How well do you know your typography?


Paul Brand

Creative Artworker

Posted on January 4, 2016

Typography is my secret joy. It plays a part in every working day at Talisman’s studio, whether I’m quickly producing a press ad for publication, a piece of print literature, or designing a website for one of our financial clients. With a rich history and its own rules, quirks and aesthetic, getting typography right can be hugely satisfying.

But time and time again I receive literature produced by other companies and end up wondering whether typography’s respect has been lost somehow. Something has changed.

It’s like a game for me. Instead of ‘Where’s Wally’, every piece I see gives me the chance to hunt out double word spaces or circle all the widows and orphans. “You could drive a tank through that headline kerning” is a phrase you’re often likely to hear coming from my desk’s direction.

So what’s happened? Is it that agencies are not spending sufficient time on their artwork or don’t check their jobs? Is it a generational issue and these skills are just disappearing? Is technology and software replacing the craft?

In my small effort to preserve and celebrate the art of typography, I’m going to run through the basics.

Anatomy of type

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Serif fonts are easily identified by their little “feet,” as you can see in Baskerville, Garamond, Caslon, Palatino and Times fonts. They have an association with traditional, classical type and so tend to be used to help communicate a sense of authority, maturity and respectability. Financial corporations that use serif fonts in their logos include HSBC Bank, Santander, J.P. Morgan and Nationwide.

Sans serifs

Sans serif (without serif) fonts are missing the “feet” and tend to have a much simpler, more contemporary feel. Familiar sans serif fonts are Helvetica, Arial, and Futura. Companies such as NatWest, Halifax, RBS and TSB all use sans serif fonts in their logos.

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Uppercase and Lowercase

Uppercase is just a fancy word for capital letters, with lowercase letters referring to all the smaller versions. They get their name from the way print shops were once organised. The larger letters were stored in an ‘upper’ case above the ‘lower case’ holding smaller letters, punctuation and spaces.


Leading is the term given to the amount of space between lines of text. Although the space needed varies from font to font, generally I would say it’s better to increase the leading between the lines so that the copy has some air around it to make it easier to read. The term again comes from the early days of hand-typesetting, when thin strips of lead were inserted between lines to improve spacing.

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Kerning is similar, but here we’re talking about the space between two specific characters, rather than between lines. ‘Kerning pairs’ are used to make pairs of letters sit more neatly alongside each other when regular spacing doesn’t quite work.

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Ligature simply means “connection” (from Latin ligari), In type, we refer to ligature when two or more letters appear to be connected – something we’d see naturally in handwriting all the time.

Often these visible connections happen unintentionally, such as the way “f” and “i” in “fi” merge. Designers often purposely doctor ligatures to separate them out a little. This avoids letters colliding and makes them clearer.

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Widows and orphans

A widow is a very short line. It may even be just one word or the end of a hyphenated word at the end of a paragraph or column.

We tend to consider a widow to be poor typography because it leaves an ugly imbalance of white space. Widows have a tendency to interrupt the flow of the reader as they scan down the page and makes text harder work to read. We try and rectify them by adjusting line endings within a paragraph or even editing the overall copy.

Like a widow, an orphan is a single word, part of a word or a very short line, except this time it appears at the end of a paragraph. Again, this throws out alignment and balance, so we try to avoid it happening.

Double spaces

How many of you out there place a double space at the end of a sentence? And who taught you to do this? So let’s get this straight: double spaces are a BIG NO NO.

We can trace the double space habit right back to the introduction of the typewriter in the late 19th century when typists used two spaces between sentences to mimic the style used by traditional typesetters. Wide sentence spacing was phased out in the printing industry in the mid-twentieth century, but the habit continued on typewriters and, even though it was entirely redundant, wheedled its way into modern computer use.

These days, when receiving supplied copy from clients, the first thing that I do is run a search and fix all the double spaces.

Breaking hyphenation

We use hyphenation when a word is too long and breaks the text box parameters. This is often the case when copy is pasted into newspaper templates and when time is tight, as justified text with hyphenation speeds up the process significantly.

But hyphenation is an entirely different ball game when producing a bespoke piece of literature, coming across as lazy and messy. In fact, it’s probably best if you were to turn off the auto-hyphenation within your software publication altogether.

Hyphens, En rules and Em rules

The en dash (–) is slightly wider than the hyphen (-) but narrower than the em dash (—). They get their names from the width of a typesetter’s letter “N” and the slightly wider “M”.

We often find all three dashes hopelessly muddled up. Hyphens have a tendency to creep into en dash usage, while en dashes, on the other hand, are now most frequently used in places we’d traditionally use an em dash.

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We use hyphens to join words that function together or modify one another, like in two-thirds, self-assured, and mid-September.

En dashes are meant to be used to denote a range, like page 140 – 146, or to link routes or opposing sides, such as London – New York. They should always include spacing before and afterwards.

The long em dash, finally, never has spaces and is traditionally the dash to use as an interrupter of text or to set apart phrases or clauses within a sentence. Writers often use them as a slightly stronger alternative to a comma.

We think good typography makes a big difference, but what do you think? Putting all the above into practice, which paragraph below looks cleaner?

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