Its all about type

Writing gives the impression of things. Conversely, things can give the impression of writing.

Paul Elliman

Typography is the form and structure into which words are manifested into our world. It has a long and storied history, and it’s out job to both understand this history and understand how to apply type effectively.

A brief history of typography

Early example of Chinese movable type.

Our story begins in the early 1500s with Albrecht Dürer, a seminal figure of the German Renaissance. While Johannes Gutenberg is widely credited with inventing the printing press and movable typography, movable type had already been invented around 1040—80 years earlier—in Asia, by Chinese polymath Bi Sheng. Though movable type was a significant step in human history, it was Dürer who made the first inroads towards a methodology of type design.

Image from Dürer’s “Directions for the Construction of the Text.”

In the above image, Dürer examines Roman letterforms and attempts to create a rational system for recreating glyphs, specifically drawing attention, perhaps for the first time, to the form in which words appear. At the time, the way words appeared were often a byproduct of the medium that was used to write them. Fraktur, for example, is a German script style that reflected the thick nibbed pens that were in use at the time.

An early example of blackletter script.

The first typefaces

Cuneiform tablet: administrative account concerning the distribution of barley and emmer.

The first typefaces weren’t typefaces at all. Early writing was used primarily as a means for recording and storing information. Care was given, not to the presentation of forms on physical medium, but rather the fact that one could do this at all.

Brush and pen strokes defining typeforms.

Oftentimes, words and forms were expressed into a particular physical medium with whatever tools were available. These tools often shaped the ways words were shown and presented.

Type forms which came from (a) chisel on marble, (b,c) stubby pen or metal stylus, (d) reed pen, (e) reed pen inspired by stone, and (f) pen or brush on parchment.

As it turns out, Dürer was on to something. With the advent of movable type, we suddenly had the ability to shape the way words appear on a page by way of type in a way that was never done before.

An ode to metal type

Creating movable type from punch cut forms.

The first typefaces created with movable type attempted to emulate handwritten scripts. A typeface designer would create a punch which would function as the source from which a metal form would be created. Many of the terms that were created to describe physical attributes of metal type (leading, point size, shoulder) continue through to our digital world.

A “lockup” of metal type, describing the frame holding forms together. We still use this phrase to refer to design layouts.
Anatomy of metal type.

Type was stored in drawers where the lower case held the uncapitalized forms, and the upper case held the capital forms. Sound familiar?

Conventions and standards carry on through history.

Technology takes the lead

“Farewell Etaoin Shrdlu,” a documentary made at the end of the metal type era at The New York Times, in 1978.

Over time, as technologies evolved, type and typesetting transitioned as well. We moved from hand setting movable type in composing sticks to Linotype typesetting. This allowed for machines to create an entire line-of-type as a metal slug, which could then be put into layout.

With the advent of the photocopier, we quickly moved from metal type to phototypesetting.

A master plate for Futura phototypesetting.

A phototypesetting machine works by projecting text onto a light-sensitive medium—film in some models, photosensitive paper in others—which is then used to transfer the material for offset printing. Early phototypesetters of the 1950s employed backlit plates with images of the characters to be printed, which would be flashed onto the film one at a time in rapid succession. By the 1960s, it became possible to use CRT monitors to display multiple lines of text, and even images, onto film. But because film was exposed one full frame at a time, the limiting factor with these devices was the size of the CRT screen, which kept the maximum page size down to about 8.5″×11″.

In fact, some of the first computer programs for digital typesetting, such as troff, were created to support and drive phototypesetting processes.

A transition to digital

Some typefaces that came with the original Macintosh.

By the early 1980s, as the internet was being formed and the web had yet to exist, the advent of computers with screens and visual interfaces made the final typesetting transition: from physical to digital. Most significantly, the Apple Macintosh and Lisa were significant milestones in providing the first visual document editing experience on a computer. The term, What You See Is What You Get (WYSIWYG) begins with this era of computing.

To support this, in 1983, Susan Kare created a suite of digital-only typefaces.

Physical type had to be converted to digital formats in order to be presented on a screen. We started with pixel and bitmap encodings of typefaces, before switching to vector-based representations.

With the transition to digital screens, the representation of fonts also evolved over time. Today, almost all digital fonts are presented as vectors. In fact, most font file formats are just packages for sets of vectors.

Hinting typefaces to sit on a pixel grid.

However, while vector files are infinitely scalable, the medium on which they are shown (screens) are not. As with any analog to digital process, there is some loss of information as a computer samples the original shape of a glyph and then maps it to a pixel grid. This is how we get artifacts such as aliasing, which happens when a line or curve doesn’t land perfectly on the pixel grid. The operating system uses shades of gray to trick our eyes into seeing a smooth curve.

Okay, so what is a typeface?

Anatomy of a typeface, from Ellen Lupton’s “Thinking with Type.”

A typeface has distinct characteristics and properties that make it unique from other typefaces. Beyond the visual manifestation of each glyph, typefaces contain metrics that aren’t visible, such as kerning.

Typeface anatomy.

Broadly speaking there are several main styles of typefaces: serifs, sans serifs, monospace, and decorative. While there are distinct subfamilies within, our selection of a typeface within one of these particular styles already conveys significant meaning.

