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Typography—The Unsung Hero of Design

Typography—The Unsung Hero of Design

When designing materials, it’s easy to overlook typography. Here’s how to flip that assumption on its head and use it to drive the overriding approach to your brand.

We’re told that a picture is worth a thousand words. Or that movies are more engaging than books. Facebook’s marketing ethos—thumb-stopping content—revolves around images and video. The company even advises that you keep words to a minimum when creating marketing materials, claiming that they distract from your content.

Words, it would seem, are for the dogs.

The word dog spelled out with each letter in the shape of a dog

License the components of this image via luma Kirau, luma Kirau, and luma Kirau.

This may all be true, but let’s be honest, without words, nothing beyond the simplistic makes sense.

When designing icons, we can conjure all manner of graphics for “caution” or “email” or “airport.” But ask somebody to create an icon for “This bench was painted recently, so don’t sit on it until the day after tomorrow when it’s likely that the paint will be dry, unless of course it rains, at which point you won’t want to sit on it anyway,” and it’s likely that’s a harder concept to distill into a succinct, easily-understood icon.

Words, in fact, are our greatest communication tool.

Types of Type

Typography—or the art of arranging letters, words, and characters in a way that is legible and visually appealing—is the oldest form of modern design. Calligraphy was where it all started when theologians wanted an aesthetically pleasing way to record their sermons. Hours of painstaking work would go into making words look beautiful.

Had they written them in straight-up handwriting, it’s hard to imagine that these ancient texts would line the shelves of museums, as they do today.

Ornamentation, visual appeal, and storytelling were imbued into words and became pieces of art in their own right.

Medieval couple with text in medieval script that says "sup?"

License the components of these images via Eroshka, LukeProject, Alluvion Stock, Thoth Adan, Thoth Adan, and Thoth Adan.

The Gutenberg printing press brought about a new age for typography, with the invention of movable type.

As a result, typography exploded as the written word became something that could be reproduced easily at mass scale, in turn, leading to the proliferation of type as a design medium.

Subway sign on green stairway entrance
Helvetica in use. License this image via Cory Seamer.

You’ve probably heard of many popular fonts—Helvetica, Futura, Calibre, Garamond, Times New Roman, and more—and you’re likely aware of different categories of typefaces, such as serif, sans serif, and monospace.

Although there are some maddeningly obtuse naming conventions in typography, essentially what it boils down to is hundreds of years of designers attempting to make the written word into a functional and beautiful element of design.

Despite all of this, typography often gets sidelined by the racier elements of design, such as graphics, layout, form, function, photography, and animation.

This is a mistake.

Technology san serif uppercase letters and numbers with digital noise
License this image via rikkyall.

The written word is still, and will likely always be, our primary method of communication. So, when creating materials, type should be the first thing we consider, not the last.

After all, the words will be carrying the major elements of most designs, so why wouldn’t you use all those characters in your piece to your advantage by designing them as best you can?

Typography is our gateway to effective communication. Not only does it present the words themselves, it provides designers with an opportunity to evoke a mood, tone, or visual aesthetic, entirely by itself or in concert with other design elements.

Birthday party invitation with cute graphics on pink background
License this image via littleWhale.

Take a simple children’s birthday invite, for example. It’s unlikely that it wants to be overly formal. It probably needs to appeal to a younger audience. And, it may also want to communicate something about the child whose birthday you’re being invited to.

Sure, we could use imagery and layout techniques to meet those objectives, and then slap on our copy afterwards. But, were we to consider the type first, and then arrange everything else after those choices have been made, we would almost certainly end up with a more cohesive and successful birthday invite.

Or, to think of it another way—if a cybersecurity firm used Comic Sans as their brand typeface, do you think anybody would take them seriously? Unlikely. But, should they opt for something more serious, that gets the job done, and looks professional—well, that could entirely change their fortunes.

Tips for Choosing Appropriate Typefaces

1. Think About the Basics

All designs need a strong visual hierarchy, graphic balance, and a clear overall tone. All of this comes from strong typographic choices.

Think about the piece you’re creating and the audience for whom it’s intended, then pick out fonts that tick off all those objectives.

Art poster for the exhibition of painting, sculpture and music
License this image via Ardea-studio.

2. Use Beautiful Typefaces to Influence Decision-Making

If you choose fonts that are illegible or easily misinterpreted, the chances of your customers buying your product greatly diminish.

Yes, Helvetica is overused. However, that didn’t occur by chance. It transpired due to its clean aesthetic, its visual appeal, and its immediate ability to command a certain level of sophistication.

We don’t advise jumping on the bandwagon and using Helvetica for everything (see custom typefaces below for more).

We do believe, though, that it’s important to pick typefaces that make your mouth water if you want to enhance your ability to convert customers.

License these images via Zakharchenko Anna and LukeProject.

3. Choose Custom Typefaces over Standards

You know when you look at a website and you can immediately tell that it’s a templated design embellished with a few minor tweaks? And, you know how that puts you off, and you decide to look elsewhere?

Well, using Arial or Impact—typefaces that brands use time and time again—will almost certainly have the same effect.

There are hundreds of independent type foundries available creating stunning typography for you to choose from, often at fantastic value for your money.

Yes, good typography costs money—but the reward of selecting a unique typeface is going to pay dividends over time.

Remark quote text box for poster template concept
License this image via Muhammad ZA.

4. Manipulate Your Copy

Okay, so this one is a little technical, and likely too long for a list of tips, so we’re only going to brush the surface with this one.

Once you’ve picked your typeface(s)—choosing more than one typeface, one for headers and another for copy, will create a more well-rounded piece—it’s a good idea to consider typesetting, or the manipulation of text composition.

This involves working with the text by adjusting the spacing between characters, words, paragraphs, and line breaks to give a unique style to your designs.

Even standard word-processing software, such as Microsoft Word, comes with some typesetting abilities.

So, with a little additional work, you can have your copy looking utterly stunning in no time, and totally bespoke to your piece or brand.

Images via freepik.

5. Subvert and Misdirect

Up to now, we’ve focused on interpreting the right aesthetic, tone, mood, or message through the use of complementary typefaces.

However, as with everything in design, sometimes you may want to purposefully break those rules to create a contrast, evoke a certain type of feeling, or simply surprise your reader with an unexpected font choice.

Once you’ve learned the rules, you can break them, and in doing so, create even more opportunities for drawing readers in, converting visitors into paid customers, and more.

It all comes down to the words.

Vector of stylized modern font and alphabet
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When creating marketing materials, it’s super easy to get fixated on imagery, graphics, or animation, and push typography off to the side. But, as we’ve seen, engaging type choices before you do any of those things can result in a piece that’s much more compelling.

Typography should never be an afterthought. Instead, treat it as the star of the show, like those theologians did all those centuries ago, and the rest will follow.

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