Using Type in Design: How to Avoid the Most Common Mistakes

by The Creative Cloud Team

posted on 01-11-2018

Ask any designer, and they will agree, without question, that type is one of the most important aspects of design. Dan Rhatigan, senior manager of Adobe Type, aka type expert extraordinaire, says, “Type is the most flexible part of your design. It can connect someone’s experience from seeing just a few words to seeing an elaborate composition of text, color, photography, and more. The trick is that type is how you convey information explicitly — with words — as well as implicitly — conveying tone and meaning with the style of typeface.”

Learning how to navigate the subtle play between the explicit and implicit conveyance of information is key to mastering use of type. There are thousands of fonts to choose from — and more fonts created all of the time. Even experienced designers can make mistakes. For your easy reference, Dan has helped us outline how to avoid the most common font mistakes.

1. Pay attention to proper quote marks and dashes.

Did you know there are three lengths of dashes? The en dash (–), em dash (—), and hyphen (-). There is even a grammatically correct use for each of them. Likewise, there are right and left quotation marks and apostrophes. Too many designers allow computers to take the wheel instead of paying close attention to how they are using these punctuation marks.

“Sure, people can follow along if you use ‘dumb’ (that is, the default keyboard style) marks instead of left and right quote marks or apostrophes,” Dan says, “but the proper marks are a typographic detail that can help you avoid ambiguity and show that you care about the text. The same for dashes — a long dash, like the em dash, gives the reader a helpful visual pause in a way that an incorrectly used hyphen can’t.”

Paying close attention to these little details are the things that will set your use of type apart, and give clarity and readability to your design.

2. Use Ligatures!

Some letters have features that collide with one another visually (such as “fi” and “fl”). Ligatures are an easy way that font makers found to avoid this when setting type that has translated to digital fonts. This one is an easy fix.

“Check to make sure you have the OpenType feature for ligatures turned on to avoid letter collisions that a type designer may have anticipated,” Dan says. His quick tip? Make sure everything looks smooth when you type “flying fish” so you don’t get caught with your letters colliding (because that could get awkward).

3. Know when to apply tracking.

In typography, letter-spacing, usually called tracking by typographers, refers to a consistent degree of increase or decrease of space between letters in a line or block of text. While tracking can be useful, don’t use it or features such as InDesign’s “optical kerning” when working with script typefaces where the letters are meant to connect. This automation can get you in trouble, and create weird spacing issues that no one wants to see or read.

“Trust that the type designer has solved these spacing issues correctly, or make a manual adjustment to a tricky pair, if necessary,” Dan says.

4. Make sure you have enough space between the lines.

Line spacing is key to guiding a reader’s eye and legibility. Nothing is harder to read than a paragraph whose lines are so close together that the g’s and p’s are running into the b’s and d’s below them.

Dan says, “Leading or line-height settings should be generous enough to do more than making sure one line’s descenders don’t knock into the next line’s ascenders or accent marks. The space between lines also helps the reader’s eye find their way from the end of one line to the start of the next, and the wider your paragraph, the clearer that guiding strip of space needs to be.”

Remember — too little space can greatly affect legibility, and too much space can cause confusion. It’s all about that balance.

5. Take a chance with your type choices!

One of the greatest mistakes people make when using type is getting in a rut or following trends a little too closely. When a certain style of typeface is flooding the internet, it might not be a good choice for your next design as much as it is a lazy choice. Don’t get trapped by the trends.

“You still have to find something that’s readable and can convey the right tone for your design,” Dan says, “but with so many font choices available through Typekit or elsewhere, why not try a little harder to find something fresh and distinctive to use?” The font you discover on your own may be just what you need to set your design apart.

Fortunately, there are hundreds of fonts to choose from and plenty of advice on how to choose a font for your design. Couple that with the new Variable Fonts feature and the possibilities are endless.

“Variable fonts allow you to do both very dramatic or very subtle things, depending on your needs,” Dan says. “You can create custom styles that may be more distinctive than the default ones — stretch and squeeze text to fit a space without distortion, or even make very subtle adjustments to make things easier to read depending on the color relationships in a design, or the size of text used.” With Variable fonts, virtually any font can work in a design with a few pointed adjustments.

Dan’s final advice? “All the typographic ‘rules’ you hear about aren’t really rules — they’re guidelines,” he says, “and they’ve usually grown out of years of problems that others have solved. However, that doesn’t mean they should bind you like a straight jacket. They’re a good way to get you started while you figure out how to break those rules and try out some new things for yourself.”

Learn more about using fonts in your designs, and discover more about Variable Fonts and how to use them.

Topics: Creativity, Creative Inspiration & Trends, Design, Illustration, Typography

Products: Creative Cloud, Spark