What are things to consider when picking a typeface?

Legibility, meaning, historical context, past usage, visual appearance, etc.

  1. Because it works.
  2. Because you like its history.
  3. Because you like its name.
  4. Because of who designed it.
  5. Because it was there.
  6. Because they made you.
  7. Because it reminds you of something.
  8. Because it’s beautiful.
  9. Because it’s ugly.
  10. Because it’s boring.
  11. Because it’s special.
  12. Because you believe in it.
  13. Because you can’t not.

Michael Bierut, on picking a typeface

It is worth noting here that our discussion of typesetting is within a narrow European (and subsequently American) tradition. The norms, conventions, and rules will be different, outside of that lens—and we recognize we have a limited ability to speak to other paradigms.

We encourage students to bring their own experience in here—introducing us all to other typographic customs and traditions.

Typesetting and layout

Type size, weight, and color

A heading (or display text) should appear differently than body text (also called body copy), which should appear differently than lists, which should appear differently than links, and so on. A well-typeset document considers all of these elements working together to create a cohesive layout. As you typeset it is also important to treat things consistently—headings should always look the same, so that a reader will understand what they are looking at visually.

An example of how type size informs hierarchy. Exercept from Walter Benjamin’s essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.”

We can use differing type sizes to distinguish between headings and body text. Generally, we aim to create a visual type hierarchy where the most important parts of a document have the largest size (headings), scaling down through our main, body text to the least important (captions or footnotes) as the smallest.

An example of how type weight informs hierarchy. Did your eyes skip over the first block?

But the literal size is not our only tool. Another way we can distinguish copy within a document is by making use of weights—varying the thickness of the stroke. Good typefaces usually come in a range of weights to facilitate our designs—at the very least a regular (or roman), bold, and italic weight. Nowadays, variable typefaces allow us to pick and choose the exact weight combinations that we need.

An example of how type color informs hierarchy. I’m guessing you went to the blue, first.

We can also use color as a visual element to distinguish our content. Above, we keep the type the same in both the heading and body text. But, using only color, we are still able to set apart the heading.

Many of these principles of hierarchy are come from the Principles of Gestalt—creating associations out of form. These principles have become systematized in interactive work.


An example of how leading can inform legibility.

Leading refers to the the space between lines, harkening back to the days of moveable type when metal separated rows. Body text should have looser leading since it will be smaller; heading text can be tighter without losing legibility, since it will be set at a larger size. We can tolerate close lines for short texts; we struggle with them over longer passages. The space between heading and body text should also be considered.


An example of ragging text.

Ragging is the in-and-out flow of text on the right edge in a left-aligned block of text. (Or the left, in a right-to-left script.) When setting type with a ragged edge (the norm in interactive, where justification is rare), pay attention to where each line ends. A good rag is one where the lines move in and out in small increments. A not-so-good rag bounces the eye back and forth from line to line, creating distracting white spaces in the margin and hurting readability.

To avoid bad rags, we can make sure that the type size of a container is not too large and that the column is not too narrow. We want our text to land in nice rectangular and rounded, chunky blocks.

Widows and Orphans

An example of a widow (top) and orphan (bottom).

Widows are short last lines of a paragraph, usually one word on its own or the end of a hyphenated word. Widows generally leave too much white space at the end of a line, making it look like an extra blank line—disrupting your typographic rhythm and spacing. The wider the line and the tighter the paragraph spacing, the more distracting the widow.

Orphans are short top lines of a page or column—abandoned on their own—that are also distracting. They create ambiguous design intention and hinder clear reading.

We should avoid orphans and widows through proper ragging, making sure that type sizes aren’t too large for a container, and making use of the non-breaking space character, which makes sure there is not a line-break between two words. We should also always wrap some words together (for example, September 7), for ease of reading.


It is also our job to make sure that we properly use punctuation—so it is in service of our content, not a distraction. Various dashes are a common mistake. Hyphens (-) are different than en-dashes (–) are different than em-dashes (—). We use hyphens to separate words, en-dashes to dictate a numerical range, and em-dashes to emphasize phrasing.

Another common mistake is misusing apostrophes and quotations. By default, most computers will generate (") as a proper, curly quote when you type it (the feature is usually called “smart quotes”). However, you should be prudent to use opening and closing quotes—note the difference between the two quotes below:

"These are sad, ambiguous straight quotes."

These are better, clearer, opening-and-closing quotes.

When in doubt, The Elements of Typographic Style probably has the answers you need. It is among the best single references for typographic minutia.

Type foundries

Where does one find typefaces? From foundries, again referencing the days when making type involved casting actual metal.

While most computers comes with some good ones (this website, for example, uses your device’s Times New Roman), there are many other places to get fonts. Here are some that we like:

While many of these type foundries offer trial versions to use, you should always license a typeface before using it for commercial purposes. As a student, many offer discounts as well. There are also many open-source typefaces and fonts licensed under the SIL license.

Always remember that typographers are designers, just like you—and deserve to be paid fairly for their work. It’s hard for you to do well, without their efforts.