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Typography – Basics of Readability in Graphic Design

Typography is the discipline of manipulating type as required to produce attractive and readable textual information as an integral part of a unified graphic design. The rules of readability include type selection, type positioning and spacing, and fundamentals of style. As with a previous article on the minimum requirements for an effective design, “Graphic Design Principles for Non-designers,” this article is an exploration of the minimum technical prerequisites for a readable and successful document. An experienced designer and master of the basics will able to apply a higher level of sophistication and innovation to their use of type.

Type Selection




In “Typography – Classification of Typefaces for use in Graphic Design,” the appropriate use of various type styles was described. Now, in addition to selecting the appropriate class of type, the designer must also choose the correct size.

Type Size

Type size depends upon end use and audience. The default on most software programs is 12 pt., which is generally too big for general reading, where sizes of 8 to 10 points are common. For children or elderly readers,14 pt., sometimes larger is required. Sizes from 12 to 24 pts. might be used as headings or titles. Sizes 24 pt. and up are considered display proportion suitable for posters and signs. The rule of readability must always be applied though; therefore, variations for consideration include fonts with small or large x-heights (height of lower case letters). For example a 12 pt. font with a large x-height may appear to be as big as the 14 pt. size in another font with a smaller x-height.

Type Positioning and Spacing: Leading

(pronounced led-ding)

The space between lines of type is called leading and is measured in points. The default on many software programs is 20% of the type size. For example 10 pt. type might be set with 12 pts. of leading. However, leading amounts will vary depending upon the length of a line. Copy having very long lines will require more space separating them so that the reader, after coming to the end of a line can easily find the beginning of the next. This becomes difficult if lines are too close together. Likewise if they are short, as in a newspaper column, less leading is required.

Sometimes, type is said to be “set solid,” which means that the bottom of “descenders” like the tail on a lower case “y” will touch the “ascender” on a lower case letter such as “d”. It is sometimes acceptable to have overlap of ascenders and descenders, “called negative leading,” when the space between two lines looks too big. This is typically done on headings and displays. Professional page layout programs such as “InDesign” offer options for minute adjustment of leading.


There are four ways of aligning type on a page.

  • Centering would be used for titles and poetry and sometimes in long narrow ads.
  • Flush Left, has all type aligned with the left margin, leaving the right side uneven or ragged. This is considered to be the most readable choice.
  • Flush right, is where all text is aligned to the right margin and is considered to be the most difficult to read. It should only be used for design effect or to line up text with a rectangular shaped element on the right side.
  • Justified alignment is often seen in novels or newspaper columns, where text is evenly arranged on both left and right margins giving the layout a neat, rectangular, organized look. Beware though, of “rivers.” As shorter lines are forced to fit page margins, white zig-zag patterns are created within blocks of type.

Kerning and Tracking

  • Adjusting the space between individual letters is called “Kerning,” and modifying spaces between all characters is called “Tracking.” Kerning is usually applied to display type, where adjacent letters appear to have too much white space between them. For example the word “HALT.” Notice that the spaces amid the “L” and “T” appear wider than between the “H”, “A”, and “L”.
  • Tracking is used for fitting copy. If you have a document, in which copy runs onto a senond page by just a few words, one method of fitting everything onto one side is to apply “negative tracking.” Again, programs such as “InDesign” are engineered to enable such detailed typographical adjustments.

Fundamentals of Style

A study of the rules of style is a whole other discussion; however, a few basic rules of thumb include:

  • There are various formulas for line length, but a good standard is to avoid lines longer than 52 characters.
  • All capital letters should be used sparingly, even in titles and never in Italic or Script typefaces.
  • Only one space after a period, please. The two spaces rule was made for typewriters, where all characters were the same width and a double space was needed for contrast. Computer generated type has built in space contrast as characters are variable in width.
  • Avoid underlined type, use italics instead.
  • Use as few type styles as possible and always be consistent, sticking to one style for headings, subheadings and body type throughout a document.
  • Always carefully proofread your work for accurate information, spelling errors and grammatical correctness.

A critical consideration in Graphic Design is the proper application of the rules of typography. This article is far from comprehensive and is intended to be guide to some of the fundamentals of working with type.


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