Typography Terms Every designer Should Know

Typography is the art and technique of arranging type to make written language legible, readable, and appealing when displayed. The arrangement of type involves selecting typefaces, point size, line length, line-spacing (leading), letter-spacing (tracking), and adjusting the space within letters pairs (kerning).

photo-1436918898788-ebce04d38e46The term typography is also applied to the style, arrangement, and appearance of the letters, numbers, and symbols created by the process. Type design is a closely related craft, sometimes considered part of typography; most typographers do not design typefaces, and some type designers do not consider themselves typographers. Typography also may be used as a decorative device, unrelated to communication of information.

Typography is the work of typesetters – also known as compositors -, typographers, graphic designers, art directors, manga artists, comic book artists, graffiti artists, and now—anyone who arranges words, letters, numbers, and symbols for publication, display, or distribution—from clerical workers and newsletter writers to anyone self-publishing materials. Until the Digital Age, typography was a specialized occupation. Digitization opened up typography to new generations of previously unrelated designers and lay users, and David Jury, head of graphic design at Colchester Institute in England, states that “typography is now something everybody does.” As the capability to create typography has become ubiquitous, the application of principles and best practices developed over generations of skilled workers and professionals has diminished. So at a time when scientific techniques can support the proven traditions (e.g. greater legibility with the use of serifs, upper and lower case, contrast, etc.) through understanding the limitations of human vision, typography often encountered may fail to achieve its principal objective, effective communication.


Although typically applied to printed, published, broadcast, and reproduced materials in contemporary times, all words, letters, symbols, and numbers written alongside the earliest naturalistic drawings by humans may be called typography. The word, typography, is derived from the Greek words τύπος typos “form” or “impression” and γράφειν graphein “to write”, traces its origins to the first punches and dies used to make seals and currency in ancient times, which ties the concept to printing. The uneven spacing of the impressions on brick stamps found in the Mesopotamian cities of Uruk and Larsa, dating from the second millennium B.C., may be evidence of type, wherein the reuse of identical characters was applied to create cuneiform text. Babylonian cylinder seals were used to create an impression on a surface by rolling the seal on wet clay. Typography also was implemented in the Phaistos Disc, an enigmatic Minoan printed item from Crete, which dates to between 1850 and 1600 B.C. It has been proposed that Roman lead pipe inscriptions were created with movable type printing, but German typographer Herbert Brekle recently dismissed this view.

The essential criterion of type identity was met by medieval print artifacts such as the Latin Pruefening Abbey inscription of 1119 that was created by the same technique as the Phaistos disc. The silver altarpiece of patriarch Pellegrinus II (1195−1204) in the cathedral of Cividale was printed with individual letter punches. Apparently, the same printing technique may be found in tenth to twelfth century Byzantine reliquaries. Other early examples include individual letter tiles where the words are formed by assembling single letter tiles in the desired order, which were reasonably widespread in medieval Northern Europe.

Typography with movable type was invented during the eleventh-century Song dynasty in China by Bi Sheng (990–1051). His movable type system was manufactured from ceramic materials, and clay type printing continued to be practiced in China until the Qing Dynasty.

Wang Zhen was one of the pioneers of wooden movable type. Although the wooden type was more durable under the mechanical rigors of handling, repeated printing wore the character faces down and the types could be replaced only by carving new pieces.

Metal movable type was first invented in Korea during the Goryeo Dynasty, approximately 1230. Hua Sui introduced bronze type printing to China in 1490 AD. The diffusion of both movable-type systems was limited and the technology did not spread beyond East and Central Asia, however.

A sixteenth century workshop in Germany showing a printing press and many of the activities involved in the process of printing
Modern lead-based movable type, along with the mechanical printing press, is most often attributed to the goldsmith Johannes Gutenberg in 1439. His type pieces, made from a lead-based alloy, suited printing purposes so well that the alloy is still used today. Gutenberg developed specialized techniques for casting and combining cheap copies of letter punches in the vast quantities required to print multiple copies of texts. This technical breakthrough was instrumental in starting the Printing Revolution and the first book printed with lead-based movable type was the Gutenberg Bible.