What is Typography? - Definition, Terms & Examples

Instructor: David White
Although you probably don't think much about it, typography is a very important element of design. Through this lesson, you will learn how to define typography and explore some of the technical aspects of the style.

Defining Typography

Every day we are surrounded by advertisements encouraging us to buy the latest product, see the latest movies, or upgrade to the latest phones. Whether in print, on television, or online, these all have one thing in common: carefully arranged text. Product names, for example, are almost shoved in our face via big colorful text, while the legally binding agreements are given in 'the fine print.'

In the context of visual communication, this arrangement of text is known as typography and it's an important part of many different styles of art and communication. Broadly speaking, typography is the way that text is arranged and presented. In the old Batman comic books, for example, sound effects like 'bap!' were arranged in a word or thought bubble to indicate the strength and effect of the fight. Similarly, if you look at the device you're using right now, there's a very good chance that the brand name is boldly displayed in your line of sight.

The History of Typography

Given that typography is the arrangement of text, you can imagine that it has a long history that is closely associated with the printed word. The earliest examples of typography date back to ancient Greece and Rome, usually in the form of imperial seals and dies used for making money. A royal seal on a document, for example, would be created using a metal stamp dipped in wax and served as a type of signature.

Around 1041, typography had begun to evolve into what we recognize it as today with the invention of movable type by Chinese commoner Bi Sheng. Using clay tiles, Sheng created a system where each Chinese character was represented on a single tile, thus allowing for words and phrases to be printed on paper using ink.

Movable type allowed for text to be reproduced efficiently.
moveable type

Over time, the ceramic tiles were replaced with woodblocks, but the process of printing was still slow and time-consuming because it had to be done by hand. This all changed around 1440, when Johannes Gutenberg created the first mechanical printing press. Unlike previous handmade prints, Gutenberg's press used metal plates and a mechanized system to reproduce texts quickly and more efficiently than had ever been done before. In fact, Gutenberg's process was so effective and efficient that many elements are still used today in the printing process.

Texts could be reproduced prior to the printing press, but the time and labor that it took to make it happen more or less precluded the mass production of written texts. With the aid of the printing press, new ideas and concepts could be shared within communities and, when carried by travelers, could make their way around the world. So, the Gutenberg press was something of a flashpoint that ignited a global revolution in the sharing of ideas.

Technical Terms

Unless you're a visual artist or graphic designer, you probably don't spend much time thinking about all the work that goes into designing text. Indeed, typography isn't simply organizing and applying letters; it's a means of communication that requires training, skill, and more than a little creativity.

Imagine that you saw a poster advertising some new cell phone and all of the text was squished up together near the top - such a sloppy job probably wouldn't inspire you to run out and buy the phone. If, on the other hand, the lines of text were clearly spaced and allowed you to quickly absorb all of the poster's information, it would have a greater effect. This vertical spacing of text is known as leading, and it can be particularly important in lines of text that have descenders, which are letters like 'g' or 'y' that have hang below the baseline.

Leading can be particularly important when dealing with descenders.

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