Typography is fascinating. Since I was a kid I’ve been amazed by how letterforms can take so many different shapes and express so many different things other than just a simple “A” or “B” or “C”. Even the way a letter is drawn impacts how it is perceived.

There are a lot of resources out there to help you understand the nuances of typography, especially I Love Typography and Typophile, so I will just touch on some basics.

The five main styles of type that you need to know are serif, sans-serif, Roman, italic, and script.

Basic Type Styles
Basic Type Styles
  • serif – Serifs are the little “feet” or spurs at the ends of the letters. Long blocks of text tend to be more legible when set in serif type. The serif originates in calligraphy and stone-cutting: it’s hard to make characters end abruptly; it’s easier to embrace the quirks of the pen, brush, or chisel and purposefully taper the ends of letters.

  • sans-serif – About 200 years ago, it became less practical to include serifs on everything, and “plain” lettering styles were born and came into widespread use in print. Of course, people have been writing in “sans-serif” forms since the beginning of writing.

  • Roman – upright type, as opposed to italic.

  • italic – essentially, it leans to one side or the other. Ideally, italics should be based on cursive writing forms, not just slanted a few degrees, but for sans-serif fonts that tends to work just fine.

  • script – resembles handwriting (often cursive) or penmanship

###Type terms dealing with spacing

  • kerning – refers to the space between individual letters. For example, you can tuck a capital “A” under the arm of a capital “F”.

  • tracking – overall letterspacing on a given block or line of text

  • leading – the space between lines of text. This comes from the old days of type set in metal, and the spacing was done with pieces of lead.

  • color – how dense a typeface appears on a page or on screen, depending on how much “air” is between letters or lines or even in the openings of the letters themselves. The term “text” actually comes from the old German “textura” typefaces that were so heavy that at a glance the printed page appeared to look woven as a fabric or textile.

It can help to research a typeface’s history and investigate how type has evolved over the centuries. (If you want to get really nerdy, check out this article on I Love Typography about the history of the evolution of the alphabet.)

And no typophile should be without a copy of Robert Bringhurst’s book The Elements of Typographic Style.

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