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Seven Principles of Effective Typography

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Whether you’re designing a magazine layout or a personal web site, functionality, aesthetics, and - above all else - ease of use should comprise your primary concerns. Your reader must be able to find the information she needs, quickly and effortlessly. Locating the desired content is only half of the battle; once found, your audience must also be able to read your subject matter fluently and without difficulty.

Type constitutes one of the dominant elements of most publications. Good typography is largely “invisible” typography; rather than drawing the reader’s attention away from the material, the type remains in the background, unseen and unnoticed. However, invisible typography does not necessarily entail boring typography. Quite the contrary; it takes both creativity and skill to make type attractive and pleasing to the eye while simultaneously keeping it from becoming distracting.

In order to ensure that the type in your publication is living up to its potential, heed the seven principles of effective typography:

1. Less is more

Generally speaking, your layout should be as uncluttered and uncomplicated as possible. If too much information is crammed onto any one page, your readers will have trouble locating what they are looking for. Such chaos and disorder are also disconcerting; readers are more likely to flip (or click) right by pages that make them feel anxious or confused.
“Clutter” does not refer just to the decorative or directional elements on a page. Text, which is oftentimes colored black, can also make a page look busy. Too much type gives the space a “gray” feeling.
In order to avoid such unintended consequences, begin by keeping secondary details to a minimum. Also, take care to break your content up into manageable chunks. This is especially easy to do when designing a web site; long articles can be divided into smaller sections, and readers may jump from one fraction to the next via hyperlinks.

2. Include plenty of “white space”

Likewise, you should factor in an ample amount of “white space” when designing a layout. Blank, white space balances the darkness of the text. Don’t think of such areas as wasted or unused space; rather, regard the whiteness as a design element in and of itself. Properly placed white space is an essential element of an artfully designed layout!

3. Delineate hierarchies

The elements on your page will usually be arranged into a hierarchy; for example, your page may include a title, subtitles, a byline, or a list. Each of these elements must be differentiated from one another so that their relationship is immediately obvious to your audience.
Common methods of depicting hierarchies include the use of color, sizing, weight (boldness), italics, and spacing. For example, the most important elements on a page might be colored red, sized a few points larger than the rest of the text, have a heavier weight, be italicized, or be spaced farther apart (or any combination of these). Be careful not to overuse any of these, however; if too many elements are stressed, it becomes difficult for your reader to determine which, if any, are important.

4. Make use of contrast

In addition to ordering elements into a hierarchy, contrast serves several other purposes. When used sparingly, a section of text that’s weighted differently from its surroundings will jump out at the reader. Thus, bold text can serve to make important elements stand out.
Contrast between text and its background is even more essential in layouts. If there isn’t sufficient contrast, your audience will have to strain to read your publication; most likely, they won’t bother at all! Web designers seem to be especially prone to combining unsightly, hard-to-read color combinations on their web sites. Before placing yellow text on a blue background, take a moment to reorder your priorities - do you want your site to be pretty or legible?

5. Pay attention to spacing

Similar to contrast, spacing is another strategy you can use to reflect hierarchies. Also like contrast, good spacing is essential to a legible layout. Lines, words, or letters spaced too closely together (or placed too far apart) can prove hard to read. Pay close attention to leading (line spacing), tracking (which controls letter and word spacing), and kerning (which can help to smooth out spacing between specific characters).
Along these lines, opt for a flush-left/ragged-right setting for your main body of text, as opposed to justifying it. Justified text can create unsightly word and letter spacing, making certain lines hard to read. Although the line edges on a flush-left/ragged-right setting will be uneven, you can reduce this from a “hard” to a “soft” rag by making selective use of justification (i.e., setting a minimum length for each line) and allowing for hyphenation.

6. Standardize your pages

Standardizing your design will ensure that all the pages of your publication relate to one another. This will not only make for an attractive and integrated final product, but will also help your readers find what they want when they want it. Pages that share the same basic design flow together well. They also allow readers to become accustomed to the template and learn where the essentials (such as a page number or navigational button) are located.

7. Design for your audience

Above all else, you should always design your publication for your audience - not yourself! It’s not about what you think is pretty; good design is that which helps you effectively communicate with your readers.
For instance, rather than using ornate, elaborate typefaces, choose those which differ slightly from your competition’s (to set you apart) but are somewhat simple and clean (so as to not redirect attention from your message to your design). Moreover, don’t utilize too many typefaces, no matter how simple; instead, use one or two and vary different elements of them (weight, size, etc.) to signify relationships.

Effective typography is a valuable skill, one that is rooted in restraint. These seven principles should put you on the right path!

© Kelly Garbato, 2005
Kelly Garbato is an author, ePublisher, and small business owner. She is currently designing two bereavement-related web sites: one for humans (Always Remembered,, and a similar site where humans can honor their dearly departed companion animals (Angel Pawprints,
To learn more about Kelly, or to send her an email, visit her personal web site at

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