An Introduction To Graphic Design: Typography Basics

Part 3: Typography Basics

Previously, we covered the basics of graphic design, layout and composition. If you haven’t had an opportunity to read the previous lessons, please see: An Introduction to Graphic Design Part 1 and An Introduction To Graphic Design Part 2 here on the Freepik blog. This lesson will detail typography structure and vocabulary. Typography is the art or process of setting, arranging, or designing type. Typography is by far one of the most important aspects of good design. It provides context to visuals and eliminates misconceptions or miscommunications. Designers have a responsibility to insure the right typography is chosen to convey the appropriate message. This is no simple task, but an understanding of the components of typography will allow you to make great design choices.


Components of Typography

Typefaces & Fonts

The words typeface and font are often used interchangeably, but they have different definitions. A typeface is a particular design of type. Typefaces are the design of a single group of fonts. For example, Ariel is a typeface. The name Ariel was given to a specific styling of type. A font is a complete set of characters that share the same typeface, size, and styling. Ariel Narrow is a font. Narrow describes the specific styling of a character set found in the Ariel typeface. To simplify, imagine a family with parents and a child. The surname of this family is Ariel. The Ariel family members look similar, but each member of the family has a unique trait. Think of the surname Ariel as the typeface. Within the Ariel family, you have a father which is Ariel Black, a mother which is Ariel Regular, and a child, which is Ariel Narrow. Each member of the family has their own attributes, but they all are apart of the Ariel family. The concept of typefaces and fonts can be confusing, but the differences will become more clear as the lesson continues.


The Structure & Composition of Typography

Typography goes far beyond understanding typefaces versus fonts. Although there are thousands of typefaces, each having its own unique characteristics; the pioneers of typography have assigned names and terminology to the elements of typography. Knowing the appropriate term for the anatomy of different characters is imperative to mastering typography and creating great designs. There is a term to describe every part of every character, but the most common terms used are as follows:

  • Baseline is the imaginary line upon which type sits.
  • X height is the distance between the baseline where type sits and the top of lowercase letters. Some letters such as the letter h extend beyond the x height.
  • Cap height is the distance between the top of a capital letter and the baseline.
  • Ascenders are the stem above lower case letters that extend above the x height such as the letter h. Some letters may also go past the cap height.
  • Descenders are the opposite of ascenders. They extend below the baseline such as in the letters g, p, and y.
  • Stem is the main stroke of a letter. It is usually vertical.
  • Tail is the descending, often decorative stroke found on letters such as lowercase y and capital q.
  • Serif is the small flair that extends off the edge of letters.
  • Counter is the inclosed space within letters such as o and g
  • Ear is the small extension on the lower half of the letter g
  • Terminal is the end of a stroke that does not contain a serif.
  • Aperture is the partially enclosed, somewhat rounded negative space in some characters such as the letters, c, s, n. The upper part of a double story letter a and the lower part of the lowercase letter e also contain aperture.
  • Bowl is the curved part of the character that encloses the circular or curved parts known as the counter of some letters such as capital and lowercase letters o, d and b.

Mastering typography takes dedication and a passion for art and great design. To understand and appreciate typography, you should spend some time reviewing the history type. It’s amazing how many advances to type design and type setting have been made over the course of history. The article, Typography: Past, Present, and Future here on the Freepik blog is an excellent resource for starting you research on typography’s history. It provides details on the first forms of typography and some of the most prominent typography and graphic designers.


The next lesson in this series will outline typography measuring and some guidelines for working with type. It will provide insight and real world examples of how you can apply your recently acquired knowledge of typography. There are also helpful suggestions for best practices when selecting and pairing typefaces.