Become A Typographic Guru

title: “Become a Typographic Guru” date: “2000-06-19 14:00:00” layout: post tags: [ historical, fonts, typography ] —

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As designers continue to rely on technology, the rich history and useful knowledge of the experienced designer is quickly falling by the wayside. It is often the little things that separate a good design from a great design. The shape of a letter, the slightly altered spacing adjustments, even the selection of type can quickly grab your readers attention or turn them away. Understanding the basics of typography such as letterspacing and leading will help you improve your skills as well as the overall look of your designs.

Who are you?

  • If you are a novice designer, you know the point size of a character is related to its optical size.
  • If you are a serious designer, you know that not all fonts of equal point size are the same optical size.
  • If you are a design guru, you know the width of a character can be determined by dividing the unit value by the number of units in the standard EM and the point size of a font can be found by dividing the cap height factor by the height of the letter in the layout.

So what level are you at?

If you would like to think of yourself as a guru or want to at least impress your friends the next time you are discussing AppleGaramond, make sure you at least understand the basics of typography. Do you really know the difference between a font and a typeface? What is the name of the space between each line of type? If you understand the terms you also understand what they do and how to modify them to better suit your design needs.

To be considered an above average designer, you should know:

  1. What a font is; The term font has been so overused that it describes almost anything when it comes to type. The true meaning of the word font, is simply: the entire assortment of one size and one style of type. “Helvetica Regular Condensed Italic 10 point” for example, is a font. “Helvetica” with no added description is not a font. This is why on a “2000 fonts” CD, there is usually only a few hundred different families. 2000 fonts includes each of bold, italic, boldItalic, condensed, extended, condensedBold, etc. in counting the “2000 fonts”.

  2. What a typeface is; When someone refers to a typeface, they are referring to all the different font sizes. For example: Helvetica Regular Condensed Italic 6 to 72 point.

  3. What a type family is; A family is all variations of a typeface in size, width, serifs, slants and other attributes. Helvetica is a family of typefaces that may include Helvetica Light, Helvetica Bold, Helvetica Condensed, etc. The family can be considered any typeface with the word “Helvetica” in it, as long as it has most of the same characteristics as the original “Helvetica”.

  4. A few parts of typeface characters; Understand the basic parts of characters will help when you are combining typefaces on the same layout. Contrasting typefaces is useful for headings or highlighting special information. To maximize contrast, select typefaces not only by weight and class, but also look at the design elements. A face with a small x-height and another with a large x-height can look very different even when the x height is the only difference between the two.

  5. What letterspacing is; Letterspacing or kerning is either negative or positive and is simply the space between adjacent letters. Page layout applications such as QuarkXpress or Adobe InDesign allow you to adjust letterspacing numerically. In large type, the letterspacing often needs adjustment to allow all the letters to appear the same distance apart.

  6. What leading is; Pronounced Lead (as in the metal)-ing not Lead (to follow)-ing. Leading refers to the space between the lines of type. Classical leading is calculated as three times the x-height of the type, Practical leading is two and a half times the x-height of the type. If the leading is the same as the point size then the type is set solid.

  7. What the Point is; A point is 1/72 of an inch and is commonly used for typographic measurement and vertical page measurements.

  8. What the Pica is. There are 12 points to a pica or 6 pica to an inch. The pica is a very common unit of measure for type and horizontal measurement in page layout.

To be considered a design guru you should at least know these as well:

  1. What typeface categories are; Typefaces are commonly grouped into classifications based on common characteristics. A slab serif typeface for example is heavy with square-ended serifs (the little extra pieces on letters). Typeface classification may seem odd but it’s use is apparent for separating typefaces by political, social and cultural factors. Here are a few classifications and examples:


  1. What the character parts are; Each character in each typeface and family is unique. Subtle differences are what make AppleGaramond different from AdobeGaramond. Looking at the following pieces of each letter can help you distinguish the differences in your characters when trying to decide which typeface to use. Refer to the numbered chart below for the different parts of various letters.

Characters Parts

  1. Counter
  2. Bowl
  3. Stem
  4. Ascender
  5. Arm
  6. Leg
  7. Vertical stress
  8. Diagonal stress
  9. Baseline
  10. Tail
  11. x-height
  12. Apex
  13. Cross Bar
  14. Stem or Stroke
  15. Cross Bar
  16. Link
  17. Ear
  18. Serif
  19. Ascender Line
  20. Cap Line
  21. Decender Line

And how to calculate leading; When you are doodling layouts with the old pen and paper, it may be very helpful for you to figure out just how many lines of type will fit in the area you want. Sure, your chicken scratches and squiggles look great but what happens when you get three pages of text to fill the half page block? Determining how many lines can fit into the space right from the start would be a great help!


To calculate the number of lines of type”

[[(Number of characters and spaces) / (Line length in picas)] / CPP factor] x (Body size in points) = Number of lines of type

To calculate Leading per line:

[(Body size of the type in points) x (Cap height factor) x (Depth of type area)] / The number of lines of type = Required Leading

Using your new found knowledge for the better

Congratulations, you’ve started on the path to becoming a design guru. Next all you have to do is memorize the Adobe Type Library (Just kidding). With your newfound ability to discuss the subtle differences between Times and Times Roman you can be the life of the party. At the same time, you can also add that little extra something into your designs to put them a notch above the competition.

So the next time you scroll aimlessly through your never ending font list looking for just the right typeface for your resume or business card, consider this: “What typeface, x-height and leading combination defines you as a person?”