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Printing Industry Exchange ( is pleased to have Steven Waxman writing and managing the Printing Industry Blog. As a printing consultant, Steven teaches corporations how to save money buying printing, brokers printing services, and teaches prepress techniques. Steven has been in the printing industry for thirty-three years working as a writer, editor, print buyer, photographer, graphic designer, art director, and production manager.

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Custom Printing: Learning to Look at, and Really See, Typefaces

It seems to be a major truth about life that when you pay close attention to something and learn as much as you can about it, you start to see it everywhere. You also start to understand intuitively how it works. I think this is also true about typography for commercial printing, one of the main building blocks of good design. Or, more specifically, becoming fluent in typography will allow you to consciously give a particular voice, or tone, to whatever you design, from logos to posters to brochures to print books.

With that in mind, one of the best things you can do to increase your awareness of the nuances of typography is to learn to classify typefaces (i.e., to both recognize and articulate their similarities and differences).

Type Classifications

(First of all, I’d encourage you to use Google Images to find the following typefaces: Garamond, Times New Roman, Bodoni, Clarendon, and Helvetica. If you can get a printout of all uppercase and lowercase letters for each font, that’s ideal.)

The first classification is “serif” vs. “sans serif.” Serifs are the little tails on the letterforms that help you connect the letters as your eye passes horizontally across a line of text. Sans serif faces do not have these tails. In print, they are harder to read. On a computer screen, however, they are easier to read than serif typefaces.

Next, there’s the history of type: Old Style, Transitional, and Modern are the classifications for serif faces. If you refer to the Google Image pages you’ve printed out, you can identify Garamond as Old Style, Times New Roman as Transitional, and Bodoni as Modern.

How do they differ?

Old style letters have graceful transitions between thick and thin strokes in the letterforms (and actually not that much difference between the thin and thick strokes). They also have a slant (just the thick and thin portions of curves) slightly to the left (called a back-slant). Finally, their serifs have graceful (not abrupt) curves smoothing out the transition from the serifs to the vertical, horizontal, and diagonal strokes of the letterforms.

Transitional typefaces are similar to Old Style, but they have more of a vertical orientation (in the thick and thin portions of the letterforms). That is, they don’t have the slant of the Old Style letterforms. They also have wider serifs and more contrast between the thick and thin portions of each letter.

Modern typefaces are visibly different. They have far more contrast (more of an abrupt and less graceful transition) between the ultra-thick and ultra-thin strokes of the letterforms.

Finally, there’s one more serif classification: slab serif (Clarendon is an example). Slab serif typefaces have much thicker, chunky serifs without graceful curves (the graceful curves are called bracketing). Slab serif faces are also called “Egyptian” typefaces.

Among the sans serif fonts is Helvetica, noted in the list above. It has no serifs, no little tails. However, it comes in thinner or thicker varieties (light, regular, bold, demi-bold, black, or similar names). It also comes in condensed and expanded versions. So it’s a very versatile typeface. (It can whisper, or it can shout.)

Most sans serif faces have equally thick strokes throughout an alphabet (in contrast to serif faces). However, this is not always true. Fonts such as Optima have no serifs, but the strokes become thicker and thinner throughout the letterforms.

More Classifications

Here are three more classifications: script, novelty, and dingbats.

Script typefaces look like hand lettering. Moreover, some even look like cursive handwriting. They are, for the most part, hard to read and therefore primarily used in short amounts of copy (as in a formal invitation). If you use these fonts, keep the lines of type short and add lots of space between the lines.

Novelty typefaces are hard to read but they have character. They have names like Gypsy Switch and Buzzer Three (as per Jim Krause’s Design Basics Index). They can convey a mood or tone, but if you set any more than a few words in these fonts, your reader’s eyes will quickly tire (i.e., she/he will stop reading).

Dingbats, also known as printer’s flowers, are the little pictures that come in individual font sets. They are convenient if you need a checkmark, a star, a cross, or a little flourish mark between paragraphs (or any number of other non-alpha-numeric characters).

Cap Height, X-Height, Ascenders, and Decenders

Here are four more type terms you may find useful in distinguishing one typeface from another. In fact, it might be a good exercise to take the sample alphabets you have printed out from Google Images (Garamond, Times New Roman, Bodoni, Clarendon, and Helvetica) and start comparing individual letters from one typeface to the same letters in another typeface. You’ll start to see similarities and differences. You may even start to see how one typeface might be “whimsical” and another typeface might have a sense of “gravitas.”

Back to the classifications:

Cap height refers to the height of a capital letter (measured using flat-top letters like an “H,” not curved letters like an “O” or pointy letters like an “A”). If you compare one uppercase letter from one font to another with both set at the same point size (a 24-point headline, for instance), you’ll see that some fonts will look slightly bigger (larger cap height). And if you do the same thing with a lowercase letter (measured from the baseline to the top of the lowercase letter), you’ll see that some fonts include larger lowercase letters that are therefore (usually) easier to read.

This is especially useful when setting type, because if you have letters that are larger and easier to read without necessarily being wider, you can get more words in the same space compared to the same words set in another typeface. This may not look like much of a savings on one print book page, but if you’re typesetting a 480-page book, the x-height of the lowercase letters may make the difference between your producing a 480-page book and a 512-page book (i.e., one less 32-page commercial printing signature to print and pay for while still maintaining the readability of the text—and therefore the interest of the reader).

Ascenders are the parts of the letterforms that rise up above the x-height to the top of the cap height (like the top of the two “h’s” in the word height). The bottom squiggle of the two “g’s” in the word “squiggle,” along with the downward stroke of the “q” are descenders. They reach below the type baseline (the horizontal line on which all the letters sit).

Now if you take all of this information and start comparing the alphabets you printed out in different fonts, you’ll start to see some intriguing and nuanced differences. You may even want to start with such lowercase letters as the “g” and “a,” since in these letters there’s often a lot of dissimilarity (aka, individuality) to be found from typeface to typeface.

What to Do with All This Information

More than anything, learning to distinguish among typefaces, to see the shades of difference and uniqueness between one and another, teaches you to look very closely, and then to select wisely. If you can learn to see the “ear” and “loop” of a lowercase “g” (the ear is the little tail on the top right of the uppermost portion; the loop is the enclosed circle of the “g” below the baseline), you can choose one font over another for a logo design and in so doing add a bit of personality to the design. Even more importantly, the personality or tone you add will more likely be congruent with the brand, or ethos, of the company for which you are crafting the logo. (And your reader may never know this consciously. It may only be a subconscious appreciation of the rightness of your choice of type.)

(As an aside and slice of life story, in the 1980s I studied bicycles in depth before buying a new one—during the start of the health craze. The more I studied, the more bicycles I saw being ridden in the neighborhood. Fifteen years later I took a motorcycle course, and I started seeing more motorcycles on the streets. There weren’t more bicycles or motorcycles. My awareness just made me see the ones right in front of me. Studying typefaces and learning to distinguish one from another—and determining when to use one vs. another and why—will make you far more likely to see typography wherever you go. Choosing typefaces will become an unconscious part of your make-up, and your design work for commercial printing will most likely improve dramatically.)

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