Graphic Design 101: Typography

Kerning, leading, orphans, oh my!

Understanding layout? Check. Tools of the trade? Check.

Now it’s time for the fun stuff, typography! Volumes upon volumes have been written on typography, and never before has the general public been so well versed in it. One quick scroll through my Pinterest feed shows me that there are tons of people obsessed with it. So lets dig in, and start with a few definitions.

Typefaces/ Fonts: If you want to get technical about it, the term we use for typefaces—‘fonts’—is really a misnomer. A font is the complete character set of a particular typeface, not the typeface (Helvetica, Bodoni, Gill Sans, etc.) itself. However ‘font’ is so widely used to describe typefaces, the terms are pretty much interchangeable at this point, but at least you’re now in the know.

Leading: Is the space between each line of text, measured from baseline to baseline of each character.

Letter-spacing or tracking: Refers to increase or decrease of distributed space between letters and words within a line or paragraph of text.

Kerning: Is the individual spacing between characters of a single word.

Flush left, flush right, centered, and justified text: You’re probably familiar with most of these terms. Flush left/right is when the text starts evenly along the same left of right edge. Centered text is not aligned to either the left or right margin; leaving an even space from the margin on each side of the line. Justified text is when the first and last letters of a line of text are aligned to both the right and left edges. Like this save the date from Printable Press.


Orphans: A single word that falls at the end of a paragraph (you want to avoid this.)

Type Styles and weights: You know these; a style is either Italic, bold or Roman (regular) and weights can range from light, to medium, to regular to bold or black depending on the font. Avoid using the program settings for bold or italic, but rather use typefaces that include multiple styles and weights in the font. This separates the amateurs from the pros.

Font Family: The major typeface families include, serif, sans-serif, script and display to name a few.

Here’s a little diagram that covers some of the major palettes for type setting in some of the tools we discussed.

Working with type

Start by picking a typeface or typefaces. Keep in mind the kind of imagery and layout you’re using and test out different looks to see if everything hangs together. There should be a nice interplay between any visual elements and the typography itself.

Some general guidelines

Script fonts invoke a romantic feel. The type along with nothing more than a subtle, textured background create an ethereal mood on this Printable Press wedding invite.


Serif fonts work for classic designs. The imagery on this invite keeps it on the romantic side, but the serif typeface adds a touch of classic formality.


For a modern look, work with sans serif typefaces. This design from my shop is entirely typography based and that, along with the use of only sans serif type gives it a strictly modern feel.


Display fonts are great for the ‘Go Big or Go Home’ designs we talked about earlier. This design from Up Up Creative, while minimal in it’s layout, uses a display font as the main visual element in the background.


For more font examples, check out this ‘Font Fun’ Pinterest board.

Try not to use more than two or three different typefaces in a design. Type pairing is an art, but a guideline is to go with contrast; pair a script font with a serif like in this Up Up Creative wedding invite.


Or contrast weights, in the case of this RSVP card, bold and light weights of the same or similar typeface add some punch.


As with layout, experiment with contrast between sizes of typographic elements, and styles of typefaces.

Kerning is important. For big typographic elements, like names on an invitation, you don’t want uneven spaces between the letters. A typography teacher once told me to imagine I was pouring a glass with the same amount of water between each letter in a word when kerning the letters. The letters may not be mathematically exact when spaced apart from each other, but need to appear so to the eye. The names in this Up Up Creative elopement announcement are a good example of well kerned text.


See the resource section at the end of this post for tools that will help you learn to kern (hey!).

When using all caps, increase your letter spacing/ tracking. All caps can be overwhelming and hard to read; spacing out the letters both increases the ‘class’ factor and keeps the text easier to read, the main text on this invite below illustrates.



There are a more resources than ever before both for fonts and to educate yourself on typography like a pro. Below are links to some great places to start.

Free fonts: A word about free fonts: free fonts abound, but like all things in life, you get what you pay for. Properly drawn fonts have built in kerning and usually contain extra glyphs and characters, which is important if your design has non-English characters (ñ,ü,ß, etc.)–free fonts often don’t. Try out all your text before you print the first item. That said, here are some of my favorites.

Google ‘free fonts’ and you’ll find tons more.

Premium Fonts: Here are some good places to go if you’re willing to part with some cash for higher quality, more characters and/or in some cases typeface weights and styles.

Typography 101 Pinterest board: A board full of cheat sheets, crib notes and other typographic goodies.

Kerntype: A super awesome (and free) online kerning game that will really give you a feel for how to kern type.

Ragtime: If you need to get good at properly setting large amounts of type (a ceremony program, for example) this game will teach you how. Mute your computer if you get stressed out easily (It’s a great game but the music made me crazy). Fontology section. If you want to really geek out, Fontology offers four detailed levels of learning, covering type history to modern digital typography. All for free!

