David Airey is an independent graphic designer working with companies of all sizes since 2005.

Typography tips for graphic design students

Typography

A week or two ago, London-based graphic designer Ben Terrett, of Noisy Decent Graphics, asked his readers this question:

What typographic advice would you give a third year design student?

I read the comments with interest and here I’ve picked out a few of the most useful typography tips.

“Don’t underestimate its importance. The best ideas, the most beautiful imagery, the most harmonious colour combinations will be blighted by inferior typography. So work at it, study it.

“Look at all those great names in graphic design history; Tschichold, Schleger, Rand, Fletcher, Aicher, Muller-Brockmann; and look at their beautiful type. They understood the need to understand it.”
— RICHARD WESTON of ACE JET 170

“Picking up copy of Type and Typography can be immensely helpful. It’s got a particularly useful section about the styling of details within text.”
— ALISTAIR HALL of WE MADE THIS

Letterform anatomy
Click the above image for a closer look at letterform anatomy.

“As always, make sure you play with silly ideas on paper too, they get the creative juice flowing.”
FERNANDO LINS

I completely agree. The importance of using a pencil and paper in graphic design is something I can’t stress enough.

“Look at historical design masters, don’t dismiss them because they are old or because you have seen it all before. Richard Hollis’ book on Swiss Graphic Design is great because it covers so many masters and shows you so many examples of work.

“I also second the suggestion of getting a boring book about rules. The details is what I look at. If you haven’t got them down then they will stand out, but that’s just me: a dusty old fogey. If I see an en dash used properly I appreciate it. Robert Bringhurt’s book, The Elements of Typographic Style, is great for this.”
— JAYPEG

There’s a quote from a Russian graphic designer that struck a chord, shown in a comment by Alicia. It reads:

“The black space can never be beautiful until the white space is beautiful.”

Other recommended typography books:

Also, Michael Beirut wrote a great piece on Design Observer, titled, “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Typeface.”

What typographic advice would you give to a design student?

Update: 01 May 2009
The Type Directors Club lists an excellent array of typography books.

Visit The Designer’s Bookstore for more personal recommendations.

My second book on Amazon

Related posts

56 appreciated comments about “Typography tips for graphic design students”

  1. Typography was / still is everyone weak point in class. The try to teach us it all at once and it makes no sense. We kind of get it, but it’s hard to produce excellent typographic skills.

  2. Speaking as a long-time typeface designer, the one thing I’ll say about typography is that it takes a great deal of practice – particularly when creating your own styles from scratch.

    Great article though David. It’s nice to know that the art isn’t a dying one! :)

  3. Interesting post David. My formal education did not include any instruction on Typography (unfortunately), but a while back I came across a list of recommended books by Jason Santa Maria, in which he names four just on Typography. I was left thinking “Wow I really need to get on board with this!” The books immediately went into my wish list. Looks like I have a few more to consider now. Notably, you both mention About Face: Reviewing the Rules… perhaps I should pick that one up first. :)

  4. Sean, stick at it. I for one have to in order to improve. I can empathise about the flood of info on your course. It was overwhelming for me with other things happening in my life at the same time. It takes years and years.

    Paul, a typeface designer? That takes real devotion. I gave it a shot before and the result was pretty awful.

    Charity, that’s one I have to pick up for myself too, so I can’t give any personal recommendation.

    Zoe, who’d be a client eh? I think every designer has come across a client who wants to do the designer’s job.

    John, you’re very welcome. Cheers for stopping by.

  5. Typography work can be very satisfying particularly in the context of logos. However I have had the occassion…more than once .. when a client has insisted on replacing a well thought out crafted typeface, with a generic font!

  6. Those are very useful quotes. Over the past year I have been gaining a huge interest in typeography, and am always looking to learn more. Thanks!

  7. We didn’t study typography nearly enough in school. I really love it, but I think I have a long way to go in getting the most out of it. We used A Typographic Workbook (I had the previous version published in 1999). I still go back and read it and look at the ways type has been used. I think it just takes practice and a commitment to keep learning. I had a professor tell me once that good typography can’t be seen; people won’t notice when you’re doing it well, unless maybe they are designers and specifically looking for it! Thanks for these resources, David! I put some of them on my wishlist.

  8. I think I would like to get a book on typography as I know nothing about it. You were supposed to link me to the USA Amazon. ;)

    So, how come you don’t like Papyrus? :)

  9. I was very fortunate to have had a great typography teacher back in college. He was old school too so we even learned the ways of hand lettering. I think typography is a very under appreciated aspect of design these days, and a lot of that has to do with the ease of computers setting type for you. But it takes more than just laying down type with the computer and calling it a day. You have to pay attention to the kerning, leading, etc. So learn about type. Treat it how you would treat the colors in your design.

