Everything you need to know about typography: Part I

[dropcap1]I[/dropcap1] AM A self-confessed type-nerd and hobbyist typographer. To me, typography is more than a subject and typefaces more than designs. And I believe the choosing right typefaces can convey a powerful message, and — unfortunately — choosing the wrong ones can be devastating.

[hr_padding] [notice type="red"] This is part of a 3-article series that continues onto the second article. Continue reading here.
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Introduction

But choosing fonts is more than just liking one and picking it: there are factors to consider, from legibility to atmosphere; and technical details to pay attention to, such as the ones we will see in this post series. And that is why I choose to write this quick, three-part series on how to choose typefaces for any work you take up in the future: in particular, the ever-growing population of websites, web designers and the like; and alongside them people whipping up their own ebooks or, equally importantly, to those looking to bring out books offline (particularly my good friend, Raghul Selvam, who I hope is benefited by this post as much as I intended.)

The point is that one needs to know quite a lot about typefaces and typography before they are able to take a good enough decision and make their work look professional.

[hr_padding] [notice type="yellow"] Did you know?

Contrary to popular belief, there are a handful of sentences containing all letters of the English language. Here are some of them:

  • Grumpy wizards make toxic brew for the evil Queen and Jack.
  • The quick, brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.
  • Pack my box with five dozen liquor jugs.
  • Jackdaws love my big sphinx of quartz.
  • Amazingly few discotheques provide jukeboxes.

Such sentences are actually called pangrams. Can you think of more?

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While the subject is exhaustively large, in these three articles I intend to bring out as much information as is necessary, and sufficient, for anybody hoping to embark on dealing with typography on their own. (And if, at any time, you require suggestions, do feel free to contact me — or perhaps consider using my own fonts: I have two fonts under my belt, as a typographer.)

Now, with all this in mind, here is how I am going to divide this series of posts into three parts:

 

  1. The technical stuff: This is where we discuss the geeky jargon and get to know our alphabets and styles better. By the end of this, you will be able to communicate type-stuff with ease; besides, you’ll sound smart!
  2. Typographical practices: Moving onto more interesting stuff, this is where we go over the standards in professional typography. Here you’ll also gather some tips (secrets?) that will get you great results.
  3. Real-world experiments: In this final article, we’ll go through some great, real-world examples and create a neat design ourselves and put our newly-acquired knowledge to practice before shouting “Eureka!”

 

Trust me, to dive into book publishing without knowing your types is a recipe for disaster. It’s not just useful, but absolutely important, to understand typography as an art, inside-out, before jumping in. And I assure you the things I’ll teach you over the next three articles will condense all of known typography into a quick reference guide to look back at any time.

But that’s enough talking. So are you ready? Let’s begin!

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Alphabets, glyphs and other basics

Any typeface is basically categorised into two symbols: one, the letters we use in our languages, the ones we call alphabets; and, two, the symbols, including punctuation — such as full stops, commas etc. — and, by-and-large, all special characters. These we call by a different term called glyphs.

Alright, now that’s a new term you learnt, so for quick reference you may need any time later, let us put that into a box:

[hr_padding] [notice type="yellow"] Glyphs are special characters that a font creator has decided to include in the font; these are compulsorily the basic Latin punctuation, and often include some symbols unique to the font that its creator has made up for the user. [/notice]

Glyphs are not to be confused with dingbats which we will discuss later.

Before we progress any further, let use clarify the difference between a typeface and a font. This is where many people go wrong, and many actually use these terms interchangeably — which is quite wrong. The basic difference between a font and a typeface is that the term typeface refers to the design, the way sets of letters and symbols look; while the container they are in, a computer file (in modern times) or heavy iron slugs (in ancient presses) are called fonts.

As Stephen Coles puts it, “When you talk about how much you like a tune, you don’t say: ‘That’s a great MP3.’ You say, ‘That’s a great song.’ The MP3 is the delivery mechanism, not the creative work; just as in type a font is the delivery mechanism and a typeface is the creative work.”
To illustrate this example, if somebody were to ask me the type (or typeface) in which my website content is set, I would say it is set in one of my favourite fonts, Georgia — frankly, I think Georgia is one of those perfect typefaces! Now if you want to download Georgia onto your computer, you would look for the font called Georgia i.e. a .ttf or .otf file, which is like a container carrying the typeface. Savvy?

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The five landmarks of character recognition in typography

There are well over twenty-five or thirty terms in typography, most of which you will never use unless you take up publishing as a career (trust me, I’m still looking for an excuse to use some of them!) That said, we will not define five basic terms you simply must know: I call these jokingly as the five landmarks of typeface recognition. On a serious note though, if you can account for these five, you will be able to differentiate almost all typefaces in existance; their character anatomies all differ from each other in at least one major landmark.

Characteristic letters such as the small-case m, n, or capital-case Q, O etc. all have, at their uppermost limit, a downward curvature. This curvature is called a bowl. It may also be sideways, such as in the cases of p and R.

[hr_padding] [notice type="yellow"] A bowl or a loop is the fully closed, rounded part of a character, as seen in p, m, R, Q etc.
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You may have recognised, by now, that we are mainly dealing with Latin alphabets — and we will keep it that way.