Case #TMM013 - Typography Do's and Dont's - Radiant

The Radiant Blog

Monday Morning Misdemeanors is a series of weekly posts written by Graphic Designer, Derek Gyssels. In this series, Derek is going to hone in on a number of common problems that crop up in graphic designs and then give you the tools to avoid them which will give your designs a professional polish. This week's feature is actually "TMM" because we are posting it on a Tuesday (seeing that Monday was a holiday in Canada).

This week I want to address a few typography fundamentals that will help you with your design work.

Most of the following tips will help with laying out professional looking type for print and web design so lets start by defining a few terms

Kerning: the adjusting of space between individual pairs of letters to improve appearance and legibility.

Tracking: the adjusting of letter spacing of a larger body of text.

Leading: the amount of space between lines of type measured from the baseline of one line of type to the baseline of the line of type above or below.

Baseline: the imaginary line on which text rests.

Line Length: the length of a line of type.

Widow: is a single word that belongs to a body of copy but has been isolated by itself on a line or the top of a column or new page by itself.

Orphan: is a sentence that starts a paragraph and has been isolated by itself at the bottom of a column or page.

There are a lot of rules that can be followed to improve the appearance and readability of type that add up to a piece of design looking a lot better than the next guys. Conversely, if ignored, you are the next guy.

Kerning needs to be respected in all type larger than 18 point or so. You are not expected to go through page after page of reading text and manually adjust all the space between all letters. Where kerning is key is headlines in advertising and logo design.

Tracking is what you would want to use to adjust the letter spacing of an entire page of reading text to either squeeze in a bit more copy or open it up slightly to make it a little more airy. Generally, I avoid doing too much with tracking as too much or too little inhibits smooth reading for the end user.

Leading is a big element of type that often goes ignored or abused. The space that you allow for readers between rows of type is pretty well the most critical factor to readability. This coupled with line length can make or break a report, book or brochure. A few quick points for improving leading are:

  • The longer or wider the paragraph is the larger the leading should be.
  • The leading value in points should be approximately 25% higher than the size of the type. This also depends on the typeface being used and should be considered in light of the point above.
  • Never abuse leading to cram more copy onto a page. What good is it to have lots of copy if people are going to be repelled from reading it?

Line length is another huge factor in readability. If your lines of type are too long it makes it difficult for the readers eye to finish a line and quickly find the next to make reading smooth. If line length is too short, it makes the reader break too often always having the eye go back-and-forth constantly starting new lines.

Widows and orphans are fussy details but once I learned of them, they scream at me every time I see them. They really interrupt readability and cause unnecessary visual noise in a composition. Some times they can be fixed by manipulating tracking and leading. Often times the best solution is to re-word a sentence or two so they are shorter and remove the issue the widow or orphan is causing.


Always do your best to love your type in a piece of work. At the end of the day if your audience is repelled from reading they are not receiving the messages you need them to receive. This translates to you working in vain. This might sound overblown but it is one of the many factors that defines your brand and separates success from failures.

Here's a fun exercise, study your mail when you get home and look at the typography on all the various things you get day-after-day. Make piles of the things you enjoy looking at and reading and the things that you couldn't be bothered reading. Study the physical differences between the two piles and make some mental notes. It's often the typography that put the "junk" in junk mail. The bigger, more professional companies will have well-designed pieces of communication with nice, attractive and easy to read type. The funny thing is that the size of a company has nothing to do with it. Your work can compete with anyone if done right.