‘Nouns’ and ‘verbs’ may shape my words, but typography ‘x-heights’ me

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Written By Maureen

When I first started in the media, it was as a layout editor at the largest Sunday sports section in Australia. 22-year-old me, of course, naïvely thought my few years of attending media communications, journalism and layout courses at university ensured I knew all that there was to know about how a newspaper page worked.

Looking back, the one thing that I took from my layout subjects was that the human eye reads diagonally down and to the right (starting at the top left) subconsciously upon first encounter with say, a newspaper page, an advertisement, a website or blog. With that understanding being pretty much the only thing I knew about layout and design (besides my knack for writing headline puns like the one atop this very blog) I had to learn a few things very quickly concerning exactly how much work goes into making newspapers look the way that they do.

So, in the next few blogs, I’m going to go into a few of the ‘unseen’ elements of a page (or any piece of writing really) and try to clarify a few of the first things I had to learn about reeeeeally quickly in order to keep my job. Let’s get into it, starting with Typography!

One of the unappreciated duties of many professional writers and editors is not only to make sure the content of any piece of copy is top-notch, but also that the way the letters and words are placed together on the page is visually appealing to a wide variety of readers.

I got reprimanded for my awful typesetting skills by one of the older sub-editors at the desk when I was doing both page layout and copy editing in the first few weeks of my job at the newspaper. He was always grumpy and I was sure he hated me always failing to notice widows and orphans on the page. I cracked his craggy exterior one day by exclaiming “leaving an orphan at the end of the column – that’s a paddlin’.” He burst out laughing (evidently he too, was a fan of this scene of the Simpsons), and from then on he was a lot more friendly and forthcoming with advice.

There are a few features of typography that are overlooked by a lot of novice designers. I was going to make a comprehensive list of the most common typography mistakes that I made and saw, but it has already been quite expertly handled. Instead, I’m going to give a brief primer into a few elements of typography that any writer and designer should have an understanding of (plus a few tips that couldn’t hurt).


Baseline Typography:  If typography is simply the art and technique of arranging, designing and setting type, baseline typography is its most common form. This blog, and most other text you will read on any given day, uses a baseline (which can be seen running invisibly below all text like a ruler). Often when designing pages, advertisements etc. the opportunity to deviate from the baseline will present itself, but without a good understanding of the principles of baseline typography, you will never be able to understand the presentation of text well enough to adhere to the strict fundamentals of type and design. Even very complicated typographical images like the one below require an understanding of baselines in order to distort and manipulate the text for artistic effect. Some typefaces in other languages than English do not use a baseline, particularly East Asian scripts where each individual character has its own square ‘box’ with no ascenders or descenders.

X-Height: The name-sake of this blog, the concept of an x-height is fairly simple, yet important to a deep understanding of what comprises visually appealing typography. Succinctly put, an x-height is the height of a lowercase ‘x’ in any given alphabet or font. Many regard the x-height as a determining factor in the readability of text, with a larger x-height preferred especially for any copy that is aimed at an older demographic who may have vision issues. The larger the x-height, however, can lead to a bevy of headaches for an inexperienced typographer, with leading and kerning in particular becoming a chore. This leads us to…

Kerning and Tracking: These can be confusing (they definitely stumped 22 y.o. me for a while), but these are two very similar typographic concepts that are often misunderstood. The ‘tracking’ refers to the spacing between letters overall, whereas ‘kerning’ is a selective change in letter spacing which can be used sometimes to make certain pairs of awkward letters look more visually appealing. The common acronym ‘AV’ for instance is often automatically kerned by most computer fonts to remove the unnecessary ‘white space’ between the two letters.

Leading: Similar to Tracking, Leading (pronounced ‘ledding’) is the space between lines of text. Although the space refers to fonts, leading in any kind of design software will always refer to the distance from baseline to baseline, and is usually measured in points, just like the type. Changing the leading also can affect the appearance and readability of the text. When starting a new project involving any amount of copy, a good tip is to always experiment with the amount of leading after choosing the font to establish what looks best on the page.

Serif/Sans Serif: The small decorative ‘strokes’ added to letters are known as ‘serifs’, but not all fonts apply them. The differences between the two fonts are often understated by novice layout editors and graphic designers. A handy tip that is the generally accepted norm is that for printed copy, a serif font like Times New Roman is the most professional looking and easiest to read, yet for digital copy a sans-serif font (or a font without serifs) like Arial is almost universally preferred.

Ascender/Descender: This one is fairly simple, which means it’s fairly simple to overlook when organising copy on the page. A letter’s ascender extends above the x-height, such as the ‘stems’ of the lowercase letters ‘b’, ‘d’, ‘h’, ‘k’, ‘f’ etc., while a descender, you guessed it, descends below the baseline, as in the letters ‘g’, ‘j’, ‘p’,  and ‘q’. While often computer programs will not allow ascenders and descenders to clash by automatically adjusting the leading, a lot of design programs allow a much tighter fit, which can often lead to ascenders crossing paths with descenders, which DRASTICALLY reduces the quality of the text’s readability.

So there you have it! There’s an introduction to typography elements that might not be immediately apparent when you start manipulating fonts and customising the design of your copy. They should always be at the back of your mind when assessing the presentation of the words you write, because they have many subconscious effects on the brain of readers. Often, a poorly kerned or leaded article will be so subtly hard to read, that readers don’t even understand why they stop reading, only that they don’t want to anymore. It’s our job as writers, editors and designers to ensure that won’t happen.

Stay tuned for next week where I delve a bit deeper into typography as well as a few other design elements. Be sure to hit this week hard, you definitely won’t have any excuses for not producing top quality typography.