A 7-Step Plan to Become a Typography Expert
Why is typography such an important part of graphic design? What does it take to gain respect as a world-class typographer? As in many aspects of artist expression, there are often more questions than answers. Today, however, you’ll find answers to the questions above and hopefully many more — enough to propel you into an exciting new career.
When you speak, words can mean many different things based on how you say them. Typography contains within it the written equivalent of spoken inflection, tone, cadence, volume, pitch, modulation and emphasis. That’s a lot of baggage to carry, but believe it or not, you can control all of it. To do so, you’ll need to experiment with the subtlest variations of design elements such as the serif, pairing, ligature and kerning. What do all those things mean? Prepare yourself for a crash course in typography, beginning with how fonts impact the viewer and ending with a pathway to immortality (or at least a second income).
The Psychology of Typography
A great deal of research on typography has been instigated by marketing challenges, where instant visual communications and the emotional content of images have a measurable financial impact. Research by economic professor Terry Childers shows that a typeface alone can affect how well people remember a piece of text and how they feel about the associated brand. The association was so strong that Pamela Henderson and the American Marketing Association published a typographic framework for which impressions can be created by specific artistic elements. With effective branding, consumers can identify a company by its font in the absence of other clues. As the essence of a brand’s logo, the font alone can be worth hundreds of millions.
In the paragraph above, you may have been distracted wondering about the difference between a font and a typeface. For the vast majority of people today, there is no difference. To understand the distinction from a typographical perspective and discuss it intelligently, you’ll need a little background on the history of typography, a great first step to embarking on your new career.
How to Become an Expert Typographer
Step 1: Learn the History of Typography
As a typographer, you’ll be joining a tradition that has more than 4,000 years of intriguing history. The Greek word “typography” is made up of “typos,” meaning a stamp for making impressions in clay, and “graphein,” meaning writing. Call it laziness or efficiency, but the earliest scribes at the dawn of civilization got tired of writing the same letters over and over, so they built stamps they could reuse in endless combinations. After three millennia, the Chinese invented a machine that held ceramic characters for repeated printings. In the Western world, movable type came about almost by accident. Johannes Gutenberg, in 15th-century Germany, collected investments to sell holy relics along a crusade route. Unfortunately, he got the year of the crusade wrong, and nobody showed up to buy his relics. To satisfy his angry investors, he quickly came up with a movable type machine, perhaps borrowed from Chinese designs, to print Bibles instead. The world of mass printing instantly exploded. Over the next five centuries, building striking and engaging typefaces out of wood, metal or digital bits became an original artistic endeavor demanding skill in visual arts, composition, sculpture, engraving and color theory.
Step 2: Understand the Major Types of Fonts
This is where the font vs. typeface distinction begins. Before computers replaced printing presses in the 20th century, “typeface” referred to the overall design, and “font” meant the specific size and weight of that typeface used in any given print setup. For example, Times New Roman is a typeface, while Times New Roman Bold 24 point is the font. In Microsoft Word (and many other software programs), the typeface is now referred to as the font name. Expect clients and project managers to use either term interchangeably in discussing the look and feel of your work. At this point, it tends to break down as a generational disagreement, but some top typographers are still a bit sensitive about the use of the terms. What’s truly important is understanding the four categories of fonts, or typefaces, that typographers work with most often:
- Serif fonts and sans-serif fonts – Serifs are the tiny extensions that accentuate the ends of letters in fonts such as Baskerville, Garamond and Times New Roman. Sans-serif is the absence of them. Examples of sans-serif fonts include Arial, Futura and Impact.
- Script fonts and decorative fonts – Artsy texts often invoke a stylized form of writing that simulates calligraphy or crafting. These are also known as display fonts because they are best for headlines and attention grabbers. Examples include Celestial, Gutenberg and Zapfino.
Step 3: Learn How to Pair Fonts
Just as a sommelier combines internal aesthetics with vast experience in pairing the right wine with the right food, a typographer is a sommelier of fonts. Each font has its own personality, so running into a clash is common. Font pairing is the most basic and essential of typographic skills. Before you contemplate building your own font, you have to know which fonts to pair and in which ways to pair them to achieve specific effects.
