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Why you should learn typography

Lettering anatomy is the unique characteristics of single characters. Lettering anatomy helps with the classification of letters and makes a good system of organizing typography. Within this post, we will explore lettering anatomy as well as characteristics of letters that make up typefaces. Typefaces, in turn, are broken down into font families and then into individual fonts.

When you search for fonts, you are searching for a needle in a haystack. That is unless you know the characteristics of the font family to which the font belongs. Also, the typeface linked to the font family. A designer who is successful at pairing fonts will take typeface, font families, and specific fonts into account to arrive at the best pairing possible.

What does this mean for you? It means once you know what you’re looking for, searching for fonts will be a whole lot easier. More than that,  the most important aspect of your design, the fonts will be aesthetically pleasing and command attention. A design that commands attention is a design that is priming your message for conversion.

A design that commands attention is a design that is priming your message for conversion.

Details, Details

A designer knows that the devil is always in the details. Paying attention to detail is particularly the case when it comes to aesthetically pleasing design. The blog owners who kill it on their blogs and social media have figured that out too.

Where others put together a design they saw on Canva, you can put together a design that is distinct, unique and stands out. When you understand lettering anatomy, you can make designs above the cookie cutter design everyone else is using. I’m not saying Canva and Picmonkey aren’t great tools, they are. You can still use Canva to make designs, but you will have graduated from doing what everyone else is doing to defining what everyone else is doing.

Lettering Anatomy is the detail

Letters are letters, right? Who cares about the difference between a baseline and an ascender? Why does the baseline matter anyway? If you’re making your blog post graphics, you should care. Paying attention to typographic details will pay dividends.

If you want your designs to stand out on the Instagram and Pinterest feeds, you need to focus on the details. You can do this by investing a little time in learning about lettering anatomy.

Typography, the Star of Your Message

The most important part of your design is not the cute picture. Although beautiful pictures help, your message is the real star. You can’t have a message without typography.

Crisp, bold, beautiful typography will ensure you have an impactful and attractive message. Even if you write your message in lorem ipsum, the perfect font will attract attention. If people notice it, your typography skills have paid off. That’s worth the 3-minute investment to learn a little about it.

Solving Problems with lettering anatomy

Have you ever felt frozen by a decision between Serif and San serif? You want to use beautiful calligraphy but can’t make it work? Is your designer talking about typeface but you’re talking about fonts. You realize that the font you want to use is part of a whole family and now you’re more confused than ever?

Do Fonts have babies?

There’s a lot of confusion about typography, fonts, and typefaces. Most people don’t even know there are differences between them until they learn lettering anatomy.

Typography is not complicated, but some subtleties of typography can make or break a design. Use the wrong font pairing, and your design could be way off. You’ll look at it and know it’s just not right but never spot the problem was in the typography.

Learning Typography to Save Time

I do not consider myself among the prestigious type nerds. These geniuses can classify a font by looking at one word. Unless you’re an aspiring designer, you don’t need that much information about typography either.

This resource is a general overview of type classification. It will help you narrow down types of fonts. If you need to locate something, you’ve been looking for but can’t seem to find.

Think about it this way. Would you rather search the world for a polar bear or narrow it down to the Arctic? A bear is a bear. If you know their characteristics, you have a better shot of finding that big white one. You’ll also save yourself a lot of time.

Learning Lettering Anatomy to make better designs

The second and most important reason to know and understand type classes is for font pairing. The process of matching fonts is one of those things you can spend hours doing. Sifting through beautiful fonts that don’t quite fit. You’re frustrated with it, but you can’t figure out why.

Knowing class and anatomy of fonts will give you some insight into how fonts fit together and why. It could be something as small as matching baseline height.

Typography terms and anatomy

The anatomy of typography is easy once you know what to look for. After that, it will all seem like common sense. Here are a few of the most important aspects of lettering anatomy.

  • The baseline is where a letter sits.
  • The X-height is the body height of a lowercase letter
  • A Descender is the part of a lowercase letter that falls below the baseline
  • Ascenders are the parts of letters that ascend above the X-height.

The Anatomy of Type

Check out one of the following resources for a full visual breakdown of lettering anatomy.

  1. Type Terms, Type Terms is the perfect tool to learn the basics of typographic terminology. If you get things by seeing them, this is for you. For a quick tutorial on typography, this is the only place you have to go.
  2. Type Glossary – This website lists every part of the typographic anatomy in alphabetical order. So if you hear a word like aperture or crossbar, you can find visual samples and definitions all in one place.
  3. Martin Silvertant is a typography expert. He’s shared a lot of his work and knowledge of design and typography on deviantart.com. Specifically, in a set of typography posters. A “cheat sheet” that will be very valuable for quick reference. Click on the link to download the full-size posters from his profile at Deviantart as an image or illustrator file.

typography poster 1 typography poster 2typography poster 3

There is a distinction between lettering anatomy as shown in the images above and typography classifications. Lettering anatomy focuses on individual letter characteristics whereas typography classification takes the unique aspects of lettering anatomy to form groups of lettering characteristics that make up a class. In other words, lettering anatomy would be the equivalent of blue eyes, red hair, body type, etc. All of these characteristics can identify a particular kind of person but do these features also run in the family?

