I promised to write some posts about graphic design, so let’s get started with one of the fundamental aspects that has a huge effect on the look and feel of your project: the choice of typefaces, also known as fonts.
Technically speaking, the higher grouping is the typeface, which may contain many different fonts. For example, Helvetica Neue is a typeface, whilst Helvetica Neue Regular, Helvetica Neue Italic, Helvetica Neue Bold and so on are fonts. You will often find the terms used synonymously, but it helps to understand the difference.
Nowadays, with the advent of computer technology and the way fonts are rendered on-screen, the different sizes of font—for example, 12 point Helvetica Regular, 18 point Helvetica Regular and so on—are no longer classified as different fonts in themselves. In the old days of ‘hot metal’ type, the different sizes would actually have to be cast and stored separately, but computer software has eliminated the need for this.
Now, you might be planning something as simple as typing a business letter, or thinking about the corporate identity of your company, or formatting the interior of your latest ebook. Whatever the task, it’s important to understand the basic forms of typeface.
The most common and traditional type of typeface is called a serif font. A serif is the little angled bit you can see at the corners of most of the letterforms that contain open strokes. The reason we refer to them as ‘strokes’ is that originally, they were just that—strokes of the calligrapher’s pen in medieval times, when scribes would painstakingly copy volumes—usually bibles and prayer books—by hand using goose quills cut to shape and ink made from hand-ground pigments.
Just like a stone mason chipping away at a headstone, or a carpenter carving wood, the serif was a useful way of allowing the pen or chisel to ‘bite’ neatly into the surface before making the long stroke. Remember that the surfaces being used were not the machine-milled perfection of modern times; traditional vellum or parchment, let alone stone or wood, are natural surfaces with many imperfections.
Typical examples of serif fonts are Times, Garamond, Bembo, Baskerville and Goudy. Each has their own characteristics and merits.
A modern offshoot of the serif font is the block serif, which simply means that the serif has been squared off in some way. A particular favourite of mine is Officina, but there are many more.
You will also find a number of monospaced typefaces that use a variation of the block serif. The most famous is Courier, another is American Typewriter. The clue is in the name—they mimic the typefaces found on old-fashioned typewriters. The ‘monospaced’ means that every character in the alphabet of that typeface occupies exactly the same space horizontally. On a typewriter, this was necessary because when each key was pressed, this moved the carriage along an identical amount for each letter. Thus monospaced fonts often have the curious feature of letters like m and w occupying the same width as n or o or even i or l!
Conversely, sans serif fonts like Gill Sans are simply fonts without serifs—the expression comes from French. I have no idea why the French version has persisted: if you prefer to sound more Germanic, then you can refer to such typefaces as “gothic” and indeed, some font foundries (and yes, that expression is still used, even in the digital age) create typefaces specifically, such as Century Gothic and Franklin Gothic. This has nothing to do with Gothic Script, that almost unintelligible form of handwriting from the Middle Ages! (In fact, as a calligrapher, I can happily write in Gothic Script of various kinds, but that’s another story…)
The final common form of typeface is that loosely or entirely based on handwriting and these are called script fonts. They range from the fairly simple, such as Zapfino or Bradley Hand, through to elaborate and swashy, such as some of the Poetica family or Edwardian Script.
Now, there are other typefaces, some defying categorisation, often designed for specific purposes or to evoke a specific feel. These are often referred to as ‘decorative‘ fonts. For example, there are many I can think of that evoke a science fiction feel, or neon lighting, or use symbols in their construction. However, these are unlikely to be used in the normal course of events, although they can serve well for headlines or book titles. We’ll return to that another time.
Finally, you’re no doubt already aware that most typefaces have italic and bold versions for all, or at least most, of the fonts they contain. The most sophisticated fonts often have many weights, as they are known, such as light, regular, semibold (or medium), heavy, ultrabold and so on. They may also have specific versions designed for use in headlines or when being used very large, such as for posters or signage. Your designer will know which versions are the best to use according to the project in hand.
The size of type is expressed in points. You may also have seen the expression picas, but that is less common nowadays. Both have been handed down from traditional typesetting and adapted to use in Desk Top Publishing (DTP)
A point (abbreviated to pt) is fractionally less than 1/72 inch, but for practical purposes, it is rounded up. Points are used to indicate the size of the type, as well as the space between lines, known as line spacing or leading. As well as being used to indicate the height and spacing of type, points are also used to measure the width and depth of a column.
In professional design and typography, you will see expressions such as 10/12, which means 10 point type set on leading of 12 points, a common spacing equivalent to 120% of the font size. The larger the second number, the more widely spaced the type. Note that this is completely different to the way that DTP programs such as Microsoft Word describe spacing, where you will commonly see settings of 1, 1.5 or 2 lines. This is because Word reproduces what old-fashioned typewriters used to offer—the amount of paper that would be pulled around the drum when you pressed the ratcheted return lever—not professional typesetting!
A pica is another way of saying 12 points, or roughly 1/6 inch in imperial measurement. It certainly used to be the case that newspapers and magazines in particular would design their column layouts using picas. For example, the standard width for a column of text on a three-column grid on an 8.5″ x 11″ document is 14 picas and 4 points, or 14p4. As a client, however, you are unlikely to encounter this expression very often.
Fun fact: the gap between the columns of text closest to the binding of a book or magazine is called the gutter. The spaces between columns of text on the same page are properly called alleys, but many designers and even some software refer to these also as gutters.
We’ll be looking at more aspects of typography next time, including how to decide which typefaces to use for the different aspects of your project.