The Digital Eye: Typography 101

Stephen Romaniello is an artist and educator teaching digital art at Pima Community College in Tucson, Arizona for over 20 years. He is a certified instructor in Adobe Photoshop and the author of several books on the creative use of digital graphics software. Steve is the founder of GlobalEye systems, a company that offers training and consulting in digital graphics software and creative imaging.

Type is more than just written words. It is an important part of the visual gestalt of any layout. How a word looks can communicate to a viewer as much as or more than how it reads. All graphics software includes powerful sets of tools and panels that can precisely control all the characteristics of typography. Combined with the application of layer styles, filters and transformation features, the typographical potential is limitless.

In the January 2016 issue of Sign & Digital Graphics I presented a Digital Eye column about designing custom typefaces. In this article, I want to have a closer look at the mechanics of typography with the goal of developing an understanding about how these features actually work. Weather you’re a print technician, shop owner, sign maker, graphic designer or computer artist, this lesson in the art of typography will benefit you and hopefully help to cultivate an appreciation of its complexity.

Creative Cloud

Adobe Creative Cloud software such as Photoshop, Illustrator and InDesign are primary programs that are used to generate type. The applications are not limited to simple page layout, but extend to the creation of books, signs, billboards, web graphics and pretty much anything that contains words.

If you are going to create type in any software program, it’s essential to understand the nature and terminology of type. Type has been around ever since humans decided to record their language as symbols and the conventions of typography have evolved over the centuries. But type is more than just letters and words; it's a powerful visual element capable of expressing ideas just by the way it looks. Your eye perceives the character forms, and your brain freely associates what it sees with what it knows—it translates the unique visual relationships of the text symbols into a silent voice. The voice can have a gender; it can convey a particular time in history. It might have an accent from another language or culture. It can be humorous, serious, fluid, mechanical, or any other description and it can have a specific tempo and pitch.

Anatomy Lesson

The anatomy of letterforms and their relationship to each other in a single word, a sentence, a paragraph or a copy block determine the appearance of type and how it communicates. There are key variables that can be manipulated by the typesetting software. Figure 1 illustrates the characteristics that can alter the position and scale of characters.

  • Font—The style or appearance of a complete set of characters is the font or typeface. Your choice of font can greatly influence the appearance of a publication.  There are seven general character types. Each has specific purposes but owing to the vast number of fonts available there is a great deal of overlap as to how they are used. The general classifications are serif, san serif, cursive, display, monotype, extended and condensed (see Figure 2).
  • Size—In traditional typography, the distance from the top of a capital letter to the bottom of a descender determines the type size of a character. Size is measured in points, and there are 72 points in an inch.
  • Style—By controlling the style of a character, you place a visual emphasis on its meaning. Style is chiefly a function of font weight (thickness or heaviness) and obliqueness (whether it leans). You can specify either of these two type characteristics choosing a bold and/or italic typeface from a type family or by applying faux styles from the Character panel in Photoshop (see Figure 3).
  • Alignment—Aligning text is an important step in maintaining readability. The alignment choices are flush left, flush right, centered and four types of justification: last line left, last line right, last line centered, and last line force-justified.
  • Leading—In printing, the term leading (pronounced LED-ing) describes the vertical distance between baselines. The word originates from the time when typesetters handset wooden or metal type. The distance between lines of type were filled with lead slugs of specific sizes that controlled the vertical spacing. This term has been adopted throughout the industry as a way to describe the distance in points from baseline to baseline of rows of text. Software with a typography component by default, applies auto leading for body copy at 120 percent of the type’s size.
  • Tracking and Kerning—These terms refer to the space between characters and words. Tracking is the global space between selected groups of characters, and kerning is the space between two individual characters. In Photoshop, Illustrator and InDesign, selecting or typing percentages of an Em-space in their respective boxes in Character panel controls both of these characteristics. An Em-space is a unit of measurement based on the width of a capital M of a particular font. Character and word spacing is critical to the smooth readability of type as illustrated in Figure 4.
  • Horizontal and Vertical Scale—The horizontal scale of type stretches or squeezes it from side to side. When you vertically scale a letterform you stretch or squeeze it from top to bottom (see Figure 5).
  • Baseline Shift—Unlike leading, which affects all the characters in a paragraph, baseline shift can target a selected individual character or a group of characters and moves them up or down from the default baseline.
  • Left, Right, First Line Indent/Space Before, Space After—These operations are performed to groups of text in a single paragraph. A paragraph is defined as all the text before the return key is pressed. These features are located in the Paragraph panels of Photoshop, Illustrator and InDesign (see Figure 6).

Types of Type

There are three ways of entering type. You can click anywhere on the image or art board, and begin typing. This is called point text. Or click and drag the Type tool to create a bounding box of a specific size and then type the text inside the box. This is called paragraph text. You also can click on a predefined vector path made with the Pen tool or one of the Shape tools and type the text that will follow the curve of the path.

Point Text

Use point text to create a single line or multiple lines that don’t require paragraph specifications. It’s easy! Choose the Type tool, set the specifications in the Options bar or the Character panel. Click the image to display a blinking insertion point and then enter the text. If you want a second line of text, press the Return/Enter at the end of the first line and then continue to type. Each line, though separated by leading, will be part of the same path (see Figure 7). To edit the type, click under any character with the Type tool to activate the path, and then highlight the text by dragging over it. Replace the old text by typing new characters.

Paragraph Text

Choose the Type tool, click drag to create a text box, and then release the mouse. Begin typing. As the text fills the line, it automatically returns and continues on the next line. After the bounding box has been drawn and the type inserted, the box can be resized, or reshaped by dragging its corner handles while in the text tool in Photoshop and with the direct selection tools in Illustrator and InDesign. Paragraph characteristics like indents and space before and after can be applied (see Figure 8).

Type on a Path

This feature places type on a pre-existing vector path as shown in Figure 9. The cross at the beginning of the text is the entry point, or the leftmost extremity of the text. The circle at the end of the text is the rightmost extremity. These elements can be moved to alter the position of the text on the path. These two elements also determine the alignment of the text when a specific alignment option is applied. Text can be attached to open or closed paths.

Warping Text

To produce awesome shapes from your text you can warp the text In Illustrator and Photoshop. Type can be bent to conform to any of 15 warp styles plus you can control the amount of bend and horizontal and vertical distortion (see Figure 10).

Ubiquitous Type

So now we’ve covered the foundations of computer-generated typography. Type

is something we see every day but wonder little about because it is so ubiquitous. In the graphics industry, it’s critical to understand the mechanisms that generate type, qualities that make it readable and attractive and the terminology that describes it.

Type has been around for eons and conventions have evolved that assure the perfection of the written word. One thousand years ago, all this was drawn by hand, and those scribes, working by candlelight, knew instinctively how letterforms looked best on the parchment. Fortunately, today we have computers that can produce perfect typography, so it is worthwhile to get to know your type and your software.