Typography is an artform that stretches back thousands of years—from stone-carved letterforms in the second century, to Gutenberg’s creation of movable, letterpress type in 1448. Typesetting was born a tedious trade where hours were spent laying out a book’s pages one letter at a time. For the last 150 years designers have wielded type as visual weaponry, to point directly at the masses and fire at will. Now we’re assaulted with type, most of which is awful; and that’s where you come in.

Practicing good typography is at the core to good design. Computers are all grown up (they even come with two buttons we hear) and everyone, including yer mama, is making christmas newsletters with custom type—comic sans and all. Knowing your em-dashes, serifs and line heights is important, but the key is developing typographic control. Here are some points to consider:

Read it first

Some of the best designers are also writers, but at the very least we should all be readers. Writing is turning into a crucial role for us; when it’s our job to articulate ideas we have to be clear about what those ideas are and how to best present them. Read the text first, then make recommendations to the author about clarity, pace and length to ensure the text is digestible. All too often designers find themselves rewriting all of the text, stripping out the nonsense and getting at the core ideas. And this becomes absolutely key on the web, where writing has a very utilitarian function and ideas need to be as streamlined as possible. Use lists; break long pieces up with clear headings and subheadings; summarize up front; use emphasis to break homogeny.

Know the voice of a typeface

Typefaces change the tone of text, so know what your words are saying and how your typeface emphasizes and articulates the message. Not every typeface is the right choice for every job, but most designers have a handful of favorites that cover just about everything. Analyze older print designs and see how some of the greats still stand up today; good typography has a lot to do with the timelessness of a piece.

Two theatre posters; two approaches. The design on the left still looks amazing after more than a century. Extreme use of scale works well for posters that need to pull the viewer in for progressively more layers of information. The poster on the right treats the type as though it were an illustration. It is flowing and playful with a sense of whimsicality—much like the play it represents.

Scale is your strongest ally

A versatile typeface works at a variety of sizes; many of the classics work great for both body and display text. If you’re having trouble making a photo work, craft some text and start working with scale and stacking words. Stacking words or strings of text is one of the best ways out of a jam; you bring emphasis to the text, make it visually interesting, and entice the reader to actually read!

This concert poster comes from the Hatch Show Print folks. They’ve been doing amazing work out of Nashville, Tennesee since 1879! There work is still created by hand using real blocks of letters that are carefully arranged and sent through a press. The subtle imperfections of this method give the poster unique character.

Clarity and utility

It’s generally a good idea to keep the typeface as is, that is, don’t stretch it, increase or decrease the tracking too much (that’s the space between letters) or apply faux bold or italic (an easy mistake in the Photoshop type palette). While some will argue for strict utility of headlines and body copy, sometimes it’s interesting to break the rules in the interest of the content and readability. David Carson often turned text on its ear and distributed paragraphs across the page like you might subjects in a photograph. There’s power in this, and while it can turn ugly and unreadable quickly in the wrong hands, don’t underestimate the value of interesting type treatment.

The image of the left is an article from Raygun magazine from back in 1993. Many of today’s grungy layouts can be traced back to what David Carson was doing in the early nineties. The David Byrne poster on the right is an excellent example of allowing the typography to become one with the illustration. This poster would have been ruined if a digital typeface had been rendered on top instead of the imaginative doodle-based letterforms.

Start strong

Many articles rely on illustrations rather than photographs as introductions to type pieces—think old magazine articles or newspaper features. Starting with a strong typographical statement can draw the right amount of visual interest and be more meaningful and contextual than a photo; and with the right typeface, it will be quite beautiful on its own.

Bring on the funk

Sometimes a free and funky font might be the right one for that special piece of display type, especially as an initial cap. Consider using a single letter of a rather “interesting” face as a visual element; often an entire paragraph of text might become hokey or too heavy-handed and stylistic, but might be magical in moderation.

Working toward illegibility

Accidents are easy in real life, but making them look good on a computer isn’t easy. Try adding some grunge to a headline to give it the misprinted look, or tightly crop around the core of a word or phrase to give it extra emphasis. Great and interesting things happen when you approach typography a little backwards. Some texts, like poetry, lend themselves to expressive gestures, strange positioning and emphasis, and odd spacing between letters, words and paragraphs.

