14th November 2016

What is typography and why is it important in design?

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Lauren Swarbrick

What is Typography and Why is it Important in Design?

As a design agency and particularly one with a core focus on branding, typography is a big part of our every day and is central to our work.

Typography is, quite simply, the art and technique of designing and arranging type. As with everything visual, how the written word looks is just as important as what it says and the power of effective typography should never be under-estimated. Typography and choice of typeface is far more than simply making words legible; it is how we make content work with layout and it is absolutely fundamental to good design.

The art of choosing a typeface for a particular branding project or design brief comes down to a mixture of skill, experience and intuition, but the background behind the decision is firmly rooted in history. So how much do you know about typography, it’s history, how we use it and the impact it has on your design? Unless you’re a type designer or a scholar of historical letterforms, probably not much. So here’s a whistle stop tour to give you a broad overview.

Typefaces or Fonts?

Today, the terms ‘typeface’ and ‘font’ are generally used interchangeably although technically they are in fact different. A typeface is a collection of fonts which share the same name and aesthetic and is sometimes referred to as a font family which leaves the individual size and style of a typeface being known as the font, for example, Helvetica 12 point Bold.


A Brief History of Typography

The First Typeface Blackletter is generally considered the world’s first typeface. Created by Johannes Gutenberg in Germany in the 15th century, Blackletter had a profound impact on written communication. Prior to Blackletter, manuscripts were scribed by hand or were printed from hand carved wooden blocks. Both methods were incredibly time consuming, extremely expensive and prone to error, all of which made them impractical for mass production. Gutenberg created and perfected small metal single letters and characters called moveable type which revolutionised printing. Modelled on the letterforms of the scribes, which gives its secondary name of Gothic Script, the Blackletter letterforms were heavy, dense and compact but not terribly legible in print.

Following on from Blackletter came Roman Type, again created in the 15th century but this time in Italy by a Frenchman named Nicolas Jenson. Jenson, who carried out most of his work in Venice, was inspired by the lettering found on Roman architecture. Far clearer and more legible, Jenson’s work on typefaces marked the transition from an imitation of handwritten style to the typed print style that has remained in use throughout subsequent centuries of printing.

Typography later started to progress in the 18th century with the development of Old Style, Transitional, Neoclassical and Slab typefaces. Most serifed typefaces fit into one of these classifications.

The Birth of the Sans Serif

A sans serif typeface is one that does not have the small projecting features called ‘serifs’ at the end of strokes. The first sans serifs were developed in the 18th century and were a significant departure from hundreds of years of tradition in printed text. At first they were known as Grotesque which comes from the Italian for cave, a term which been previously used to describe Roman styles found during excavation. The sans serifs became popular in the early 19th century as advertising grew more widespread and so was the need for more eye catching headlines.

Contemporary Typographical Styles

Following the complexity of the 19th century, the 20th century saw the development of simpler, more modern typefaces. To sit alongside the more traditional Grotesques there was the introduction of Humanist, Geometric and Square typefaces. Each style comes with it’s own distinct characteristics which give them their own unique, distinctive look and feel.


Why Does Font Choice Matter?

Every typeface has its own personality and sets the tone for a piece of design, having a direct impact on the the viewer and the impression it leaves them with. Typography provides that at-a-glance first impression that people gauge and judge the rest of the design by, so font choice matters - a lot! If the personality of the typeface doesn’t match the message you are trying to communicate then there will be a disconnect and the piece will feel confused. It’s the job of the designer to make a thoughtful and considered decision and select a font that has purpose and is appropriate to the message.

Font Pairings

More often than not in design projects it’s necessary to pair fonts together. In this situation it’s vital to find pairings that set each other off, don't fight for attention and harmonise, working together to achieve a cohesive design.

The easiest way to find great font pairings is by using different fonts within the same typeface by using a so-called 'superfamily’ such as Lucida/Lucida Sans. Superfamily typefaces include a range of weights, styles and classifications that are specifically designed to work together; the perfect ready made pairing. However as an agency we also often pair together two different typefaces. The golden rule is contrast don’t conflict; it’s about finding totally different, but still complementary typefaces that are each fit for their intended application.

If you would like to talk to us about typography as part of your branding or design project please get in touch.

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