Typography #101 – 5 Simple Steps for Better Communication

Graphic design is the communication of your message to an audience.

Projects and briefs are often wildly different but at the heart of each is the need to deliver a message. As big an impact as imagery can have, it’s very rare to work on a design project that doesn’t use typography in some form.

Instead of looking at the more technical aspects, this post will consider a few points to keep in mind and consider when designing and working with typography to ensure your message is communicated as effectively as possible.

There are a wealth of great typography articles online, explaining the terminology and details in great depth, (I’d recommend checking out the great article on Design Instruct for background information).

01 – Legibility

To communicate a message successfully, your design must be easily legible. The harder the user has to work to absorb a piece of information the more likely they are to simply switch off from it. A favourite quote of mine summarises this effect:

Good design is invisible, bad design is everywhere

If done well, typography will often not be noticed by the audience, information will be absorbed but there is no struggle to access the information. To keep legibility high, try to remember to:

  • Choose a font size suited to the application - 9pt may look great on a flyer, but is less effective on a billboard!
  • Give it plenty of space to breathe - big blocks of text are off putting and harder to digest
  • Likewise extra wide lengths of text (or the measure as it properly referred to) are just as off-putting - try to keep lines of text to a maximum of 10 words across

It’s also crucial to choose typefaces that are sharp and easy to read, which leads me on to point 2..


02 – The Right Typeface for the Job

Not only must your choice of type be set well, you have to make the right choice for the job at hand.

In design typefaces are often split into two categories, display and body:

Display for headings and type set at a larger size – the type used can have a little more character and still be clear.

Body sections on the other hand, will mostly be a lot smaller in type size and a simple, clear typeface will really help keep it easy to read.

That grunge typeface may look great as a call to action on a poster, but will it be as forgiving when you use it for all the text in a corporate brochure?


03 – Tone of Voice

Similarly, not only must your choice of typeface be legible it should be sympathetic to the tone of your message. Typefaces can convey a lot of character through their style and design, and this can either help reinforce or detract from your message.

Your choice of typeface should help reinforce your message and the tone of your design, not conflict with it. Many typefaces can be neutral in design and will work harmoniously with your imagery and other elements – popular examples include Helvetica and Univers, that featured heavily in the Swiss typographic movement.

Many designers prefer this neutral style of typeface, Massimo Vignelli is a big advocate as discussed in the brilliant Helvetica documentary (definitely worth adding to your Netflix queue!).

“I don’t think that type should be expressive at all. I can write the word ‘dog’ with any typeface and it doesn’t have to look like a dog. But there are people that [think that] when they write ‘dog’ it should bark.”

Other typefaces have a lot more personality and will help reinforce your message – they key is to close something appropriate to your design, whether expressive or not. It my seem like common sense, but a fun spray paint style font will look out of place in a corporate report, whereas Gill Sans will sit much better.

04 – Mixing It Up

Just because you can’t use that crazy grunge font for a report design it doesn’t mean typography has to be boring. There are hundreds of great typefaces and one of the keys is to mix them up! Communication relies on legibility, and using different typefaces helps add hierarchy and guide the users eyes.

Combining typefaces is an experiment, mixing different styles to see what works and progressing from combinations that don’t. There are a few tips to keep in mind when combining typefaces:

  • Contrast – often the best typefaces to combine are very different visually, mixing a serif and a sans serif will have better results than two only slightly different san serifs that may sit uncomfortably together.
  • The right typeface for the job – similar to point 2 of this blog, mixing typefaces can improve your design but it should be done sensibly. Designate roles for each typeface you introduce, eg use that slab serif for chunky headings, that sans serif for the body and the serif for pull quotes.
  • Limit yourself – simplicity is still key. Mix typefaces and use them to guide the user through your design, but keep the number of typefaces to 3 or below. There are always exceptions but generally this is considered good practice as using more can make the piece confusing or feel disjointed.


05 – The Devil’s in the Detail

Typography is intended to aid your design and support your message. Invest time and effort into your typographic work and you will be rewarded in the final piece - even if the end user is blissfully unaware to your effort.

As I mentioned earlier in this post, good typography just works. Ask yourself what would increase the usability of your piece, make sure it flows. Typefaces are designed in different weights and styles, use them to your advantage. Little details like setting names in italic will add consistency to your design and help ease the user through the information without them even realising it. Jim Williams sums this up well in the fantastic book Type Matters (one for the bookshelf).

“Typography is known as an invisible art, because if a typographer has done a good job and produced a page that flows and is ‘easy on the eye’, he has done his job and the reader doesn’t notice. A page that is badly designed will be difficult and irritating to read…if a book is uncomfortable on the eye then the enjoyment of reading is spoiled.”

There are many other aspects to consider when using typography – over time a great deal becomes subconcious and you will probably find yourself naturally applying these tips to your work. I’m sure this won’t be my last post on typography, but for anyone new to design or looking to improve the way they communicate to their audience I’d recommend trying to keep these 5 steps in mind.

Remember, like any skill, typography is an ongoing experiment, some results will be more successful, others less so, it takes time and practise to get to grips with.

Leave a Reply