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5 Typography Secrets to Transform Your Designs

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Read Time: 7 min

At the heart of any great print design is beautiful, well-executed typography. The difference between ho-hum text and type that knocks your socks off is often surprisingly subtle. A small tweak to kerning or sticking to a tried-and-tested rule of combination (read on to find out more) can make a world of difference, taking your designs from mediocre to marvellous in an instant!

Here we look at the five secrets that pro designers always turn to when they need to refine their typography.

Looking for a new font to add to your collection? Discover a huge range of amazing typefaces, from hand-lettered beauties to minimal sans serifs, over on GraphicRiver

1. Kern Upside Down

Kerning refers to the space between two individual letters or characters. Designers will often increase or reduce the kerning to improve the overall symmetry and aesthetic appeal of a word. 

Google’s infamous logo redesign back in 2014 is the oft-quoted example of the subtle yet transformative power of kerning. 

In your chosen software, you will probably have an option for adjusting kerning. In Adobe InDesign, you can find it up on the Character Formatting Controls panel at the top of the workspace. It’s simple to adjust the kerning between two letters by placing your type cursor between the letters and typing in or selecting a value from the kerning menu. 

kerning indesignkerning indesignkerning indesign

But here comes the big secret... you should always kern upside down.

Yep, you read that right. And here’s why. Because we are so accustomed to reading letters and forming them into words, we don’t often assess type for its purely graphic value. We can’t help reading the word first, and looking at the spacing between the letters second.

flip vertical in indesignflip vertical in indesignflip vertical in indesign
kerning upside-downkerning upside-downkerning upside-down

By flipping the text upside down, you can assess the spacing between letters more objectively, and make a decision based purely on how the shapes of the letters fit together. 

Try it next time you have a header or logo text to kern—you’ll be amazed at the difference this simple trick can make. 

2. Stick to a Strict Hierarchy

Typographic hierarchy is the glue that holds together all kinds of text-heavy layouts, from magazine articles to posters. This is the principle that you should arrange text content into a three-tiered hierarchy, which leads from the largest piece of text down to the smallest. This helps the reader to digest the content by giving a clear indication of what should be read first and what should be read last. 

When you glance at your layout, does the text appear crowded or overwhelming? This might be due to the lack of a distinct hierarchy in your design. Try splitting the text on any one page into three: a large attention-grabbing header, a smaller sub-heading or group of sub-headings, and even smaller but still legible paragraphs of body text. 

hierarchy of typographyhierarchy of typographyhierarchy of typography

This 1-2-3 rule has an instant organizational effect over any layout, helping it to feel more ordered and pleasing to the eye.

3. Contrast Your Fonts

The first of two typography ‘combination’ secrets, this tip relies on the power of teaming contrasting elements together to create interest in your typography. This prevents the design from feeling too heavily weighted in one particular style, creating something that feels modern and balanced. 

The simplest way to introduce contrast in your typography is to pair two contrasting fonts together. Pairing a serif with a sans serif is a fail-safe trick that designers often use to keep a design looking fresh and relevant. Here you can see how a traditional serif header helps to formalise the body text below and give it authority. 


In this example, the pairing is reversed, with a cleaner sans serif header adding a more modern edge to the serif text below. 

sans serifsans serifsans serif

There’s no right or wrong way to combine your fonts, but some serifs pair better with particular sans serifs and vice versa. A good rule of thumb is to choose fonts which have a similar weight to each other and aren’t markedly thicker or thinner than their teammates. 

4. Going Back in Time? Stay Within the Period

This combination secret is also a handy rule of thumb when working with typefaces from a particular time period. Many of the typefaces you come across on a daily basis won’t necessarily be recent creations—many classic fonts, like Baskerville, Helvetica, Garamond, and Arial, were designed many decades ago, and each typeface bears the hallmarks of its period. 

A typeface originally designed in the 18th Century, Baskerville, is a transitional serif, with traits that make it identifiable as being of this large font family. Helvetica, a sans serif developed in 1957, is a neo-grotesque typeface, as are Univers and Akzidenz Grotesk

neo grotesque fontsneo grotesque fontsneo grotesque fonts

With a little bit of research, you can identify the time period in which a typeface was invented, as well as the typefaces it relates to by connection of shared time period and/or font family. 

It always looks elegant and calming to use fonts from the same time period and/or font family. So if you have your heart set on using a font from a particular time period, take the time to track down its relations to join it.

5. Build a Stellar Movie Cast

This might seem a bit of an odd metaphor, but you really should choose your fonts in the same way as a director might choose actors for his movie. The actors have to be excellent at what they do, but they also have to have chemistry with the other actors in the film to make it feel believable. Each actor also brings a particular mood or energy to the cast, which helps contribute to the overall mood of the film.

In the same way, you need to select your fonts based on these three criteria—quality, chemistry with other fonts, and a suitable mood or personality. 

cast of fontscast of fontscast of fonts

Quality is the foundation of a good cast of fonts. High-quality fonts not only look beautiful, but they have high functionality, working well at most sizes and weights and when set in different colors. As with movie stars, you may need to pay more to get a better quality font. For a DiCaprio-level font, you might need to shell out for a stunning Hoefler & Co typeface. But don’t fret—some of the classics (here’s looking at you, Caslon and Garamond) have such enduring quality that you can find them already provided in your software. 

Chemistry with other fonts is essential, and it's immediately obvious when you start to pair fonts together. Look at secrets 3 and 4 above for tips on how to encourage your fonts to get along with each other.

Every typeface has a ‘mood’, whether it’s dull, exciting, playful, or sombre. We look at the shapes and lines of type and humanise this information, giving a font a particular personality. A sombre, serious actor might not be the conventional pairing for a comedic, energetic actor, and in a similar way you need to assess the mood of your chosen fonts and judge whether they add up to a concise whole. Avoid sending mixed messages out with the moods of your fonts—your layout will feel stronger and more solid if you create a unifying mood.

Follow this three-point checklist and you’ll always end up with a print layout that’s (almost) as amazing as a Scorsese classic.

Conclusion: 5 Steps to Typographic Success

Perfecting your typography doesn't need to be hard work! These five secret tips are used by designers to tweak their type when it's looking lacklustre. Let's recap the list:

  1. Kern upside down—flip your text to perfect your letter spacing objectively.
  2. Stick to a strict hierarchy—apply the 1-2-3, headline/sub-heading/body text rule.
  3. Contrast your fonts—teaming a serif with a sans serif is a good place to start.
  4. Use a group of fonts from the same time period if possible.
  5. Build a stellar movie cast for your typography—look for quality, chemistry, and mood in every one of your font choices.

Have you got any typography secrets you'd be willing to share with the Envato Tuts+ community? Leave your top tips in the comments below!

Find your next dream font from the ever-expanding selection of typefaces over on GraphicRiver

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