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Intro to Typography

Techniques/ Tips

Intro to Typography


Each letter in a font is made up of several components.  (Font- A font is a complete assortment of letters, numbers, punctuations, etc., of a given size and design.)

Here is a quick breakdown of the essential parts.

X-Height: X-height is the measurement of the height of a lowercase letter’s body. The height of the body is the equivalent of a lowercase x. The letter x is used because all terminals touch a line of measurement. X-height is not the same as points. Two fonts can be the same point size but have drastically different x-heights, making one appear much larger than the other.

Ascender: The ascender is the part of a lowercase letter that goes above the x-height, or body. When referring to the height of the ascender, the term cap height is used.

Descender: The descender is the part of a lowercase letter that goes below the body of the letter.

Counter: The term counter refers to the hollow part of the letter, such as the space in the center of an O. Spaces within a letter that are not fully enclosed, such as the bottom of a lowercase e are also called counters. Letters like B have two counters and are then called upper and lower lobes.

Serif: A serif is the detail, or stroke, which branch off of the bottom or top of the main stroke. Letters do not have to include serifs. Those without are referred to as san-serif.


The above information deals with what characteristics different typefaces have in common. We will now discuss what separates one typeface from another.

Font designs generally fall into one of five font families: Old Style, Transitional, Modern, Egyptian, and Contemporary.

Oldstyle type, as its name suggests, is a classic typeface fashioned from Roman inscriptions. An example of this classical font is Garamond. Oldstyle letters are open, wide and round and feature pointed serifs, and have a humanistic, handmade quality.

Transitional type bridges the Old and Modern styles of font. An example of Transitional typeface is Baskerville. The serifs are more exacted than Oldstyle faces, and generally have more contrast between thick and thin strokes.

Modern type, which is actually about as modern as the last 200 years, can be found in fonts like Didot and Bodoni. Modern types are sleek combinations of thick and thin lines and thin, squared off serifs.

Egyptian type, or slab serif feature thick, heavy serifs and no real distinction between thick and thin strokes. In attempt to come up with a new style designers of the time mixed and matched design elements from different periods. Used heavily in Victorian design, and newspaper headlines, these typefaces are BOLD and attention-grabbing, usually being either more condensed or extended in width than other categories of type.

Sans-serif type is a simple and popular style of font. Sans-serif fonts include Futura, News Gothic and of course, Helvetica. Unlike serif groups, sans-serif fonts vary widely in style. These letters have no serifs and display usually very little difference between thick and thin strokes, except in examples like Optima, intended to bring serif-type calligraphic strokes to a sans-serif form.


When type designers create a face, they generally develop several sets for dramatic combinations and different moods. These include:

Weight: weight describes the thickness of strokes. Sets of fonts are designed to thicken strokes without making the letter grow in height or width, and start at Ultralight and light, regular and book, bold, and black (or heavy).

Italics: an Italic letter is designed to look more like calligraphic script, and are designed on a slant, but are specially drawn to look correct, not just tilted. These are usually available in each weight category.

Condensed/Extended: as the name implies, condensed typefaces are designed to be much shorter in width, while retaining stroke size, and extended do the same but with a longer width. One can manually stretch letters, but this results in awkward strokes.


Variations in stress: This characteristic involves the distribution of visual weight between different designs. Earlier designs were made with diagonal stress as a way of mimicking handwriting. Stresses evolved to become perfectly vertical and later, in some fonts, the stress has been completely removed from the design.

Variations in thicks and thins: This characteristic features the contrast between the thick and thin strokes of letters.

Variations in serifs: This characteristic involves a serif’s weight and the way it is bracketed. The way it is bracketed is the way in which the serif corresponds with the vertical stroke of the letter.