Talk typefaces like a pro

Alex Haddon | 20 June 2018

Do you know your tracking from your kerning? In this post we outline key typeface terminology so that you can get to know your own brand's typefaces better – and talk about them like a pro!

For centuries we have been adding styling to the way we write, often to signify the level of importance of the information. There are people who devote their lives to typefaces and there is a little bit of a type nerd in all good graphic designers and we feel it really is an exciting and quite technical concept to decide what makes one typeface much more appropriate than another for a project.

In this post we will go through some terminology and characteristics of typefaces to help you see beyond the alphabet.

Typefaces and fonts

Firstly, lets clear up the confusion between the words FONT and TYPEFACE:

A typeface is a design of the alphabet that can have many sub-styles but they all have the same base design. eg. the American Typewriter typeface

A font is a specific version of a typeface with a specific styling such as weight or italicised. eg. American Typewriter Light

Serif and sans serif

Typefaces are also categorised into main groups and the best known is SERIF and SANS SERIF. The serif group combines all typefaces that have 'little feet' added at the ends of the strokes. These are decorative elements and are considered the traditional style, heralding from the first roman typefaces.

Sans serif typefaces are actually the first style of writing as it was the easiest to create – think of pre-historic cave writing! Sans (meaning 'without' in French) is considered the modern alternative with its cleaner lines and more simplistic forms. Sans serif is also easier to read on average, although this will depend on the specific design and how it is used.

Ascenders and descenders

Another important factor in having the right typeface is how the ASCENDERS and DESCENDERS work in relation to the overall height. Depending on the design, ascenders and descenders are what creates the shapes outside of the main block. This will affect how much space you may need in between the text lines and it can cause imbalance on logos if the letters have an uneven placement. In those instances, look for typefaces that have ascenders and descenders that are not too high or too low. 

The x-height

This brings us neatly to the X-HEIGHT which is the top of the lower case letters. This is always your main visual line and is measured from the baseline (where the typeface sits).

Always look at the distance between the x-height and the top of the ascenders; is the gap big or small? Shown below are two different typefaces in the same font size but with a big difference in the gap. This means the typeface with the big gap, shown top, actually appears smaller as typesize measures the overall height not the x-height.

Tracking and kerning

TRACKING and KERNING is what can really make a difference when wanting to create visually stunning text. Tracking is when letters are spaced out equally (or brought together) to create more prominence. A note here to one and all: it is considered a cardinal sin in graphic design to track out lower case letters!

Kerning is when individual space between letters are adjusted to create better shapes and improve legibility. In the golden oldie days this was done by hand by a skilled craftsperson with a keen eye. Today computers do this job for us, but very often not so well. Dates are notoriously bad with single digits often looking removed. Even with some computerised auto-compensation, words can be really out and it becomes very evident when this happens in large headlines or pull-out quotes.

Start looking around at typefaces you see, especially on large advertising and signage. With the right tools and design craft, typography becomes an incredibly powerful brand asset that is often overlooked and could yield a lot more return and competitive advantage for brands.