What is Typography?

Let's first take a moment to talk briefly about what typography is not about. To be clear: it‘s not just about choosing pretty typefaces.

To say so would be inappropriately reductionist. As Oliver Reichenstein from Information Architects points out:

“Anyone can use typefaces, and some can choose good typefaces, but only few master typography.”

What's more, during the Italian Renaissance, typographers frequently had but a single font to work and yet produced some of the most enduring printed works the world has ever seen. So then, how could typography be such a singular enterprise?

During the Italian Renaissance, typographers created some of the
          most enuring printed works the world has ever seen.
During the Italian Renaissance, typographers created some of the most enduring printed works the world has ever seen.

Typography is a craft. And, like any other craft, it is multi-faceted. You wouldn't say, for instance, that carpentry is about “sawing wood,” or that being a great software craftsman is about “knowing Vim” well.

The combination of a number of different techniques combine to form the whole of what we call “Typography”. And it's more complex than many realize.

Macro vs. Micro Typography

As an enterprise, it's main purpose for existence is, as the near mythical Robert Bringhurst, the author of The Elements of Typographic Style, (who I am told, is actually not God, but often confused with him in type circles given the biblical stature of his book), would have it:

…to endow human language with a durable visual form, and thus, with an independent existence.

Given the inherent complexity of the craft that is Typography, it follows that there is some conceptual distinction among its tenets. That is, there exists the concept of Macro (high-level) and Micro (detail) typography.

Macro typography is, in principle, concerned with those techniques that relate directly to layout:

  • The format, or dimensions of the page (or web page)
  • The size, position, proportion of columns (grid systems)
  • Typographic hierarchy
Macro typography is concerned with those techniques that relate directly to layout
Macro typography is concerned with those techniques that relate directly to layout

Micro typography, on the other hand, is primarily concerned with the more individual features (the anatomy) of letter forms:

  • The shapes of letters and the way they fit together
  • The way letters combine to form words
  • Letter spacing
  • Word spacing
  • Line length (measure)
  • Line-height (leading)
  • Legibility and readability (more on this later)
  • Type face selection
Macro typography is, in principle, concerned with those techniques that relate directly to layout
Micro typography, on the other hand, is primarily concerned with the more individual features (the anatomy) of letter forms:

Where do we go from here?

In my next post, I will attempt to answer the question: “What‘s the purpose of typography?” I'll also talk about why you (and anyone who ever produces any material with written words on it) should care about setting type well. Stay tuned!

Billy Whited was an 8th Light UX Craftsman from March 2011 - April 2012.