    BTW that “Stop Stealing Sheep” book is a good read. I have it as well.

  10. I’m embarrassed at how little I know about Typography. But then, I never went to school. Even more embarrassing is how little actual students know about Typography. The blame is, of course, not to be placed on them but the curriculum provided for them.

    My advice? Learn something about typography. If not, remember this. Type is for reading, whatever you do, don’t get in it’s way.

    I wanted to actually say, don’t let the design get in the way of the type. I think it would have been immediately understood. Unfortunately, that bass-ackwards statement is the whole problem, isn’t it?

  11. Is anyone else a little overwhelmed?? I had no idea about the anatomy of letterform.

    P.S. I can’t help wondering if I’m the only one that understands the term “old fogey” :)

  12. As a third year graphic design student, I really appreciate this post. I love typography but I must admit I don’t view nearly enough of it to get inspiration on making my own typography better. The quotes are great.

    If anyone is looking for a good book on typography, check out Thinking with Type. Very short but extremely informative. We used it as the text for my typography class.

  13. Nice post. A book I’d recommend for beginners is Ellen Lupton’s “Thinking With Type” – a sound introduction.
    Advice for students: “Remember why you are using Type.”

  14. I’m terrible at typography, especially since I come from a web design background which severely limits you on font face selection, both in terms of what people have installed and what looks relatively okay without aliasing. It’s something I really need to work on, so it’s good to see a bunch of tips here!

    Typography is one of those things that seem to sort of fade into the background but still really impact on a design – your average joe won’t be able to tell what it is exactly, but they’ll still respond better to good typography. Something so subtle is difficult to learn well though, I think, and might sometimes feel a bit thankless when your client can’t tell the difference anyway.

  15. LaurenMarie,

    Thanks for the extra link. I’ll check that out.

    Beth Ellen,

    About Papyrus, it’s that it has been extremely over-used. Not by designers as such, but by businesses and non-designers, creating posters, flyers and signage etc.

    Does Papyrus come as standard with MS Office? I think that because there has been such an overuse of Papyrus, that whenever it’s seen again it gives an air of amateur design. There’s an incredible amount of excellent typefaces out there, so for a mediocre one to get such widespread use is kind of a shame.

    PG,

    That’s great you were taught about hand lettering. There’s a nice video about Typography School I posted about a while back. An interesting watch.

    Ian,

    Don’t let the design get in the way of the type.

    Very well put.

    Armen,

    It can be overwhelming, as it was for me. If you take it one book or lesson at a time, and stick with it, it helps the little nuggets of info stick in there. I’ve still a very long way to go, but one paragraph at a time.

    “Old fogey”? It didn’t cross my mind that not many people would get that one. ;)

    Sera, Johno,

    Thanks for the recommendations for Thinking with Type.

  16. Very nice collection of quotes on this. Typography is something that is overlooked and abused by many graphic design students. I think what happens is, they focus on the “art” of imagery and most put type on their art that just looks pleasing to the eye. So much more thought needs to go into placement, color, serif/sans etc.

    p.s. Updated your link on my site, sorry about that!

  17. Cool video, David. It has a really good message.

  18. if your college has letterpress facilities – make good use of them.

    moving little bits of lead around will teach you more about leading, kerning, and typographic composition than sitting in front of a computer will…

  19. Thanks for quoting me, and great additional links.

  20. you should try the family font Myriad pro, i used it a lot, and it looks more then ok on print.
    And ALWAYS the white space that should be important on every layout

  21. I’m surprised that there has been no mention of Robert Bringhurst’s Elements of Typographic Style. It can be a very dry read but the information garnered is well worth the effort.

  22. I never learnt typography. I picked up a copy of tutorial from my book shop.. Yt to start it…

  23. I studied only the very basics of typography but I do love to plays with fonts and types though! thanks for the post :)

  24. Santosh,

    You’re a computer engineer aren’t you? Not so much of a need for typography skills, but it’s good to see you showing an interest.

    Sam,

    You’re very welcome.

  25. good read. My high school design teacher thought i was always a bit nuts for being sort of obsessed with type. i think i may of enjoyed it more than he did at times.
    although i think this is stuff year one students should really know…unlike my high school teacher, my year one tutor is a type nut and we spent a semester on type.but from what ive herd.this isnt the case with alot of design courses.which i find odd.

  26. Hi Daniel,

    That’s odd how your design teacher thought you placed too much emphasis on type, but great that you found more enjoyment with it than him.