Although these distinctions are separate they go hand and hand in identifying and pairing typography. With that said, we will explore type classification to compliment what you know about lettering anatomy.

Typeface, Fonts, and Font Families Oh my!

A font is an individual within a family. A font style is a set of characteristics common to everyone in the family. Individual fonts and their styles make up a family.

  • Font: Fonts are characters of a particular style. A set of characters that are all bold or all italic. When a font is set in italics it becomes a new font style.
  • Font style: Font styles the particular physical attributes of a font. Bold, italic, regular, medium, condensed, black, etc. are font styles.
  • Font Family: A font family is a set of font styles that use the same font characteristics, i.e., all bold, all italics, etc.

In case you didn’t go through a crash course of type anatomy since that last paragraph. Here are a couple of terms you should know to understand typography classifications.

  • Diagonal stress: the angle of the letters from the center vertical position
diagonal stress example lettering anatomy
The line going through smallest points on the letter “o” show the amount of diagonal stress the letter has.
  • Sloping crossbars: in letters like H and e the horizontal bar is drawn at an angle, so it has a slanted crossbar.
sloping crossbars
Notice the slope of the crossbar on the letter “e”

Type Classification

The following are the most common typefaces. It’s important to note that typefaces are not fonts but rather a larger body of characteristics that make up individual fonts and font families.

Humanist

Humanist fonts are said to be how a right handed person would write, how a human writes. The humanist typeface coincides with the hand lettering of the scribes and philosophers of the 1400’s. This typeface is defined (in part) by the high diagonal stress. This diagonal stress is most apparent in the letter “O” and the slant in the crossbar of the lowercase letter “e.”

Guardi, Arno, ITC Berkeley and Stempel Schneidler.

Old style (Garalde/Garamond)

Old style features diagonal stress. The W is a very distinct way of identifying Old Style. The W crosses like two overlapping V’s.

Transitional

Transitional fonts are from a period when the printing world was moving away from Old Style. The Transitional typefaces have straight serifs. The diagonal stress is straight up and down. The W does not overlap like you typically see in Old Style.

Modern fonts (Bodoni, Didone)

After transitional, the next significant change in typography was to the Bodoni style. These typefaces are known as Modern fonts. The stroke width varies from very slim to very thick. Modern fonts have high contrast strokes. The serif is very thin, and the diagonal stress is straight.

Slab serif (Egyptian)

Slab Serif fonts have a thick design. The serif is thick like slabs, or at least that’s how I remember the name. The purpose for this bold look is to grab attention on large media, posters, and advertising.

Sans-serif

Sans-serif is like the name implies, but you probably already knew this one. No slabs, no serifs, only clean lines. There are further classifications of sans-serif fonts, but the point is, it’s clean.

If you’re interested in checking out other variations, they include variations of Grotesque. There’s also a serif free version of humanist fonts and many others. The absence of serifs is the main characteristic.

Geometric sans-serif

Geometric sans typefaces are based on math and geometric shapes. They look very boxed and rectangular and have perfect circular curves.

Script

Script fonts are not used on the web very much due to problems with readability. The point of fonts is to convey a message so although Script is pretty it’s not very practical.

  • Formal, formal script is a subset of this typeface. It’s based on cursive handwriting and connected by adjoining strokes.
  • Casual, casual script looks more like everyday freestyle. It often connects to other letters and sometimes has the look of brush strokes.
  • Calligraphy, Calligraphy script features strokes of varying widths.
  • Black letter is considered a script typeface. The most prominent example of this typeface is Old English.

Graphic

The graphic typeface is a display type that doesn’t fit any other category. This classification includes decorative and display type novelties and special purpose fonts. Usually used for big headlines and in display designs.

Glyphic

Glyphic, this typeface is taken from hand engraving and chiseled letters.

The majority of fonts will fall into one of the typeface categories listed above. It’s important to note that these classes are not set in stone. You can ask five typography experts and get five different classifications for typography. However, the classifications listed here seem to be the consensus based on the historical popularity of the styles.

lettering anatomy

How much do you know about typography?

Want to test your knowledge of typefaces and fonts? Try this test. 

This article is meant to be a top view explanation of typography. For more information and if you want to become a type nerd, you can check out this series of articles on Smashing. These articles will give you a healthy dose of typographic history and classification.

Part 1 

Part 2

If you like this post let me know! Visit me on social media all over the internet. If you know someone who would like this article share the knowledge, I would appreciate it and they would too. You’re such a good person! Until next time, keep moving forward!

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