Be different

There’s a lot of great work being done, especially in the poster scene where text is highly visual. Look to printed matter for the best inspiration. Check your library for books on Russian constructivist posters, 1930s American boxing posters, communist propaganda, books on handwritten text, motel road-side signage, Spanish-civil war posters, and hand-painted signage from the last 100 years. There are great books out there on the subject of type; you just have to find them.

What the hell is a serif?! And other typographical paraphanelia


Type has lots of parts, and the anatomy of these bits makes a confusing lexicon for the uninitiated. Here’s a cheat sheet for the parts you should know. For a more complete listing, we recommend the excellent TypeRules: the Designer’s Guide to Professional Typography.


The “little wings” on the edges of letterforms. They come in two flavors—bracketed and unbracketed. Bracketed serifs have gentle curves that lead into the character, whereas the unbracketed variety jam themselves in at 90-degree angles. Traditionally, serifs have been noted for their elegance, and many believe they increase the readibility of body text by helping to move the eye horizontally across letters. Of course others prefer clean lines and faces without (sans-) serifs, as they believe serifs are too distracting and cause the eye to pause.


Simply, the height of a lowercase x. While it’s not a very exciting name, it is the character that generally defines the height of the other lower-case characters, excluding ascenders or descenders.

ascenders and descenders

The parts of the character that extend above (ascenders) and below (descenders) the x-height. Watch your ascenders and descenders when adjusting the leading (see below), to ensure breathing room.

swash characters

These are characters wearing fancy pants. They have extended flourishes at the beginning and end of the character, and work well to add an air of elegance. They are not intended to be used continuously in a sentence—so don’t!


Specially crafted characters that combine letter-pairs. If you want someone to think you really know what you’re doing, use specially designed ligatures in place of more awkward letter pairs.

em-dash, en-dash, hyphens

Hyphens are the most bastardized character in design. The shortest of the group—hyphens—are for hyphenating compound words or words over line breaks. It’s slightly bigger brother, the en-dash, is used to describe a range, as in “1865–1904.” The em-dash rings in as the heavyweight champ of the three and is used as a graceful pause or interjection in a sentence. And do remember the golden rule: two hyphens don’t make an em-dash.

En-dash: Mac (opt+hyphen), Windows (alt+0150), HTML (–)
Em-dash: Mac (opt+shift+yphen), Windows (alt+0151), HTML (—)


Pronounced like sledding, leading historically refers to actual pieces of lead that were inserted between lines of text to keep the characters in place. There’s a fine line between too little and too much leading between lines of body text and either can reduce readability.

tracking and kerning

Tracking refers to the amount of space between all characters, while kerning is reserved for the space between letter pairs. The point of kerning is to increase readability by creating an even amount of space between characters. A character like an uppercase Y may need to be kerned closer to its mate to compensate for the large space at the right of the letter. It sometimes helps to blur your vision a bit and just make all the blobs equally spaced. Most fonts are auto-kerned, but you’ll inevitably need to do some by hand for display type, especially when using all uppercase letters.


Lastly—in our list at least—try to keep lines of body text around 50 to 70 characters in length, as this keeps your eye in a tighter space so you won’t lose your place when completing a line of text. Multi-column text is a designer’s best friend.

About Red Labor

We’re a small design shop focused on creating thoughtful print, web and motion products. Recently we designed the iStock t-shirts as well as launched an independent clothing and art product web site called Iron-On Resistance, have a look, will ya?

Print references

Image credits

Open House Poster; Maya Drozdz and Bill Hanscom

Red Theatre poster; designer: Studio Dumbar; letterer: Bob van Dijk; illustrator: Monica Peon

David Byrne poster; Joel Elrod

Cranbrook catalog; Catelijne van Middelkoop

Raygun; David Carson

Better Safe Than Shaggy; art director: Pete Morelewicz; designer: Alice Lewis; photographer: Darrow Montgomery

Beastie Boys poster; Hatch Show Print

Midsummer; Gail Swanlund

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