3 Type Facts You Don’t Know, But Should
Margie Jones. That name had many a Parsons' student, me included, cursing under our breaths and panicked at the same time. She was our Typography I & II professor. To say she was tough would be an understatement. But she was good, really good. She held us to a high standard and never let us off the hook.
And you could spot Margie Jones’ students a mile away. All you needed to do was simply look at their work compared to other students who didn’t have her. It always rose above.
Back in 1979, we were taught the old-fashioned way — with rapidograph pens, Letraset rubdown type, Lucy machines and a strong lupe. Everything was done by hand. You had to understand all aspects of typeface design and letterforms. You learned how each letter was created and how they fit together perfectly.
There were no computers. No InDesign, Illustrator or Photoshop. You had to not only have great creative skills; you needed excellent hand skills too. It was hard, but you learned how and why you did things.
Thank you Margie Jones!
Here are three facts about type that you don’t know and, sadly, many young designers also might not know.
1. Round Letters Go Above and Below the Line
This is one of my favorite tests of young designers to see their knowledge of type; to let me know if they paid attention in class or how good their professor was.
Look at the example above. Notice how the round letter will rise above or below the base, ascender and x-height lines. Why?
If the round letters did not go above and below, the round letters would appear to look smaller than the rest of the straight letters. See the example below:
The reason for this: When the round part of the letters just touch the base, ascender and x-height lines, there’s less surface area as compared to the straight letters. To make the letter optically correct, you must have the round letter actually go above and below the base, ascender and x-height lines. This is just one of the many optical fixes that typography uses.
2. Lining and Optical Numbers
We all just type numbers in our documents and don’t think much more about it. The numbers typed in almost all the fonts we typically use are tabular lining figures. That’s a fancy way of saying all of the numbers take the same amount of space whether it’s a “1” or “5” or even an “8.” This means when you have number on different lines, they align line to line.
This makes your spreadsheet formulas and math problems align perfectly. The number “1” lines up with the “9” on the second line. To make this work, the number “1” takes up the same space as the wider numbers like “9.” Some of the old style fonts may also have tabular old-style numbers, which again align from line to line.
There’s also proportional old-style and lining numbers. With proportional figures, each character may occupy a different amount of horizontal space. The number “1” takes up less space than a “5” or a “9.” Proportional aligning letters work very well in text. They read more like the text you’ll find them in. Like letters, the old-style numbers have ascenders and descenders — these blend the numbers in to the text. Tabular lining numbers actually stand out in proportional text and tabular old-style not quite as much.
So, which should you use? It’ll depend on why you are using the numbers. Old-style figures blend in text, while lining figures work well with all caps and when alignment is more important than blending in.
I really like the definition in Wikipedia:
“In writing and typography, a ligature occurs where two or more graphemes or letters are joined as a single glyph. An example is the character æ as used in English, in which the letters ‘a’ and ‘e’ are joined. The common ampersand (&) developed from a ligature in which the handwritten Latin letters 'e' and 't' (spelling et, from the Latin for 'and') were combined.”
Why use ligatures? They help keep letters from overlapping and can really improve legibility. Below are some ligatures you’ll find in quality fonts.
Why Do You Need to Know This?
If you’re not a graphic designer, why should you know these type facts? Look at it this way: How many times did you say in school “Why do I need to know algebra?” or “I’ll never use this in real life.” These type facts are just like algebra, you’ll use the knowledge when you least expect it.
More inspirationally, there’s Steve Jobs. After dropping out of college, he “dropped in” to classes, auditing courses that had nothing to do with a traditional degree-focused education. One of them was calligraphy. Not many years later, when launching Apple, that seemingly frivolous knowledge became a key point of difference between his and every other computer at the time. With fonts that gave users choices. Beautiful, easy-to-read letters. Type that would have earned at least a B+ in a Margie Jones’ class.
Patrick Fultz is the President/CCO of DM Creative Group, a creative marketing firm producing work across all media. He’s an art-side creative, marketing strategist, designer and lover of all things type. His credentials include a degree from Parsons School of Design with 15 years of teaching at his alma mater, over 40 industry creative awards, and he previously served as President of the John Caples International Awards. Always an innovator, Fultz was credited with creating the first 4-color variable data direct mail piece ever produced. He continues to look for innovative ways to tap the powerful synergy of direct mail, the web, digital and social media.