Introduction to Typography

Introduction to Typography

Starting with lettering and calligraphy as a hobby, I found so many amazing online artists doing so many wonderful things that I didn’t know where to start - I wanted to learn it all! Watercolor, brush, broad pen, pointed pen, modern, traditional, Spencerian, sign painting - oh my! So many options. 

Typography, of course, is one of the subject areas that comes up when researching lettering and calligraphy. Dipping my toe into learning about fonts and typefaces and foundries and families and weights and alternates and leading and kerning is definitely a case of “the more you know, the more you know what you don’t know”, so over the next four weeks, I’ll be posting articles about typography. We’ll be starting with a background overview today, and then going into apps and how to make your own fonts. 

PS - the thumbnail image is written in my own most recent font, Dorwitt Script, available here


Typography is the term we use for a system of letters, or glyphs, how they are arranged, designed, and how they relate to one another.

A font is the specific style of letter design, e.g. Arial 12 pt regular is one font, and Arial 12 pt bold is another.  

A typeface, aka font family is a set of one or more fonts, e.g. Arial regular, bold, and italics. They are designed, weighted, and spaced in a certain way, and they can be sized in a certain way. Using a font and/or typeface makes sense when you design pieces of long, uniform, and easily legible texts. 

(As a quick refresher, lettering is the drawing of individual words or phrases, and is used when the words have to fit into odd spaces, or when they’re supposed to communicate a heartfelt or personal message. Calligraphy is the art of writing beautifully. Letters are likely to look somewhat uniform and the writing follows certain rules and is executed using specific tools. Especially pointed pen styles like Copperplate or Spencerian look very elegant and are favorites in the wedding circuit.)

Typefaces are traditionally designed in a Type Foundry. Those used to be the companies who supplied the cast metal or wood type for typesetting machines (see below), and nowadays they design, curate, and distribute digital type. The ones I’ve come across in my learning most often are Hoefler & Co, House Industries, Adobe Type, and You Work For Them

History of Typesetting

Starting in the 15th century, each glyph was made out of wood, lead, or alloys, and type setters manually placed individual glyphs to create pages for books and newspapers onto a printing press.

During much of the letterpress era, movable type was composed by hand for each page. Cast metal sorts were composed into words, then lines, then paragraphs, then pages of text and tightly bound together to make up a form, with all letter faces exactly the same "height to paper", creating an even surface of type. The form was placed in a press, inked, and an impression made on paper.
During typesetting, individual sorts are picked from a type case with the right hand, and set into a composing stick held in the left hand from left to right, and as viewed by the setter upside down. (...) a lower case 'q' looks like a 'd', a lower case 'b' looks like a 'p', a lower case 'p' looks like a 'b' and a lower case 'd' looks like a 'q'. This is reputed to be the origin of the expression "mind your p's and q's". (Wikipedia)

Type setting became automated in the late 19th century with inventions like the Linotype machine, which remained in use until the 1970s. Between the 1950s and 1990s, designers were also able to use phototypesetting using film negatives, but with the rise of computers, those quickly gave way to digital type. 

Pic by @hannes_wolf on Unsplash

Pic by @hannes_wolf on Unsplash

If you’ll allow me a little detour - I was born in 1975 and got my first mechanical typewriter when I was about 12. I don’t remember the make or model, only that it was green. I loved writing on it and got pretty fast using just my index fingers. All letters took up the same amount of space, so I knew exactly how many characters would fit in a line.

If I wanted to highlight a word, I would have to write in all caps or use a different colored ink band, and those were a pain to change. If I made a mistake, I would have to take out the ink tape, put it corrective ink tape, scroll back to the exact right spot, and type the faulty letter again, before scrolling back one more time and typing the correct letter. Alternatively, using white out fluid was an option, but it always left blobs and wasn't pretty to look at. On the plus side, the audible “ding” alarm signaling I’ve reached the end of each line on the paper was a joy, and swiping the handle to get the barrel back into starting position felt super satisfying. 

I did an apprenticeship to become a Fremdsprachensekretärin (foreign language secretary) from 1994 to 1997. It was a two-year “dual” program, where we spent 6-8 weeks in school learning the theories of managing an office, e.g. short hand, accounting, book keeping, administration, and typing, and then alternated 6-8 weeks rotation throughout various departments of the company working as secretaries, administrative, and personal assistants. The third year was spent working in one department in between school.

Ours was the last class to learn typing on an electrical typewriter; later classes would use computers. Of course we used computers in the workplace, and I remember seeing punched cards, magnetic tape, and having to use floppy disks to save Microsoft documents using only 8 characters or less to name them.

In any case, typing on a computer keyboard was a lot less strenuous on my wrists and fingers than the typewriter. Clicking on the “B” for bold or “I” for Italics or “U” for underline, and more than anything correcting a mistake with a simple click of the back button was super amazing. Something we take for granted now, but it's something to be super grateful for. 

Digital Type

I don’t remember how many fonts we had to choose back then, but nowadays, Microsoft comes with 168 different fonts to choose from, and Apple’s macOS comes with 118 in its arsenal. I’m not sure which are the most prolific, but Arial, Times New Roman, Helvetica, Garamond, Verdana, and Georgia are definitely up there. On the other end of that spectrum, Papyrus, Comic Sans, and Curlz MT should probably be avoided. 

There are now countless fonts available for download on countless websites. In my own Font Book, where I store all the ones I downloaded, I have 1,361 fonts from 387 typefaces. Do I use all of them? Not yet, but I might! ;-) 


Typography is a fabulous well of deep proportions for those of us who like geeking out and diving deep. I’m only scratching the surface here, but so it goes with all niches. There are levels and layers, and if you’d like to go deeper, here are some links:  

Magazines and club chapters dedicated to furthering the art and bringing together a community of type designers are the Type Directors Club, Type Magazine, Print Magazine, Slanted (German), and Idea Mag (Japanese/English). 

Typewolf offers a quite extensive list of resources here

Famous contemporary typographers include:

I hope this serves as a brief intro into typography, and please share your own favorite resources in the comments!

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