized and original versions of much-loved classic typefaces. FontShop, FontSpring and MyFonts are all trusty sources of fonts that vary in price and quality, but a bit of hunting will unearth some gems. Commercially licensed, high-quality free fonts might sound unicorn-like, but they do exist if you know where to look. FontSquirrel is the perfect place to find fonts that are being trialled by designers before a paid release.
2. Understand how to pair typefaces
Sourcing a great font is only a small part of the battle. You also have to consider how typefaces will work together in your layout. You might use only one font for your design (an effective technique for high-impact designs like posters and flyers), but often introducing a different font into the mix has the power to elevate your design to a professional standard.
If done well, contrasting fonts – like a sans serif paired with a serif — will end up complementing each other through their differences. Fonts within the same family can also make great teammates, as they share fundamental similarities. This approach can work particularly well for book design where a certain sans serif looks better set at smaller size while a related typeface looks best on bolder headers. If you’re struggling to find the perfect combination, Typewolf is an engrossing resource for finding beautiful pairings.
Another pro tip for pairing fonts is to match the x-height of contrasting styles. This instantly scales the type to matching proportions.
3. Pay extra attention to your paragraphs
Headers are really exciting to design. Sub-headings? Yup, they’re pretty fun too. Paragraphs? A bit less inspiring. This is where designers and typographers divide; while designers get excited about the big, high-impact elements of a layout, a typographer will be gleeful to tackle a bit of paragraph typesetting.
Take a leaf from the typesetter’s book and pay extra attention and time to the way that your body text is formatted. These typesetting details are what makes a layout look particularly professional, but to the untrained eye it can be difficult to put your finger on exactly why one layout looks better than another.
The first thing to consider is how your paragraphs are aligned. By default text will always be aligned left, which leaves a ragged edge to the right side of the paragraph. Ragged edges are no bad thing, but an overly messy edge is a typographic sin. If you’re aligning your text left or right pay attention to line breaks, and shift words to the next or previous line if the edge looks a little too ragged. Similarly, watch out for strange hyphenation splits which affect the way the text is read, as well as widows — single words that appear at the end of paragraphs or at the top of a new page.
Justified text, whereby all text is pulled equally across the text frame, creating a block of text with a symmetrical appearance, can look extremely elegant and neat. For the interior pages of books or text-heavy magazines, justified text is considered an industry standard, but note that perfecting justified text can be a time-consuming exercise.
Also spend some time experimenting with details like the leading (space between lines of text) and tracking (space between all letters) of your type. Optically aligning your text to the margin (go to Window > Type & Tables > Story in Adobe InDesign) is a subtle detail that shifts outlying elements like serifs and commas to sit outside the margin-line, making for a neater paragraph edge.
Print out sample pages of your work frequently as you typeset, and assess the legibility of your text in hard copy. Tweaking the font size of text by even half a point or so can make a huge difference in the clarity of your paragraphs.
4. Think about color contrast
After you’ve spent hours perfecting your typography, one of the last things you might consider tweaking is the color of your type. You might be sticking with traditional monochrome or going for a full-color design, but either way you need to adjust color to maximize contrast and readability.
Even for black and white text simple adjustments can have a dramatic effect on how your typography will be printed. The standard black used in most design software is 100% key (black) and 0% cyan, magenta and yellow. You can create a warmer or cooler, and ultimately richer, black by tweaking the levels of these three colored inks.
If your design is going to be printed on warmer-colored paper, set your text in a contrasting cool black. Try C=60 M=50 Y=40 K=100.
Printing on cool paper? Try a warm black like C=40 M=60 Y=60 K=100.
If you’re going for a full-color design, make sure that your screen is calibrated to show color as accurately as possible, and request a pre-press proof from the printer before you commit to the full print job. You want to ensure that the text is completely legible in the color combination you’ve selected.
5. Finally, if it ain’t broke…
When you need to create a typographic design it can be tempting to go all out. So many fonts to choose from! So many cool things to try like drop caps and false italics! But typography is an elegant and subtle art, and it rarely suits exaggeration. Using novelty fonts and formatting out of proportion with the design can cheapen the look of your typography and make it look dated.
A good tip is to start by using a classic typeface, such as Garamond or Helvetica. You can use this as a basis for creating a hierarchy of type on the page, and a basic grid for your design. It’s easy to then swap in different fonts and begin formatting your typography in detail. You may well find that a classic typeface like Caslon or Baskerville turns out to be the best font for the job — they’ve been around for centuries for a good reason!
This isn’t to say you can’t get creative with typography. Just look at David Carson’s experimental typography for Ray Gun magazine in the 90s. He broke conventional typographic rules to incredible effect. As with learning a language you have to be confident with the basics first — the grammar and vocabulary —before you can write poetry. Typography is very similar. Learn how to create simple, effective typography first, and then you’ll be equipped with the skills to make something truly outstanding.