    I agree that design courses should focus more on typography. From my personal experience there’s a lack of education, but perhaps that’s just me (us).

  27. I’ve never studied about typography before. I also don’t have any educational background on graphic design schools or something like that. This is new to me.

    Thanks for the references, David!

  28. You’re very welcome, Didik, thanks for reading the post.

  29. Hi David

    Love your blog! Where did you find the Design image at the top of this post? I want to frame it.

  30. Glad you like my blog, Candis!

    I had a look for the image in the post header, but unfortunately couldn’t find it for you (the original large-scale image).

  31. Hello, David

    I have been watching your blog for a while and I have learnt so many things. I like your personal logo design. It looks like a pair of wings flying in the sky.
    :-)
    Good job!

  32. Thanks very much, Jenny, and it’s great to read that you’ve learnt something from reading my blog.

  33. My wife and I are both graphic designers and type and typography are a love of ours. For us, graphic design is about communication. Simple. Far too often, many (young) designers throw in a typeface without considering its impact, both positive and negative to their overall design. We had a great instructor who taught hand lettering, he was a master, my wife was very good at it, me less so. However, what it taught was the basics of letterforms, kerning, leading, the gray value of a block of text, readabilty, etc. Use type as an additional component of design, let it set the stage for your logo, etc. It can also be the solution without additional support if handled skillfully. Calligraphers take this to beautiful extremes.
    Thanks for the blog David, we love it!

  34. Hi Edward,

    That’s great that you and your wife enjoy my blog. Thanks for letting me know!

    A great instructor can teach you to become an expert in anything, and it’s fantastic that your type teacher taught hand lettering. I’ve certainly seen a lot of unconsidered typefaces used in design, so agree with you there.

    All the best.

  35. Wow, I am amazed. I just up and changed careers after about 12 years, and I am learning so much about graphic design. I am stil very much a newbe. Any resources on anything is helpful to me. Enjoyed reading the comments.

    My brain feels overloaded sometimes with the technical learning that the creative side has a hard time kicking in.

  36. FYI – letter form anatomy is 404. Not the right place but loved your story of you getting your domain back. Good things happen to good people! Happy New Year to you & Cheers!

  37. Hi Russ,

    Thanks very much for the heads up. I missed that one in my recent changes.

    Hope you have a great new year too!

  38. I guess most of people didn’t take it seriously on typo when they were in college, as of the reason it is less fun compare with doing visual practice. It has so much fundamentals to learn before it gets creative. I didn’t do well in college too but I started to find it useful and important since I started working.

    For typography, I guess you could say it’s a knowledge across on the border of simple/complex.

    However, the simpler it is, the harder it gets to do. it’s always like this, isn’t it?

  39. Daemon,

    Indeed simplicity is what I aim for. I want my designs to look so simple that the guy next to me thinks he can achieve it too.

  40. I thought the question “what basic typographic advice can you give a third year design student?” was straight forward, but then this became “what advice can you give a type designer?”. They are 2 completely different issues.

    For the first question, I see so many design students try to mutilate type and call it design. Learn the basics first, what makes type elegant, powerful or legible, or simple type combinations that work together. And just because you have thousands of faces at your disposal, doesn’t mean you should use them all. Most designers are challenged enough trying to find 3 that work together.

    Go watch the movie “Helvetica” for inspiration.

  41. Dale,

    I didn’t ask ‘what advice can you give a type designer?’. Thanks for leaving your thoughts though. Helvetica was an interesting watch.

  42. David,

    Yes, I am aware of what the question was. I was merely pointing out the difference as some were taking this post in another direction. The third comment read:

    “Speaking as a long-time typeface designer, the one thing I’ll say about typography is that it takes a great deal of practice – particularly when creating your own styles from scratch.”

    A “typographic tip” is a bit different than designing a type style from scratch. That’s all.

  43. Ah ok. I thought you were pointing out a contradiction in my article. Thanks for clarifying.

  44. Great article. Just picked up the book you recommended on Amazon “About Face.” This should be a great read and a great addition to my design arsenal.

    I laughed when I read Papyrus! Papyrus and Comic Sans are very over used. Luckily I don’t see it often coming from professionals. Just the self-proclaimed designers with MS Publisher at their fingertips. =).

  45. Hi David, having just completed my 3rd (1st year) design project on the anatomy of type—a 26 panel concertina fold—I’ve found that none of my sources covered every anatomical element, and sources often conflicted with other sources. The sources I used were: Thinking with Type (Lupton), Type & Typography (Baines/Haslam), Graphic Design School (Dabner), ilovetypography.com, fonts.com (Monotype Imaging), about.com.

