Who knew that something as ubiquitous and ancient as letters could be such a complex and divisive subject? I certainly couldn’t have guessed and I’ve been using them for most of my life.
I went to art school, had the curtain pulled back, and realized there’s so much more that goes into the appearance of the letters and words we see every single day than I could have ever imagined.
Typography refers to the style and appearance of printed matter. There’s a lot that goes into creating letters that are both pleasant to look at and facilitate easy reading.
A whole lot.
You need to consider the distance between characters and words, the way fonts pair together, baselines, ascenders, descenders, terminals, cap heights...
The list goes on.
Is it any wonder then that so much of the typography we see can be riddled with errors that turn words into a mess? We all mean well, but sometimes the text we create just doesn’t work the way it should. We end up with a product that can make even the most laid-back typographer cringe.
I want to help you avoid some of the most common mistakes that people make when choosing or designing the fonts they use for a website or other work. I’m also going to use this as practice for myself (because you can never have enough of that).
What typography mistakes should we all avoid?
Using too many typefaces and weights
It can be easy to fall into this trap. There are just so many typefaces out there to choose from, many of them with different variations of thickness.
You may find one that looks great as a heading for your work. A different one for your body text. Your photo captions should have another font, right, maybe in italics? You need smaller headings now? Well, those smaller ones look good in another font.
Suddenly, what you’re working on looks like Microsoft Word threw up on it.
Using too may different typefaces is a quick way to show that you don’t know how to work with text properly. It’ll drive people away from your work and you can bet on them never coming back to it.
Using a bunch of different typefaces seems appealing. Why stick with just one typeface when you can use a bunch and really catch someone’s attention? You want to show that your work has some flair, right?
In the end, it all becomes too much for our eyes and brains to handle.
I’m going to add an additional recommendation: choose typefaces that complement each other. If you find a great typeface and pair it with another that feels like its polar opposite, you’re going to end up with unfortunate results.
Consistency plays a big factor when it comes to typography. Find one or two different fonts that go well together and stick to those for everything. There’s nothing wrong with being repetitive when it comes to typography.
Messy tracking and kerning
Tracking and kerning are related concepts, but they do differ in key ways. Tracking refers to the spacing between all the letters in a word. Kerning refers to the space between two individual letters in a word.
When either one of these are used improperly, they have the effect of making words difficult for the eye to read. When a person comes across something that takes a beyond normal effort to scan with their eyes, then they’re going to stop reading.
Simple as that.
Bad tracking and kerning is unpleasant. It repulses. It shows that the person using those letters doesn’t care enough about their audience to ensure a nice reading experience for them.
I’d say the only proper time to use poor tracking or kerning is to show others how not to use it. Any other instance is unnecessary.
Make sure that the spacing you’re using is comfortable to read for both yourself and others. Have other people check it and adjust the spacing based on their reactions. Most importantly, keep it consistent throughout the work.
Leading (also known as line-height) is the amount of blank space between lines of text. Using the proper amount of leading helps facilitate the ability to scan through lines of text with ease.
Too little leading and all of your words will become crushed together and illegible. Too much leading and your text will become tiring to read.
The proper amount of leading helps one line of text flow into the next without any additional effort. It makes a paragraph seamless. It helps direct a reader down a page. It’s like creating an easy to read treasure map—it leads you exactly where you need to go.
Like tracking and kerning, using poor leading can actually become hostile to the reader. It feels like whoever designed the text doesn’t care about eye comfort. The purpose of good typography is to make the design of text become invisible. Bad leading is very visible.
Using Comic Sans, Brush Script, Papyrus, and yeah, even Arial is sometimes a big red flag.
Just don’t do it.
Mistakes are always easy to make. That doesn’t mean we don’t need to correct them. One of the quickest ways to correct mistakes is to inform yourself how not to make them in the future.
I hope this post has shown you some of the easiest mistakes a person can make with typography and how to avoid them.
There’s a whole heck of a lot that goes into making text look good and easy to read. However, that doesn’t mean it needs to be impossible to create pleasing work. Knowing just the few simple rules above will help your words be as readable as they can possibly be.
There’s your... font... of knowledge, cats.