How I Improved My Typography Skills

5 resources for learning the basics.


It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it.

We’ve all heard this. It’s simplistic and obvious. But it’s true. Typography is the how in what we write and design. Everyone needs typography skills. It’s not just for designers and artists.

The success of your content, whether it’s a user interface design or a resumé, is extremely dependent on how you use type. The attention span of the user (or reader) is your most valuable resource. To be successful, you need to hold their attention for your content to shine. Bad typography causes the user strain and damages the effectiveness of the message, ultimately resulting in the loss of attention. But with good typography, we can put the focus on our content and the user at ease. The best part is, you don’t need a special creative gift to be effective with typography. All you need is to learn some basic principles.

As a designer, I’m constantly working on user interfaces. Improving my typography skills dramatically improved my designs. Even if you’re not a designer, the five resources below will help you quickly boost the quality of the documents you produce. If you’re new to design, these references are invaluable and will significantly elevate the quality of your work.

TypeFun01

Start simple. Learn the basics in a conversational guide to type. TypeFun01 is a short, simple introduction to the history, styles, and anatomy of type. Use it to learn the difference between serif and sans-serif fonts, as well as other classifications. It’s important to know when it might be more appropriate to use one style over another.

Interactive Guide to Blog Typography

This interactive tool will show you examples and concepts for actually laying out typography on the web. There’s a reason why the design of sites like Medium and Roon follow these principles. They dramatically improve the reading and writing experience. Their typography is so well constructed it makes you want to use their product more. However, these principles apply to type in all contexts, not just blogs. Use this guide to learn about adjusting line length, line height, visual hierarchy, font-size, and color.

Butterick’s Practical Typography

This was the single biggest influence on my typography skills and I continue to use it as a reference. Matthew Butterick, a lawyer and Harvard visual arts graduate, has written an amazing free book on practical uses of typography. Butterick confidently states,

This is a bold claim, but I stand behind it: if you learn and follow these five typography rules, you will be a better typographer than 95% of professional designers.

Butterick’s Practical Typography includes in-depth knowledge on type that will not only improve your designs, but your writing as well. If you just want the basic principles, simply read Butterick’s Typography in ten minutes.

Thinking with Type

This is another incredible free book available online. Thinking with Type, by Ellen Lupton, is an overview of the principles covered in the resources I’ve listed above with more of a graphic design focus. Ellen provides some great visual examples of typography principles with friendly explanations. The grid section is particularly useful for learning about the golden section and various grid layouts (columns, baseline, modular).

Helvetica (2007)

At this point, you can just sit back and watch a documentary on Netflix about typography and graphic design. Don’t worry though, it’s about much more than just Helvetica the typeface. It’s about the various modern and post-modern approaches typographers and designers have in their work. And yes, they will also tell you why they either love, or hate, Helvetica. If Erik Spiekermann, Hoefler & Frere-Jones, and Massimo Vignelli don’t get you interested in typography, nobody will.

Communication is beautiful. You can’t, not communicate. Typography is beautiful. In writing and interface design, you can’t, not use typography.