Whether in print or on the Internet, design will always exist. If you’re a designer, type is a tool, just like color, your layout grid, or the photos and illustrations.
If you’re a print buyer, you may also need to communicate your type preferences to the designers you work with, so it behooves you to learn the language of type so you can express your vision. Here are some type terms to get you started.
The term “font” refers to one weight, style, and width of a particular typeface. For instance, “Helvetica Light Italic Condensed” would describe a single font. The term “font” is often used interchangeably with typeface.
Closely related to the term “type font,” “font family” refers to a collection of all styles related to a particular typeface. The Helvetica family might include light, medium, and black, as well as condensed versions of light, medium, and black. (Condensed versions are designed with letterforms that are narrower than in the standard version of a particular typeface. Expanded versions include letterforms that are wider than usual.) Each will have a bold, italic (slanted), and roman (upright) version. All of these will have a family resemblance. They will complement each other aesthetically and can therefore be used together for heads, body copy, and captions in ways that contrast with one another but still provide a unified look.
KERNING vs. TRACKING
Sometimes you may want letters within words to appear closer together or further apart. Kerning allows you to adjust pairs of letters or numbers, augmenting or reducing the distance between the two characters. Tracking affects larger groups of letters or numbers, allowing you to tighten up or loosen the look of a block of copy (a paragraph, for instance).
JUSTIFIED, FLUSH LEFT, FLUSH RIGHT, AND CENTERED TYPE
When you justify type, you create a column that aligns vertically on both the left and the right sides. The computer adjusts the spacing between words to justify type. If the column is too narrow, unfortunately, these spaces may become large and uneven (i.e., unsightly).
Flush left (ragged right) type aligns on the left and has an uneven right margin. Flush right does just the opposite. The former is much easier to read than the latter because your eye automatically returns to a consistent vertical left margin when it completes a line of type.
Centered type is exactly what the name implies. Type formatted in this way may be appropriate for some poetry, but it does not provide the eye with either a consistent right margin or left margin.
POINT SIZE, LEADING AND MEASURE
Point size refers to the height of the letterforms. Body copy is often 9 pt., 10 pt., 11 pt., and so forth, while headings are often 14 pt., 18 pt., 24 pt., or larger. There are 72 points to an inch.
Leading refers to the space between lines of type (measured from baseline to baseline). (The baseline is the bottom margin of a line of type, not including “descenders,” the portions of such letters as a lowercase “g” or “p” that fall below the baseline.) Leading is usually noted as one or two points larger than the type point size (10 point type set on 12 points of leading, or 10/12 type). For captions or call-outs (quotations excerpted from the text and typeset in a larger type size), you might want to add a lot more leading (10/20, for instance). When there is no leading, your type is “set solid” (10/10: 10 point type set on 10 points of leading). (You would probably only set a few lines of type “solid” for aesthetic purposes.)
Measure refers to the width of a line of type. Some experts believe that lines longer than one and a half alphabets (26+13 characters for English) are too hard to read.
Increasing leading slightly between lines improves legibility.
Printing black type on a white background provides the best legibility. Choosing another color (a darker rather than lighter color) also provides good legibility. If you are going to reverse type (print white type on a solid color, also known as knocking out the type, since the white type actually does not print), only reverse a small amount of type, and choose a font with thick letterforms (or make the type bold). Reversed type is generally hard to read in large amounts.
SERIF vs. SANS SERIF TYPE
Serif type has small decorative strokes (or tails) on the letterforms that lead the eye from one character to another. It also has variations in the weight of the letterforms (some portions of the strokes are thick;some are thinner). It is easier to read large amounts of text set in a serif typeface than a sans serif typeface.
Sans serif faces are usually mono-weight (no variation in the thickness of the strokes in letterforms). In addition, they have no small decorative “tails” on the ends of letters and are therefore slightly less legible for larger amounts of text or numbers.