Typography, Layout, and Graphic Design

    Typography may be defined as the theory and practice of letter and typeface design. In other words, it is an art concerned with design elements that can be applied to the letters and text (as opposed to, say, images, tables, or other visual enhancements) on a printed page.

    In the broadest sense, typography is as old as the most ancient alphabets, ideograms, and hieroglyphic images. Even today, some of its terminology and a few of its styles go back to techniques of lapidary inscription that were popular in ancient Rome and Athens. But strictly speaking, the art itself belongs to the history of printing, for it was only with the advent of the print era--and the development of the standardized, reproducible sets of typeface styles, known as fonts--that a true craft or practical discipline of typography began to emerge.

    Once a concern mainly of book publishers and newspaper and magazine editors, typography has today become, with the explosive growth of powerful electronic-publishing and word-processing tools, a text feature that no aspiring communicator can take lightly or ignore. Particularly with the enormous range of font options available in recent years, the opportunity to facilitate, magnify, impede, decrease, intensify, or subdue the impact of a message by altering typographic variables has never been greater.


    Typography is mainly concerned with the style and size of typefaces. In printing, a complete set of type (consisting of letters, numbers, punctuation marks, and other special symbols) of the same style and size is called a font. In computerized word processing, a font is a particular style of typeface of any size.
    Fonts are usually differentiated in two ways: (1) serif vs. non-serif and (2) variable width vs. fixed width.

    Serifs are the distinctive finishing stokes (both horizontal and vertical) that can be applied to letters to produce a chiseled, lapidary look. Variable width fonts use proportional spacing between letters, bunching them together in certain cases (note, for example, the compressed "tt" in the word "letter") while widening them out in others. In contrast, fixed width fonts use the same spacing between letters regardless of their size or shape.

The following letters are in a serif font:  A E F G H L M N Z. 
These letters are in a non-serif font: A E F G H L M N Z.

Times New Roman is a serif font.
Arial is a non-serif font.
Nimrod is a variable width font.
Letter Gothic is a fixed width font.

   Note to communicators: Because serifs define individual letters more sharply and make them easier to recognize,  serif fonts are generally easier to read than non-serif fonts. (Indeed, research indicates that most readers can read a message in a serif font more quickly--and with greater comprehension and retention--than they can read the same message in a non-serif format.)
    A similar point can be made for variable-width fonts: because they bind letter groups more snugly (and thus make the resulting text seem slightly more cohesive), most readers prefer them to fixed-width fonts.
     Today, literally hundreds of digitized fonts are available for general use--from very plain, functional, traditional fonts like Times New Roman to comparatively flamboyant, exotic, or rococo styles like Gil Sans ultra bold or Onyx. (For information on displaying or enabling fonts, including so-called "dynamic fonts," click the "Help" menu on the Netscape main menu bar. For further details on professional typography and page layout, click here.)


    The size of a typeface is measured in points: One point = 1/72 of an inch. Hence 72- point type is one inch in hight--as measured from the top of the ascender (e.g., the rising stroke in "l") to the bottom of the descender (e.g., the plunging stroke in "p").
Thus, for instance, the word lip in 36-point size will print out to exactly 1/2 inch from the top of the "l" to the bottom of the "p."

    This is 18-point Times New Roman.

    This is 14-point Arial.

    This is 12-point Gil Sans.

    This is 10-point Courier New.

    This is 8-point News Gothic.

    Generally speaking,  readers prefer to read documents in 12-point type. As a rule, anything larger than 14 points seems loud and aggressive (like reading page after page of headlines). On the other hand, anything smaller than 10 points looks tiny and forbidding--like the small print on a legal contract or insurance form. (By the way, the fact that very few people ever really read fine print is precisely the reason for its existence: its whole purpose is to effectively conceal information while ostensibly publishing it; indeed it is print specifically designed not to be read).

Style Attributes

    Another typographic variable that can have a significant effect on the look, feel, and impact of a word, phrase, or section of text is the so-called style attribute (e.g., bold, italic, underlining, etc.)
Effective communication is largely a matter of emphasis and attention, i.e., you must maintain your reader's attention and direct it particularly to the main points of your message. Style attributes, especially in conjunction with other typographic features and layout principles (spacing, for example), can help. Indeed it is important to remember that any variation in the appearance of text--especially a variation that highlights a specific portion of text and distinguishes it from the surrounding context--can serve to create emphasis and command the reader's attention.

    Note: Too many font enhancements and typographic twists on a single page--or sustained over an entire document--can actually distract or anesthetize a reader's attention and dilute emphasis. If there is a single recurrent vice typical of modern publishing--especially electronic publishing--it is the excessive use of colorful highlights, gaudy flourishes, over-agressive bells and whistles. The result is not effective communication--but sheer noisiness and sensationalism.

This is italic type.
This is bold Roman.
This is bold italic.
This is underlined.
Brightly colored text can have a particularly strong impact.
Blinking text is an effective way of attracting attention, but a very poor way of conveying complex messages.


A layout is a design for the overall appearance of a printed page--with particular emphasis on the effective positioning and arrangement of page elements. (In advertising and publishing, the term may also refer to a preliminary sketch or plan for an advertisement or article.)

    By far the most important consideration in page layout is spacing. Readers love and crave white space. They shun and may even flee in horror from clogged, cramped  "gray pages"--that is, from pages that are covered top-to-bottom, side-to-side, corner-to-corner with thick, crowded, undifferentiated text.

    Layout professionals use a variety of strategies and devices to counteract or eliminate deadly "gray" effects and to create instead a page that is both attractive to look at and easy and enjoyable to read. Some basic strategies and devices are:

Graphic Design

    In the broadest sense, graphic design is concerned with coordinated visual effects--in everything from interior decor and package labels to corporate logos and TV ads. More specifically, it is the art of crafting and creatively arranging the visual elements of a message--from the shapes and sizes of the letters to the colors used in illustrations and graphs.

    Once denigrated as pop-cultural "eye candy," graphic design can today be considered an important aesthetic sub-field of pragmatic semiotics--with a special relevance and potency in today's world of "hot" (i.e, high-impact, high-resolution) multimedia.

    Some related Websites:

    Some suggestions for further reading: