Typography in the 21st Century


Effective typography quietly achieves the goal of being engaging, artistic and unequivocal. If it’s well done, you may not even know how deliberate the placement of type on the page is. If it’s lacking, however, you will certainly notice the negative effects of badly-constructed typography. Beyond being merely ineffective, bad typography can have undesirable, possibly harmful consequences. Typography in the digital age has turned even the layperson into a designer, capable of influence, persuasion and amusement, all at the click of a mouse.

Good typography can make good writing better, allowing the reader to focus on the substance behind the written word. Along that line, being keenly aware of your audience is critical to successful writing; keeping the reader’s attention is the objective for any composition. Without that, the message becomes meaningless.

Typography is a critical element of the appeal of text, more now than ever before. Information is available, sometimes to a dizzying degree, 24 hours a day, and readers (slash consumers, slash constituents, slash spectators, etc.) are forced to develop a filter for information that is relevant, meaningful, and essential, not to mention pleasing. Bigger and “louder” doesn’t necessarily equal better where messaging is concerned. That goes for the printed word, too.[i]

Foundations of Typography

The fundamental goal of typography is to create print that is intelligible, decipherable and aesthetically compelling. Wikipedia defines typography as “the art and technique of arranging type to make written language legible, readable, and appealing when displayed.”[ii] Legibility refers to the reader’s ability to decipher one character from another, while readable means that the text is comprehensible. Note the use of the word “art” to describe the arrangement of type; not limited to decorative writing like calligraphy, the practice of producing captivating and convincing print is an artistic endeavor on its own.

To break it down further, there are elements of typography that are often, mistakenly, used interchangeably. There is a difference between typeface, which is a set of fonts that share common design features, and font, referring to one particular size and style of a typeface. Typefaces and fonts vary in their legibility and readability; there is research on this topic dating back over a century. As we understand more about the brain and the science of perception, and the practice of typography becomes more ubiquitous due to digitization, there is increasing emphasis on making text accessible and useful for people with visual impairments or processing disorders like dyslexia.

Other typographical essentials include:

  • Point size, the unit of measure for font size and line spacing
  • Line spacing, or the distance between lines, historically called “leading” because strips of lead were inserted in frames between lines of type to maintain consistent positioning
  • Line length: optimal line length for readability is considered to be 50 to 70 characters[iii]
  • Letter spacing and “kerning,” or the perceived spacing between pairs of letters which can be particularly important to comprehension[iv]
  • Type design, style and appearance

With the omnipresence of computers and digital devices, typography as a practice has shifted rapidly and dramatically over the past couple of decades, but its significance has not diminished. Consider the font approved for use by the Federal Highway Administration, ClearView Hwy®. Extensive studies[v] were conducted to determine how signage on the highway would be most legible and readable for the greatest number of people, with the hypothesis that clearly read road signs contribute to increased safety on the road, possibly saving lives. Thankfully, most typographers don’t have life and death implications to take into account, but this example illustrates the scope and influence that typography has on modern methods of communication.

History and Evolution

With the invention of the moveable metal-type printing press in Europe in 1450, Johannes Gutenberg is often seen as a catalyst for the Renaissance and the Age of Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution, the Protestant Revolution, advances in modern science and universal education. The printing press and the subsequent widespread access to information and knowledge was a vital part of the growth and explosion of modern western culture, much like the internet has been in the Information Age.[vi]

In actuality, moveable type has been traced back to AD 1040 China, when porcelain tiles were used to print books. Moveable type technology was mostly limited to Asia for centuries before becoming widespread in Europe in the 15th century, and from there, it spread across the globe.[vii]

In the early days of printing, typefaces were designed to mimic handwritten script and formal styles of writing.[viii] This practice held for centuries, and only in the 20th century with the rise of computers and widespread access to word processing, digital design and internet publishing has typography as an art form begun to stray from its fairly conservative roots and enter the mainstream.

Why Does Typography Matter?

Typography at its basic level is the arrangement of printed words. Why be concerned with the arrangement of letters and words? What’s the purpose? As we’ve discussed, effective communication requires that the words be legible and readable, and arranged in such a way that they convey the message that the writer intends. When you take that to the next level, it opens up a world of possibilities beyond practical and instructional communication. Typography can convey emotion, project authority, evoke uneasiness, organize information, and tell a story, depending upon the intent of the creator.

There is some controversy surrounding whether or not good typography should be invisible. There are situations like the one noted above, the highway font, where the evidence is clear: creating the most plainly legible and comprehensible lettering for road signs is a scientifically proven way to aid the flow of traffic and thus increase safety on the road. Moreover, it’s evident that the very reason typography has adapted and thrived in all forms of media, for centuries, is because it is so essential to communicating a point.

Beatrice Warde, the celebrated 20th century typographer, wrote a famous essay titled, The Crystal Goblet, in which she postulated that typography, like a glass, should be an invisible vessel for the information on the page: simple, unobtrusive and disciplined.[ix] Warde was a voice for the movement toward humility and modernism, offering a pared-down view of print as “a window” through which the mind was distilled as opposed to part of the art form itself.

With the rise of mass media communications and the Computer Age, the pendulum seems to have swung back toward the middle. The vessel is almost as important as the substance in many ways, as typography can form an immediate impression on the viewer, which is increasingly critical with so much competing noise. In his response to The Crystal Goblet, typographer Matthew Butterick wrote:

Ul­ti­mately, the flaw in the crys­tal-gob­let metaphor is its re­liance on the creaky, mis­lead­ing idea that sub­stance and pre­sen­ta­tion ex­ist on sep­a­rate lay­ers. On that view, the high­est call­ing of pre­sen­ta­tion is to get out of sub­stance’s way.

But that’s never been true on the page (or screen). Why not? Be­cause the writ­ten word is a fu­sion of text and ty­pog­ra­phy, sub­stance and pre­sen­ta­tion. In that re­gard, ty­pog­ra­phy might be more like sea­son­ing in a casse­role: it doesn’t change the nu­tri­tional value, but it def­i­nitely makes the dish more fla­vor­ful and enjoyable.[x]

Typography is a unique medium in that it can influence or diminish the significance of what it communicates. Because the typographer can manipulate the context, understanding that power is critical to effective messaging and writing.

Typography in the Digital Age


The task of the typographer has changed tremendously with the proliferation of computers, website construction, devices, phones and 24-hour access to information across mass media outlets. Good design is more important than ever before in differentiating one message from another. In fact, typography in the Digital Age is often referred to as “information design” because of the macro- and micro-applications affecting overall text structure as well as detailed aspects of type and spacing.[xi]

In addition to readability and legibility, user interface has also become a critical aspect of effectual typography. Ease of use and universal access are complementary yet key aspects of information design, especially when “keeping the reader’s attention” remains the primary intent.

Some primary guidelines when considering good information design include:

  • Keep number of fonts to a minimum
  • Ensuring proper font size and weight
  • Justify left and avoid “gaps” in text that may cause a “river effect” on the page
  • Use fonts with distinguishable characters
  • Avoid all caps; it greatly delays the speed of scanning and reading
  • Be aware of color, background and contrast

Every year there are new innovations and trends in typography that emerge, like hand-written typeface, (harkening back to the days of Blackletter), overlay, and geometric typography.[xii] Trends in digital typography fluctuate with the times just as in the days of moveable type, but the goal remains the same: the construction of a compelling, evocative piece of work that delivers the creator’s message.

[i] Butterick, Matthew. Butterick’s Practical Typography. (2016) Retrieved from https://practicaltypography.com/

[ii] Typography. (n.d.). In Wikipedia. Retrieved October 22, 2018 from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Typography#Text_typefaces

[iii] Franz, Laura. “Size Matters: Balancing Line Length and Font Size in Responsive Web Design”. Smashing Magazine. 29 September 2014. Retrieved 20 October 2018 from https://www.smashingmagazine.com/2014/09/balancing-line-length-font-size-responsive-web-design/

[iv] Kliever, Janie. (n.d.). “A Beginner’s Guide to Kerning Like a Designer”. Retrieved 24 October 2014 from https://www.canva.com/learn/kerning/

[v] Legibility Studies. ClearView Hwy. Retrieved from http://clearviewhwy.com/ResearchAndDesign/legibilityStudies.php

[vi] Littlejohn, Amanda. (15 December 2017). “Johannes Gutenberg and the Printing Press: Social & Cultural Impact. Owlcation. Retrieved from https://owlcation.com/humanities/Johannes-Gutenberg-and-the-Printing-Press-Revolution

[vii] Moveable type. (n.d.). In Wikipedia. Retrieved 24 January 2018 from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Movable_type

[viii] Blackletter. (n.d.). In Wikipedia. Retrieved 22 January 2018 from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blackletter

[ix] Warde, Beatrice. (1955). The Crystal Goblet: Why Typography Should Be Invisible. Retrieved from http://gmunch.home.pipeline.com/typo-L/misc/ward.htm

[x] Butterick, Matthew. (2016) Drowning the Crystal Goblet. Butterick’s Practical Typography. Retrieved from https://practicaltypography.com/drowning-the-crystal-goblet.html

[xi] “Web Design is 95% Typography”. (2006) Retrieved from https://ia.net/topics/the-web-is-all-about-typography-period/

[xii] Jessie. (25 September 2017). Typography Trends in Web Design 2017. Hackernoon. Retrieved from https://hackernoon.com/typography-trends-in-web-design-2017-11cf71f82341


About Daria Costello

Costello has a background in counseling and education. She is Director of Corporate Relations and IMPACT Projects at UC Davis. Her B.A. is in Psychology, University of California, Los Angeles.