Start now by taking random text and rendering it several times in different fonts on a blank page. Compare two fonts you like, and look for concordance (the similarities they share) and contrast (in weight, proportion, spacing, color, decorations, etc.). Fonts pair well when they share some essential trait, even when they contrast in every other way. Contrast emphasizes a shift from header to text or different ideas, but the pairing must still be aesthetically pleasing. Although contrast can be useful, you want to avoid aesthetic conflict (such as opposing decorative touches or skewed internal angles of symmetry).
Some of Creative Market’s font families are a perfect place to start. Here are five inspiring design examples:
- Asphalts and Shorelines – Asphalt heavy brush strokes with Shorelines cursive font.
- Duckbite Family – Duckbite calligraphic script font with Duckbite Sans block letters.
- Secret Words Font Duo – Secret Words hand-brushed script with Secret Words Display font.
- Hello Sunshine Font Duo – Hello Hello Sunshine Marker and Hello Sunshine Script.
- Typographer’s Toolbox – A group of 16 handcrafted fonts for countless original pairings.
Step 4: Learn the Basic Rules of Typography
Remember that fonts only make sense in context, so try out different ones to see how they integrate into the design of the larger project, such as specific Web elements. You have to know the rules inside out before you can break them productively. Too many beginners start from their internal inspiration and waste everyone’s time by making the same mistakes. Spend some time going over this poster that contains nearly all the key typography terms you will need to know. Creative Market’s “What Is Typography?” post is another great elementary lesson to help you nail down the basics.
Step 5: Learn the Difference Between Kerning, Leading and Tracking
Space is as much a design tool as color or form. The spaces between letters is defined in three ways. Kerning is the spacing between individual letters. Leading defines how much space you leave between lines of text. Tracking is similar to kerning but deals with groups of letters. Varying tracking helps text fit within a specified line. It’s most often used to create symmetrical text blocks and to keep single words or lines from spilling over onto the next page.
Step 6: Learn How to Pick Fonts for Your Brand
A business needs a memorable brand, and a memorable logo begins with the font. Choosing that font should involve a great deal of careful thought and research. You’ll start by defining what the brand image should conjure in the mind of consumers and then laying out a design hierarchy that fonts will occupy. Look at how different fonts display, from mobile device screens to paper signs. Finally, consider how well the font you select will work as part of a complete marketing strategy. A brand involves more than just creating a logo. A company also needs an original look for its website as well as matching business cards, email campaigns and other marketing materials.
Step 7: Learn How to Create Your Own Fonts
At the professional level, designers are using high-powered rendering software such as FontLab Studio. This is one of the industry’s most popular tools, but prices start around $600. If you are looking for a smaller investment to get started building fonts and building your name in the industry, try out free and low-priced font creation tools such as Fontstruct, FontForge and Font Constructor.Most recently, a font creation tool called Fontself picked up over €37,000 in Kickstarter funding.
Your next step is to take a mental snapshot of the market. Review some of the most popular fonts that other artists have recently created. You should also take a look at graphic art mistakes and typography nightmares, which may teach you more than examples of the best fonts.
Living Forever as a Font
The goal of every great typographer is to be immortal. It’s really not that hard if you hit the market at the right time with a wholly original spin. Edward Johnston, for example, was a simple calligrapher before he created the Underground typeface that is now instantly identifiable as the look and feel of the London tube system. The Underground typeface was later renamed Johnston in his honor. Baskerville, Garamond and Zapf represent just a few of the many other fonts named for their creators.
The world is always looking for the next generation of creative type designers. When you’ve created a font the world should see, display it on Creative Market. Just posting it won’t make you famous, but applying the best practices of successful freelancers will bring in the exposure your new font deserves. For example, you should promote your work over visual networks such as Instagram. If you have an online portfolio on a platform such as Behance or Dribbble, encourage visitors to shop for your latest font creations on Creative Market. Collaborate with Web designers and graphic artists to increase the depth and range of your portfolio. The world is badly in need of new typefaces and new faces in typography. There’s no reason why you can’t add “Font of Knowledge” to your creative skill set.
More Resources to Learn About TypographyDaily inspiration
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