A Beginner’s Guide to Typography

Typography

By Shawn Sprockett

Typography is one of the most essential topics in visual design. It not only sets the mood and tone of your work — whether it’s a logo, app, or book — but it is the chief vehicle for communicating information. In 2006, the user experience studio iA wrote a blog post claiming that “web design is 95% typography,” and it’s still true today. Companies like Medium and The New York Times have built iconic digital interfaces based on strong typographic design.

Historically, calligraphy and engraving were the dominant expressions of typography until the printing press introduced movable type and a world of different typefaces with unique expressive qualities and uses. To this day, typography is used to influence perceptions, persuade people to change their behavior, and communicate the importance of messages and ideas.

Four Essential Typeface Styles to Know

Typefaces

There are whole histories of different kinds of typefaces, but the four basic ones to know are serif, sans-serif, script, and decorative.

At the broadest level, you can divide typography into four main categories: serifs, sans-serifs, scripts, and decorative.

  • Serifs are recognizable by the wings that are visible on the edges of their letterforms. You can play this game to get better at recognizing them.
  • Sans-serifs are fonts that don’t have the wings. They’re often seen as more modern and less formal.
  • Scripts are fancy, calligraphic fonts. You’d probably use them for wedding invitations or maybe a movie poster.
  • Decorative typefaces are often dynamic and full of personality, but the tradeoff is that they aren’t very readable, so you wouldn’t want to set a large amount of text in them.

One way that typography influences your user or audience is believability. If the IRS sent you a letter in Comic Sans, you might think it was a scam. That’s because handwritten typefaces usually have the connotation of informality and playfulness; not typical characteristics of serious government business. By contrast, a brand like Wells Fargo intentionally uses all caps and a serif typeface to project authority and security; ideas it wants the public to associate with it.

How Brands Use Typography

In 2012, The New York Times did a study in which participants took an online quiz that asked them to confirm whether a statement was true or false. Each participant saw the quiz in a randomly chosen font. The researchers found that statements written in formal serif fonts, like Baskerville, were more likely to be labeled as true than statements in handwriting-based fonts, like Comic Sans. This suggests that typography can actually influence our trust in a source of information.

Of course, it’s not as easy as just making all your designs in serif typefaces. You should choose a typeface based on its appropriateness to your brand’s goals. A typeface is like an outfit. You want to wear the right clothing for the right occasion, but the choice you make also needs to project how you want others to see you.

Think of some of your favorite brands. Look at what kind of typography they use and consider why they might want to portray themselves that way. A lot of tech companies, like Lyft, Airbnb, and Facebook, intentionally use lowercase sans-serif typefaces for their logos in order to appear more approachable and friendly. When Google updated its logo in 2015, switching to a sans-serif font was the most noticeable change, and it revealed the company’s intention to be seen as friendlier and more innocent amid concerns about data privacy. Brands like Disney and Coca-Cola use script typefaces to remind their audiences of their long history and traditional values.

Typography at General Assembly

In General Assembly’s part-time Visual Design course, students spend up to two weeks on typography. They learn everything from how to create effective layouts, to individual parts of letterforms, through exercises that can include creating font mood boards, practicing fundamentals with online games, and building layouts from scratch with vintage letter scans. Mastering typography will help you communicate ideas and craft an effective look and feel for your products and your clients.

Meet Our Expert

Shawn Sprockett is a design manager at Postmates, design advisor to Axiom Zen, and an instructional lead for General Assembly’s Visual Design course in San Francisco. His work has spanned a wide breadth of industries over the last 10 years, having worked with brands including Victoria's Secret and Airbnb, and trained under legendary designers like Milton Glaser and Stefan Sagmeister. Shawn has also been a part of big business transformations like Conde Nast's shift to mobile publications and IBM's implementation of design thinking at scale. Shawn has an MFA in design and entrepreneurship from the School of Visual Arts. His recent projects are at the intersection of artificial intelligence, behavioral psychology, and generative design.

“Curiosity is the most important quality for a designer. You need to wake up each day and wonder how you might change the world around you to be better.”

Shawn Sprockett, Visual Design Instructor, GA San Francisco