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Between the Lines: Typography 101 for Creative Professionals

Times New Roman, sized at 12 points and double-spaced. One-inch margins on all sides.

Let’s make something clear: when teachers and college professors taught us that uniform layout, they were making it easier for everyone. After all, a uniform standard is something everyone can refer to. It allows us to use page counts instead of word counts, which is simpler. And, to our benefit as students, we could usually expect a fair judgment on assignments if they were submitted to the formatting standards. It really was easier this way; typography was one creative challenge you were free to dismiss.

But the cost of uniformity is nuance, and the “standard formats” we use most are frequently plain and ugly-looking. People writing papers or submitting reports in such a format get virtually no practice visually enhancing their words for the reader. Our online experience, too, is driven by social channels that are little more than boxes and text governed by a uniform stylesheet. Think of Facebook, Reddit, and Twitter in all of their system-font glory; they’ve designed it so there’s nothing to think about typographically (users prefer it that way too).

So when you do have an original document to design, you might be running short on ideas and practice. This week, we’ve got four suggestions for making your documents sharper—including some pointers on how this works on a typical computer.


Start Looking at New Fonts

Your first task is to use something other than the fonts everyone knows. Put simply, there’s no way to use an ordinary, uninteresting font and not seem ordinary and uninteresting. That means no more Times New Roman, Helvetica, or Arial for you. No more Tahoma, no more Calibri, no more Georgia. Your computer probably came with lots of fonts, but most of them aren’t good. Even if you identify the few gems among those system fonts (and you should), you’re going to need outside options.

One good place to start is Google Fonts. As they’re free to access, they’re expectably average—but starting here will give you the opportunity to see a large and completely different set of fonts from your own system fonts. As you browse, you can narrow your selections by properties like category (serif, sans serif, etc.), slant, and weight. Then, once you’ve made a few selections, you can make direct comparisons and, in many cases, download the fonts to your computer. Be sure to check the license and terms of use for each font you download; while most private uses should be fine, you should always double-check what you’re allowed to do with a font, especially before publishing or sharing a document. (This is true for all fonts, not just Google fonts. Check the terms.)

There are plenty of places you can find free fonts, but you get what you pay for—and when you pay nothing, be glad to find anything of value. Eventually, to get serious about your font game, you will have to spend actual money. Prices range pretty widely; some fonts or collections cost $5 while others cost hundreds. As always, it’s a personal choice of fit and affordability. As always, shop responsibly; check the Terms, know what you’re buying and who you’re buying from, read the reviews, and see as much as you can in advance.


Brush Up on the Rules

Like grammar and style, typography is subjective. That doesn’t mean there aren’t a few rules. Just as writers lose credibility with every noticeable error in their words, they can lose attention or clarity with each typographic mistake.

Typographer and author Matthew Butterick covers the basics quite well in Typography in Ten Minutes and a follow-up Summary of Key Rules. We recommend you read them both; they’re succinct.

You may notice that the rules break into roughly three categories. Some are to-the-point declarations; for example, you use only one space between sentences, and that’s that. Other rules are guidelines of moderation and taste; for example, don’t go crazy with font selection, exclamation points, or formatting options like bold and italic. The remaining rules are technical reminders, like remembering to use hyphens and dashes correctly; while unexciting, these rules can refresh your technical vocabulary and make your writing more precise. It really is true, for example, that em dashes—these longer, interrupting ones—are underused in most people’s writing, and simply because people don’t know how to type them on their keyboards. If you know about them, you can use them.


Practice the Basics

At some point you have to get to work. Let’s suppose you open a blank document in Microsoft Word, then type out your text without changing any of the standard formatting. Some people, if they bothered at all, would run Spell Check and slap a title on it, then hit Print. But not you. You can spare three minutes to finish it like a professional. It just needs to look good, and it needs to be easy to read. What can we do?

We've done a few quick things to reformat this. We changed the typeface from Helvetica to Equity, leaving the size at 12pt. We widened the page margins to 1.75 inches on the left and right, narrowing each line of text. We gave each line a bit more height—to be specific, each line is 17pt high. We've also justified the text, being sure to eliminate lines with single words (widows and orphans). 

You can change font and justification in the usual places. For page margins, check the Layout banner or Page Setup. To adjust line spacing, you'll need to find Paragraph settings, which can be accessed from the drop-down menu via Format >> Paragraph. Then, choose "Exact" line spacing and set a specific number; just remember that it won't automatically adjust if you change the font size for text in those lines.  


Keep Your Eyes Open

When you realize how much of the world has type on it, you realize how important typography is to our understanding of information. You also understand more clearly the silent appeal of good typography and how it influences perception—of the writing and words themselves, but also of the person or entity responsible for them. Presentation always matters; those who impress put in the extra effort (and creativity, as appropriate).

Since the world is full of type, the world is full of examples you can assess. You’ll find your own themes, but probably you’ll notice what common sense already taught you. Don’t overuse anything, and definitely don’t use anything trite or cliché. Design things to say what you want them to say. Stand out but don’t be too strange. Perhaps most importantly: it’s worth it to spend some time on polish. Not only does it enhance the work you’ve already done, but it can mean the difference between being noticed or not. That, in turn, can mean the difference between success and failure.

Thanks for reading Ampersand, the Code&Quill blog. Last week, we wrote about the importance of taking breaks and doing nothing (sometimes), so click here to take a look if you missed it.) If you’d like highlights from the blog, plus brand-new info about upcoming products and promotions, feel free to join our email newsletter here


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