What's the Difference Between Text & Typography?

I’ve always been one of those designers that “oohs and ahhs” over typefaces. I can look at a project and be delighted by the fonts and their placement on the page. (A fun read— “Just My Type” by Simon Garfield.) I think typefaces are beautiful, so working with different fonts and type hierarchy is fun for me, a bit like solving a puzzle. It can be a challenge, make you a little crazy (how many levels of indents do I need?), but worth the time. Making your text easy to read and giving it a natural flow is one of the most important things you can do for your reader. It’s great to have photography, illustrations, and infographics to spice up a layout, but good typography is essential.

Lately I’ve noticed something lacking in many of the marketing materials I‘ve come across—great typography. A layout is not just about choosing a font and flowing the copy into the document, it’s paying attention to the little things. Gone are the days when a little old man in the back-room painstakingly set your text, making sure the kerning was correct, ligatures were being used and the right rag was pleasing and not too choppy. Now designers must fend for themselves, making decisions about widows, orphans, hyphenation, ligatures, en spaces, em dashes, correct quote marks—the list goes on. Designers are not only designers but typesetters too.

So, what is the secret to great typography? Basically, it’s in the details. For you new designers out there, here’s a bit of what I’ve learned about this lost art.


First, to understand great typography, you need to do a little research. Take a moment and look at award winning designs and work from well-known designers. They undoubtedly have it figured out, so what better way to learn? As you look at all this great designs, ask yourself what is the common thread you notice with regard to the text layout. Is the text easy to read, do you like the font they chose, how much leading do you like, does color come into play, how about indents, text wrap, ligatures or alternate characters? What do you like or don’t like about it? Taking the time to do this will help you understand what makes good typography. Once you determine what you like and understand why it works, you can use those ideas and apply them to your own work.

Getting Started

When you start a job, first things first; read the copy! It’s amazing how many designers don’t do this simple task. Next, think about your audience—are they kids, young adults, professionals, the elderly? This will help you determine the size of the text, leading and general flow of your piece. Now you can make a few simple decisions about the typography—serif or sans serif, the layout or grid, the line length and number of columns, pt. size and leading (you can always change this later with the help of Style Sheets in InDesign.)

One (loose) rule of thumb I learned early in my career was not to exceed an alphabet and a half as a line length. If I have a longer line length, I add more leading to the paragraph. This helps the eye from naturally dropping to the line below when reading. Of course, the opposite also holds true, having a short line length leaves you with too many hyphenations which is also difficult to read.

Tips for Picking the Right Font

Choosing serif or sans serif, light, regular or bold weights is a process. Serifs tend to evoke a more traditional look while sans serif faces have a more contemporary feel. Sometimes it takes a few tries to see what you like. With so many fonts out there, it can be overwhelming for new designers to decide which fonts to use or how many they should use in one project.

A simple rule of thumb when you’re starting out is to pair a serif with a sans serif, one for heads and the other for the body text. It gives you a little variety without looking like you couldn’t make a decision on your font choice.

With so many weights, italics and condensed versions in today’s fonts families, you will undoubtedly have a large selection to choose from. Use the different weights to emphasize text, use them in heads and subheads, pull quotes or captions. Avoid too many pt sizes, it will make your document look messy. If you don’t like mixing serif with sans serif then stick to one but don’t pair 2 serif fonts or 2 sans serif fonts in the same document. Of course there are exceptions to the rule, but remember, that will come later. Have you ever heard "In order to successfully break the grid, you need to first understand the grid?” The same holds true for typography, you need to understand typography before you can start mixing things up.

After you’ve been designing for a while and start to recognize fonts and font families, you’ll be able to make your decisions quicker. When you can identify 20 or 30 different fonts, you’ll know you’ve arrived! I know I have a handful fonts that I use regularly, stepping out when I need to add variety for heads, captions, pull quotes, infographics and the like. One font that I'm sure you already have an opinion about is Comic Sans. Check out this video to learn about the man behind the controversial font.

Rules to Live By

  • Never hyphenate the company name or any proper name; you can add a soft return to force it to the next line or adjust the tracking or kerning to get it to fit, or if you have the option, edit the line of copy.
  • If you must use hyphenations, try to limit them to no more than 2 in a row. Too many in one paragraph can disrupt the text flow. Personally, I uncheck hyphenations all together. If the right margin gets too ragged I kern or track the copy a bit.
  • Make sure to use the correct Em or En dashes and hyphens with the correct spacing before and after.
  • Run spell check, there’s (almost) nothing worse than a typo.
  • Use correct curly quotes and curly apostrophes, not inch (') or foot (") marks.
  • Use space before and after to your advantage. I always add “space before” to paragraphs. But not the first paragraph, I like that right under the sub head. I use half the leading as my amount. For instance, if my text is 9/12, I would add 6 points (p6) of leading as my “space before.” That gives the paragraphs some breathing room but also keeps them grouped under their subhead.

As designers, we always want things to look beautiful, myself included. But we can’t forget why we were hired, to solve a problem and provide an asset people want to read and use. Making our marketing materials compelling and easy to read is a must and part of that task includes paying attention to the typography.

If you love fonts, check out this short by College Humor, and let me know what you think!

Debra Novara's love affair with design and the outdoors was truly realized when just two weeks after graduation she landed in Denver with nothing more than a backpack, her portfolio and a pair of skis. After 20+ years of designing for the Denver market (and skiing every resort) she returned to Michigan where she continues to work in the design industry as a member of the NHLS Marketing team. In addition to receiving awards for her design work, Debra has taught design at universities, served on multiple design panels and is recognized as one of the founding members of the AIGA-Denver Chapter.

Categories: Adobe, Artist's Palette
Rate this article:
No rating

NH Learning SolutionsDebra Novara

Other posts by NH Learning Solutions

Contact author
Please login or register to post comments.

Theme picker

Contact author