    I see the anatomical diagram you have above continues this trend, and again, is incomplete, and contradictory to other sources. What’s a VisComm student to do?! It was suggested that we rely more on printed books than websites, yet when the printed books contradict one another, then clearly there’s something wrong somewhere!!

    On a postive note, typography is a strong core element of this 1st year 1st semester course (viscomm @ uni of ulster belfast), and I’m absolutely loving working intimately with type.

    We watched the Helvetica film last week as well—great/funny quote from self confessed typomaniac Erik Spiekermann —”They are my friends (type), some people like looking at bottles of wine or girls bottoms, I get a kick out of looking at type”

    Just to quote Adrian Frutiger:
    ” If you remember the shape of your spoon at lunch,
    it has to be the wrong shape.
    The spoon and the letter are tools;
    one to take food from the bowl,
    the other to take information off the page…
    When it is a good design, the reader has to feel comfortable
    because the letter is both banal and beautiful. ”

    Btw, just noticed on your body ‘font family list’, you have “Helvetica,Verdana,Georgia,Sans-serif”. If Helvetica is the look you’re going for, might it be worthwhile actually having Arial in the list after Helvetica, instead of Verdana, as Arial shares the same proportions as Helvetica, being effectively a ripoff. I know Arial is a scourge of the design world, but it is basically Windows ‘default version’ of Helvetica, rather than Verdana (which is ok, but changes the look of your site significantly).

  46. Hi Jonathan,

    Thanks for the thoughtful comment, and you’re absolutely right about my CSS file. When recently changing to Helvetica, I didn’t go so far as to change the other fonts to match. That’s now taken care of.

    I think as an actual result of reading your comment (I didn’t have time to reply yesterday), last night I dreamt of returning to my student days, and having a conversation about the lack of attention to typography (at least that was my experience). Sorry to learn of the conflict you’re discovering, but I’m very glad you’re enjoying the University of Ulster programme. It’s one I’ve little knowledge about.

  47. Oh, and I do like your concertina piece. Very nice.

  48. Really nice work this type anatomy piece! I have been meaning to do something of this sort for a long time and I agree that it’s not easy to find a solid and full collection of all the terms. And not any that does not conflict in one way or another with other sources.

    I was going to keep this as my secret but what the heck… in case you have not bumped into it yet, have a look at: http://www.paratype.com/help/term/

  49. Great type terminology resource, Sigurdur. Thanks for divulging your secret, and all the very best for 2009!

  50. Hello,

    I was just on a directionless Google hunt for information about what I assume to be design projects or individual typography studies that I sometimes see students toting on campus or proudly affixing to a wall. The pieces feature single letters of the alphabet, either in upper or lower case, black printer ink on white paper (though I may have seen a few applications of liquid ink upon various media as well), mounted on black backboards. I suppose I just wanted to understand the name, purpose, and parameters of these assignments.

    In addition, this weekend I noticed a lowercase “g” – in the form of the g in the letter anatomy image above -applied to mounted canvas; one side of which was meticulously reinforced/bordered/finished with a few cascading strips of some heavy masking tape which seemed to create nice lines with the “g” present.

  51. You would think a column on type would allow comments in custom type, the likely readers here appreciating that the choice of type might say something about the person commenting.

  52. I found all the comments in this post quite interesting, particularly all the people who don’t know much about type, or feel their schools haven’t taught them a lot—I find this quite surprising actually! My university in New Zealand places a heavy emphasis on type (if you choose to follow this direction), Im even majoring in typography in my 4th year, and I enjoy and appreciate every second of it…

  53. Good luck with the 4th year, Carly.

  54. I haven’t even gotten into typography class yet at the Art Institute..and I am overwhelmed. I am doing a paper about it for English and I have gained understanding from reading the history of it. There is so much to know about letterforms. I really appreciate the font designers out there willing to share their work. I want to take a stab at it.

  55. Not sure if this page is still being monitored, but reading through the comments makes me realise how lucky I was to have studied in one of the few universities that truly focused on typography, not only as an academic subject, but also as a way in which to approach the practice of designing as a whole.

  56. In my opinion, the most important thing in typography is about sense and feel.

    Typefaces have kerning, grid, size, thickness. They have “feel” too, like modern, dynamic, playful, etc. As for me this is important, because these things give harmony and style in my logo design.

    You can give them new feels too by modifying their kerning, thickness or by cutting and combining them with other typefaces. So don’t be afraid to modify typefaces to suit your need.

    By practicing and playing with them, you will soon develop your own sense and feel.

Anything to add?

Comments may be edited or deleted if I don't like the cut of your jib, but that's quite unlikely.