The First Steps of Hand Lettering Class from Mary Kate McDevitt: Hand lettering is hot right now. Hand lettering is an art the sits somewhere between typography and illustration. This $20 Skillshare class will teach you the basics so you can create a one of a kind hand-drawn lettering image for totally badass wedding stationery.

Have fun, and happy lettering.

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  • Meg Keene

    I would have killed for this when we were designing our invites. That is all.

    (Not knowing this stuff is one of the reasons we needed a little help in the end. No shame in that though :)

  • meleyna

    I am somewhere between ecstasy and anxiety with this post. SO MUCH GOOD INFO. I don’t even know where to start.

    • Eleanor

      So glad to hear it! (well, except for the anxiety part!) I think once you get started, though, the anxiety will start to dissipate :)

  • KC

    It’s semi-unrelated, but always get someone who hasn’t been staring at the kerning and design FOREVER to proof whatever you’re making before you print 100 of them. Even very detail-oriented people can miss things like repeated words or misspellings when they’ve been focusing for hours on how to get the curve of *this* letter to go best with the slant of *that* letter. (note: multiple someones improve your chances of catching things like date/day mismatches and whatnot. second note: tell them you want them to doublecheck the content, not give you feedback on the design, if that’s what you want. Otherwise people tend towards the designy stuff and how they personally don’t really like orange, etc., etc., which may cause some fatalities.)

    • ElisabethJoanne

      After an organization I volunteer for had a spelling error in our save-the-dates for the big annual fundraising event, we proofed the invitations at a full board meeting of about 20 people. Most people zoned out for that part of the meeting, but it took at least 5 of us paying attention and going over and over them to catch all the mistakes. Granted, with corporate sponsors and affiliate organizations and such, our invitations had a lot more information than a wedding invitation, but still…

    • scw

      “which may cause some fatalities” hahahahahahaha

    • ART

      When my mom looked at my Save the Date, she said the numbers were too squished to read (it was Rivanna, an arts and crafts style, and she was right) and at first I was annoyed, but figured out how to stretch the characters around in a graphics program and it actually did make it way easier to read and looks fine. I would never have thought to do that without her review!

  • Nina B

    Learn from my mistake and make sure you use a really readable font for important information (like the URL for your wedding website) or risk getting lots of calls asking “is that an f or a t?” Sans-serif in lower-case tends be be easiest on the eyes.

    • Agreed! Using a script may be romantic but it is hard to read. When someone pulls your invitation out of the envelope you want them to be able to quickly and easily see what they’re being invited to.

    • Eleanor

      That is a really good point. We designers also tend to like to make fonts smaller and ‘precious’ which can be frustrating (especially for older guests) when they actually have to understand the info. Form follows function!

  • MrsM

    #1 – this post is amazeballs (and i typically despise that non-word!), #2 – where was this a year ago when i spent weeks creating our invite design, #3 – super handy for the “Masters in English? oh you’ll be perfect for this public relations/graphic design position” individual ;)

    • Meg Keene

      David suggested I could be a color consultant recently. I was like I DON’T EVEN UNDERSTAND THE COLOR WHEEL. He just didn’t know.

  • Kayjayoh

    One nice thing about fonts is that if you are not someone who cares for wedding “colors” and is putting together your wedding stationery yourself (especially in fits and starts), picking out a font that you like and sticking with it will give your stuff a unified look and feel, even if the colors vary.

    • Eleanor

      Exactly, that’s half the battle right there!

  • Michelle

    Fantastic article! I love this stuff :)

  • Maddie Eisenhart

    Y’all, that kerning game is FUN.

    • EmilyRose

      I got 96%, can one become a professional kerner?

  • MC

    and, and, and, if you’re using a script font because you like the look of calligraphy but don’t want to spend a fortune (and I say this lovingly!) — be VERY CAREFUL if you choose to use one with beautiful big loopy descenders like the heading of this article, because the descenders of that y and p and g at the start of the word are a MESS. The last half of the word is glorious but no, no, if you have a lot of descenders all grouped together, try to get a script font that gives you options for ascenders to avoid the tangled look. I know these are out there, and it will be more work, but you will get an infinitely better result.

    (or, have a calligrapher design just a few words for you – no need to have all your envelopes hand-done at a cost of $4 per envelope etc, unless you want to, I don’t want to put anyone out of work, but prices for a few words in vector format you can have printed on invitations might be a little more sensible.)

    (or, invest $10 in a pointed nib and an oblique holder, and play with letters until you have something that (a) agrees with all the typography tips set out above (spacing!) and (b) is utterly personal to you and will never be repeated for anyone because it’s yours.)

    Full disclosure: I am a calligrapher and one day I want to be a professional calligrapher, but I am not there yet.