Typography Crash Course

We all have epiphanies in our design careers, like when we suddenly understand why we need those typographic theories a former professor was trying to teach us. Or when we realize we should have been paying attention instead of doodling in our notebook. Or even when we realize something we know now would have been a great thing to know all those years ago. Sound familiar?

You’re not alone. Even veteran designers have “aha” moments. The important thing is to learn from them and use the new knowledge to better your skills. Following are six lessons you can study now to improve your typographic knowledge and design skills. Think of them as proverbial smacks to the forehead.

Get an even more in depth typography tutorial with HOWU’s Mastering Typography online workshop.

Typography Crash Course with Denise Bosler


When I was a fledgling designer, I once had an art director tell me my work looked dated and mismatched. “Your connotation is all wrong!” he said. I nodded my head dejectedly and went back to work. I had no idea what he was talking about. A short time later, he showed up at my desk lugging a graphic design history book with several pages marked. Sure enough, my design combined fonts from the 1940s and 1970s, and used a Bauhaus style layout with 1980s colors—it was all wrong. He knew it and I knew it. I suddenly realized that I should have paid more attention in my design history class.

Typography can make or break a design. As a designer, you need to know everything about type—including its history. There’s a reason why certain historic eras’ approaches to typography and design were successful: They made an impact on the world. Don’t merely look at projects from those eras. Absorb them, love them and explore them. Glean inspiration from the font choice, type treatment, layout, color and concepts. Dadaism, Bauhaus, Constructivism, Art Nouveau, Art Deco and other art movements’ typography and design influence designers every day.

It’s also a great idea to familiarize yourself with type designers. From Frederick Goudy and Giambattista Bodoni to Zuzana Licko and Alejandro Paul, each made, and continues to make, a significant impact on type design. In addition, type designers, too, are inspired by typographic history. For instance, Zuzana Licko’s font Mrs. Eaves was inspired by Baskerville, and Alejandro Paul has said he admires the work of Hermann Zapf and Ed Benguiat. Before you start your next job, take a break, dust off your old textbook, and take a step back through history. You never know where your inspiration may come from.


Paying attention to the details shows that you care about the quality of work you’re presenting to a client. Just because a job has to be done quickly doesn’t mean you have permission to be sloppy. The more attention you pay to detail, the better the readability of the final job. Think of it this way: Give typographic detailing the same consideration you give to color. Here are some areas to consider:

Example of Kerning

Kerning. Kerning is all about increasing the readability of your design. Your words may seem to read just fine if the headline isn’t kerned, but doesn’t kerning make it even easier to read? Kerning isn’t just for headlines; subheads, pull quotes, numbers and typographic logos need to be kerned, too. Here’s how to do it: Look through the words that need to be kerned. Pick a pair of letters whose relationship looks perfect, and aim to have the rest of the letters in the word match that visual space. Fix the kerning until the entire word has consistent letterspacing. If there’s more than one word, move to the next one and aim to have this word’s kerning match the first word’s. And so on.

Leading. Stop using auto leading. Right now. Auto leading is based on a mathematical formula that only works for those few fonts with average x-heights and ascender/descender lengths. Finesse your type manually instead, giving the letters the space they deserve. Add a point or two of leading to your body copy for tall x-heights, long ascenders and descenders, as well as condensed fonts. Take away a point or two of leading for extended fonts and those with small x-heights, short ascenders and descenders. Always decrease leading for headlines. The bigger the type, the more dramatic the space between lines appears to be.

Ligatures. Ligatures are part necessity and part beauty. Ligatures, by definition, are any two or more letters that touch, though the most common are the ‘fi,’ ‘ffi,’ ‘fl’ and ‘ffl’ combinations because the pesky ball terminal at the top of the ‘f ’ interferes with the dot of the ‘i’ and height of the ‘l.’ Type designers create completely new characters that seamlessly combine two letters. A lot of thought goes into these new letters, and using them increases readability. Make sure your design software preferences are set to automatically replace common offensive combinations with ligatures. Many fonts have additional ligature characters that you can also use, some functional and others quite fancy. Check out the glyphs palette to see all of the possibilities. Just be sure they don’t decrease legibility.

To continue reading CLICK HERE to enter your email address and download the entire Typography Crash Course PDF.

In her Virtual Book Signing for Mastering Type, Bosler said, “It all starts with letters—because each and every letter needs to live and breathe on the page on its own. It has to call to the viewer. It has to connote meaning, and it has to be understood in its own individual way.” Watch the full presentation here!

Mastering Type by Denise BoslerOr for Denise Bosler’s comprehensive guide to anything and everything you need to know about typography, pick up Mastering Type from MyDesignShop.com