What is Typography?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Typography refers to the arrangement of text on a page, and appears in some form or another in all instances of written communication. Depending on the purpose, it can be used for optimum readability, impact, or an artistic statement. Some graphic designers work totally in text, and study how text is arranged extensively while they perfect their art. Quality design can make a big difference in communications, because it can affect the way the reader sees and feels about the topic being discussed.

Typography involves font size, spacing and color.
Typography involves font size, spacing and color.

At the most basic, typography is a combination of font, size, spacing, and color. For example, many online articles use a clear sans serif font in a moderate size, arranged on the screen for maximum readability. The text is black on a pale background, further enhancing the readability, and links within the text stand out because they are underlined and in a different color. The overall purpose behind the layout of the article is to clearly communicate written information to a reader.

Typography needs to be considered when designing a website to maximize readability.
Typography needs to be considered when designing a website to maximize readability.

This is also the case in newspapers, books, and other sources of information. Newspaper typography is a carefully balanced art form, as the compositors of the newspaper must be able to fit the required text within certain page restrictions. The newspaper staff must also make decisions about the sizing for headlines, and the placement of material on the page. People who examine newspapers closely should be able to see patterns in the way articles and photographs are laid out on the page. They should be able to immediately distinguish the lead article, for example, as it should instantly draw your eye.

Typography can also be elevated into an art form, and some of the best examples are found in advertising design.
Typography can also be elevated into an art form, and some of the best examples are found in advertising design.

Typography can also be elevated into an art form, and some of the best examples are found in advertising design. For example, most consumers associate particular fonts with certain branded products, because the advertising campaign featured distinctive use of those fonts. The design teams behind the advertising campaign made a series of design roughs that probably included a variety of fonts so that the designers and company executives could decide on a design which best represented the company.

Especially in modern art, typography is also used to convey an artistic statement. Famous works of modern art often include the use of text as a visual medium, sometimes alone and sometimes with image. The font, letter spacing, and color are all important considerations for maximum visual impact. Small changes can radically alter the look and feel of a piece, and many computer graphic design programs make it easier for designers to modify their text to perfection. Classic typography, using movable type and a press, required a close eye to detail, and an ability to extrapolate the final look of the piece from limited visual information.

Poor readability can increase fatigue.
Poor readability can increase fatigue.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


Just to be clear about how important the use of typography is in the design world, there are very specific classes in college design courses that deal with nothing other then the subject of typography.

I spent an entire semester learning about how characters correlate to each other and the effect of type size, color, position, direction and other significant factors that go into using text properly. We even went as far in the class as to design our own font. This took weeks on end and you would not believe the small issues that can arise from designing your own typeface. Serifs can collide and small details of character interaction must be taken into account.


As a designer I can tell you that there are many very subtle actions that we will take and placements of typography that we will use to ensure that the information being presented is delivered in a well though out sense.

@Ubiquitous, you may not consciously be thinking of how the text appears on the page but there are proven concepts about how the human mind will read text across a surface.

Simple things like making one line in a lager typeface and another smaller as to indicate the importance of the information in each line. This is very subtle and you many not think of it at first glance but your mind automatically reads the larger text first and therefore the typography is leading your brain in a desired direction.


@Ubiquitous, I think you are very mistaken to discount the quality of the printed word. While you as an individual reader might not be consciously effected by the use of typography in a certain way I can guarantee that the ease at which you read the information was effected.

For example, have you ever seen a very obnoxious flier for a music show. Local and small time bands are the worst at putting illegible text and graphics so grossly out of place on these fliers that the reader cannot get basic information they need. Simple things like making the venue and date of the show are very important when designing such a flier.

The cool effect of a jumbled up poster is what allures people to offending such a design but the reality is they discourage people from looking at it more.

I think it is understandable that a band might want to use a crazy typeface and have specific typography styles that they incorporate into their logo design as to create a lasting impression but the reality is that they need clear, clean and easily read text on their show fliers.


I think people overate the use of typography and value it's effect too much. When I see text on a piece of paper or on the screen somewhere, it doesn't occur to me what effort the designer went to properly place it on the page.

Words are words and text is text. As long as the font is readable then I will have no real emotional sway or compelling change of heart because the font is one of elegance or brutality.

Pictures on the other hand are capable of pulling out more of a feeling or meaning from their printed form. Just remember characters are just little symbols of our very boring alphabet.


Evaluating the typography use of a designer is a good clue as to the skill level of the individual. It is a very common and amateurish mistake to use outrageous font styles and an eclectic mixing when creating a design.

Just as music can change the feeling of a video dramatically, so can the font that is used to help the images being displayed. A playful and curvy font would not be appropriate to use for a business letter or transaction. In that case, one would want to use something clean and precise to make sure the function of the contained content is not obstructed.

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