Whether the artist is setting the metal type of a printing press, choosing the perfect font for a Web page or painstakingly drawing each glyph by hand, typography elevates letters beyond a mere collection of vowels and consonants. Even when you can’t read the language, type is expressive. Think of the bold sans-serif of a warning sign or the sensual curves of the script on a love note. The art of type communicates so much more than words on a page.
Elements of Typographic Art Do you need to know the difference between an impressionist and a surrealist to appreciate a painting? Of course not! But, if you plan on discussing your favorite paintings, it does help to have a basic understanding of the vocabulary of art. Likewise, if you want to tell a friend about an amazing piece of typographic artwork it can be useful to know some of the elements that typographers rely on to turn type into art. For a more comprehensive glossary of typographic terms, see the resources at the end of this article.
Counters Counters are the negative spaces within a letter. A typeface with large counters feels more open while small counters result in condensed fonts and gray text. Creatively speaking, large counters also offer interesting opportunities for artistic expression, such as this colorful treatment of the counters in Paris Pro.
Swash Swashes enhance your lettering with a typographical flourish. Most often, these fancy characters show up at the beginning or end of a word but that’s not their only use. Long swashes might be used to intertwine letters in the names on a wedding invitation. They are often elegant, as seen in the font Friendly from Positype, giving a storybook feel to the type.
In artistic and hand lettered type, swashes may weave together letters transforming a phrase into an illustration. Jason Vandenberg often uses swashes to link letters as seen in this treatment titled Earn Your Sleep.
Ligatures Ligatures are specially crafted characters that tie two or more letters together with style. The most common ligatures are letter combinations that are frequently used such as ff, fl or fi. Type looks better when set with ligatures, so it’s not surprising that digital typophiles will seek out fonts that have extensive ligature sets. Those who practice the art of hand lettering will selectively employ the use of ligatures to add flair or enhance readability depending on the type’s function. In Fresh Sean Wes uses ligatures and swashes to create an attractive logotype.
Applied thoughtfully, ligatures can imbue ho-hum text with personality. The curvaceous ligatures in Regal Swash Pro make the word blink pop off the page.
Catchwords Catchwords are used in posters, logotypes and typographic art to add decorative punch. They trace their roots back to the days of wood type, when short words and abbreviations would be inserted into a design along with decorative ornaments. Catchwords saved space while also giving otherwise flat type a boost of visual variety. Though they are less common in digital type, catchwords are still a beloved tool for those that draw type by hand. The example below shows a catchwords font featuring historic wood type ornaments that have been digitized for modern use.
Illustrated Initials Illustrated initial caps, sometimes known as drop caps, have been used as decorative text since before the days of metal type. Many of the most beautiful illustrated letters can be found in the manuscripts carefully drawn by monks in the Middle Ages. While less ornate, modern initial caps are still a popular option for turning a block of text into an eye-catching illustration. Jessica Hische’s Daily Drop Crop is a long-running project capturing the beauty and endless variations of illustrated letters.
Communicating With Type Even though it often masquerades as art, the ultimate goal of type is communication. From the big screen to the smallest book, there are many ways that designers use type to send a message.
Type Can Set the Mood With small budgets and little substance to sell the film, B-movies of the 1940s and 1950s relied on “bold slogans and type design” to attract the attention of potential viewers. These creative limitations inspired title designers to innovate new techniques that began to influence the entire film industry as seen in these B-Movie titles from the ’50s.
Type Gives Context It can transport us to a different time, as with the Art Deco revival fonts used in The Great Gatsby movie last year.
Tell a Joke With Type When type becomes art it opens up new ways to play or make a comedic point. Setting a silly phrase in a serious font or drawing a snarky remark in a pastel-colored script is a visual incongruity that’s sure to make anyone smile. This image from Lauren Hom is part of a series called Daily Dishonesty that chronicles the little lies people tell by turning them into art.
Type Can Reinforce a Message This logo for The Sound of Music by Herb Lubalin practically sings. The flowing lines and swirling swashes will make you believe that the hills are indeed alive before Julie Andrews sings her first note.
Additional Resources Want to learn more about typography? Although it also hosts fonts like Comic Sans, the Internet still holds a treasure trove of artistic typography resources.
The Periodic Table of Typefaces Check out these interesting illustrations offering in-depth insight into the world of type. The Periodic Table of Typefaces lists 100 of the most popular, influential and notorious typefaces. Typefaces are grouped by family and class, which makes it a wonderful example of the best fonts available as well as an excellent introduction to typography.
Alphabet of Typography Designed for typography geeks everywhere, the Alphabet of Typography is a complete primer filled with everything you ever wanted to know about type, and a bunch of other stuff too. The diagram explains how to identify each part of a typeface including serifs, hooks, diacritics, spines, ligatures and more.
So You Need a Typeface This flow chart by Julian Hansen depicts the thought process designers go through in search of the perfect font. It’s a humorous infographic that provides useful insight into the questions you need to ask before settling on a font.
The Type Fight The Type Fight is an after-school rumble for typography artists who love to play. Each week, two artists present their version of the same illustrated letter and let readers vote on who walks away with bragging rights. It’s also a great place for inspiration as you can browse designs from the winners (and losers) of past showdowns.
The Art of Type It’s a special sort of person who dedicates their life to the art of type. Such artists have extraordinary attention to the finest detail, an eye for design and the patience of a saint. Luckily, for the rest us, we can simply open a book, gaze at the art and enjoy the fruits of their hard labor. Explore our Pinterest board for more images of gorgeous typography or bring your font fixation home with clever wall art.