Basic Tips for Direct Mail Typography
If you’re not a graphic designer but are somehow responsible for creating your company’s direct mail piece, let me introduce you to an important concept: typography. It’s kind of a big deal. Many designers literally obsess over it and there are entire books and websites that are fully dedicated to the adoration of this often unnoticed aspect of design.
Basically, typography is the art of type (text). Or, depending on your point of view, it could also be called the science of type. Perhaps it’s both.
Regardless, typography is one of the most fundamental elements of design (modern or otherwise). Unfortunately, it is also one of the most overlooked elements too – especially among amateur and DIY designers, who typically focus their efforts on graphics and, to a lesser degree, layout (though good layout is actually very much wrapped up with good typography).
That being said, this article is prepared as a sort of primer on the very basic things you can potentially do to improve typography and avoid some basic blunders that could have a detrimental effect on your mailers.
A Quick Word on Fonts
Before getting into a discussion about better typography, though, I want to take a few moments to talk about fonts. To be really technical, you never chose a font to use in a design. You chose a typeface.
Back in the days when type was actually set with individual metal (or sometimes wooden) characters called sorts, a font actually referred to a very specific set of characters. So a set of 9-point Garamond would be one font, while another complete set of 12-point Garamond would be another font. Likewise, an italic set would be a different font from a roman (normal) set.
In today’s computer age, however, the term “font” has taken on a somewhat different meaning. In our contemporary context, a font has come to represent a computer file containing information for each of the characters in a particular set. Because this information is generally vector based, today’s fonts are entirely size-independent and can be scaled up or scaled down at will.
A typeface, on the other hand, essentially represents an entire family of glyphs and characters. Thus, if you look at all the different Arial fonts that you likely have on your computer, they would all be variations of the same basic typeface. Generally speaking, a typeface is united by common shapes, proportions and other key features that remain recognizable through all of its variations.
In many ways, this point comes down to little more than semantics these days, since the terms “font” and “typeface” are being used with an ever increasing interchangeably. However, the distinction does have a certain important bearing on our next point.
Mix With Caution and Restraint
One of the hallmarks of poor typography might very well be getting a little typeface happy and using a wide range of different types across a single piece. This is something that should really be avoided since, in the vast majority of cases, it tends to result in a layout that is more confusing than genuinely interesting.
There are, admittedly, some truly exceptional designs that make use of several different typefaces, but these are few and far between and generally require a very deliberate and intentional thought process that only really works in certain circumstances. As such, it’s probably best to just avoid it.
Instead, I would recommend restricting yourself to no more than two or three different typefaces at the most. You can use one for your body text, one for your headings and, if necessary, possibly one other for subheadings or callouts. I think that 99% of the time you won’t need any more than that.
Also, please notice that I am talking about typefaces here, not fonts. This is where the difference between these two concepts becomes important. Generally speaking, bolding a section of text means drawing from a different font file. However, since you are actually staying within the same typeface, this would not count against the recommended 2-3 typeface restriction. Nor would the use of italics, condensed or black variations, all of which can be used to add weight and emphasis to body copy.
Contrast in Shape
If you do elect to use multiple typefaces in a design, one thing that I would strongly suggest would be to use typefaces with a strong contrast between their unique appearances. For instance, you would not want to use Georgia for the title and Garamond for the body.
While this doesn’t look all that bad, these two fonts are similar enough to make them almost indistinguishable from each other, unless you are really looking for the differences. If this is the case, then what’s the point of varying the typeface at all? Moreover, for the few who may actually notice the difference, the similarities could almost make the choice seem more accidental than anything else.
Instead, try using typefaces that really contrast against each other. For example, on one recent mailer that I worked on, I used Garamond for my titles and Arial for my body copy.
Because one is a serif typeface and the other is a sans-serif, there is a clear visual distinction between them. This makes the difference seem much more natural and intentional.
Speaking of serifs, there is a generally held belief that using serif fonts for longer passages of text actually helps increase legibility and readability – at least for printed material. However, I have also read some articles that suggest that it doesn’t make a difference at all, and that both serif and sans serif fonts can be equally readable.
I’m certainly not going to tell you that you have to choose one or the other, but I will say that this general assumption has become something of an accepted convention for larger blocks of printed text. So, if your direct marketing piece has extended blocks of copy, you may want to at least consider using a serif font.
On the other hand, there is also a school of thought that suggests that using sans serif fonts presents a more contemporary and professional image. This way of thinking likely stems from two different sources. First, while sans serif type is certainly not a modern invention, serif typefaces certainly have a much more classical feel. So, through a simple matter of contrast, the sans serif variety seems to have a more contemporary and modern feel to it.
This is further compounded by the fact that, due to issues of screen resolution, sans serif typefaces tend to be the font of choice for web design. This association with the internet also tends to emphasize the modern quality of the sans serif font.
Ultimately, the choice of whether to use a serif or a sans serif font is left up to you, but hopefully you now have a bit more knowledge to help you make an informed decision.
Over the years, I have seen a strong tendency towards over-centring text in layouts. Many people seem to believe that it provides a quick way to add visual interest. I would recommend, however, that while centring can be an effective technique, it should be applied with a great deal of caution and restraint.
By and large, centring should be reserved for elements like:
- Short captions
As a general rule of thumb, avoid centring body copy, or any other block of text more than a few lines long. The problem with this is that the ragged left margin of centred text tends to disrupt the natural pattern of reading from left to right. Over the span of a few lines, this isn’t such a big deal. Over larger blocks of text, however, it can become very difficult to read.
The over use of centring can also make a piece look really jagged and unordered, especially if there is a large variation in line lengths. Most of the time, simple left alignment will work just fine, so unless you have a specific reason for changing the alignment, I recommend keeping it aligned to the left.
Obviously, there is a whole lot more that we could say about typography, but we’ll wrap it up here. Hopefully some of these concepts and ideas will prove useful to you the next time you begin developing a direct marketing piece. In the meantime, if you are looking for information about typography in general, please check out some of these awesome resources:
- Typography – Wikipedia – Read all about the history and concepts behind typography.
- A 20 Minute Intro to Typography Basics – a great article that covers more technical typographical concepts.
- Improving typography through space – a really interesting article that discusses the importance of using proper space in typography
- I Love Typography – A blog dedicated entirely to the art of typography
- Typography Served – a gallery of awesome typography-based designs