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elements-of-typographic-style-front-preview.gifThere are two types of people in the world: those who can tell the difference between Helvetica and Arial, and those who can’t. If you fall in the latter category, and are typographically-challenged, you are not alone.

Based on portfolios I reviewed for the AIGA’s Portfolio Day recently, even many design schools fail to teach students how to set type. Fortunately, you don’t have to hide in shame any longer. These sources can help you improve your typography (and font identification) skills.


New books on typography litter bookstore shelves every year. Most are coffee table books with pretty pictures and hefty price tags. Others are esoteric and impenetrable. Avoid the mess, and get these two:

  • The Elements of Typographic Style Robert Bringhurst’s The Elements of Typographic Style is a bible for many designers and typographers. Think of it as the Strunk and White for typography. Some topics covered include principles and rules of thumb for rhythm, proportion, kerning, punctuation, and choosing typefaces. If you could only own one book on making type look better, this is it.
  • Stop Stealing Sheep Another classic, Stop Stealing Sheep by Erik Spiekerman and E.M. Ginger, is a good first introduction to typography. The book is, arguably, more accessible than Bringhurst’s. It’s shorter and has pictures.

Font identification tools

See a typeface you like, but don’t know what it is or where to get it? These can help:

  • Identifont This site helps you identify an unfamiliar typeface through a series of questions. Each question narrows the number of potential matches and similar typefaces. Once you find a match, the site provides historic information about the typeface and buying options if available.com
  • What the Font? Whatthefont.com lets you upload an image of the typeface in question. A magical process behind the scenes analyzes the image and presents you with possible matches.

Web typography tools and resources

Despite the constraints of the web, it is possible to make type look decent online:

  • The Elements of Typographic Style Applied to the Web Richard Rutter’s in-progress website is an adaptation of Bringhurst’s principles for the web.
  • Typetester Typetester allows you see how a body paragraph might look set in different ways. Once you find the settings you like, it generates a CSS stylesheet for use on your website.
  • A List Apart The typography section of A List Apart’s site has a range of articles on using CSS and other web technologies for better typography. The articles are well written, clear, and accessible. Anyone who makes websites should check this site regularly.

Join the club

Typography can really bring out the hidden obsessive-compulsive disorder in you. Fortunately, there are support groups:

  • Typographica A daily blog with news and opinions about typography.
  • Typophile A popular discussion site, frequented by many type designers and connoisseurs.
Helvetica or Arial? Still don’t know the difference?
  • The quiz First, take the Helvetica or Arial quiz.
  • The difference Next, read Mark Simonson’s explanation with pictures! Now you really don’t have to live in shame.


  • Chris Adams

    gravatarJul 3, 2006
    1:06 pm

    Last week I spent 3 hours in Barnes and Noble. 1 hour I spent wandering around looking for books on Typography. finally I asked for help, and even then it took another 40 minutes to find an associate who could show me where they were.

    After browsing all 3 of the books they had, I realized that they were all crap: Coffee-table books.

    Thank you for taking the time to research the books listed above, you have literaly made my week.

  • Chanpory

    gravatarJul 3, 2006
    9:40 pm

    Chris, glad you found this helpful. It’s really a shame to see the dearth of decent books on typography and design in bookstores. Good luck in your typographic quest!

  • George

    gravatarJul 6, 2006
    9:46 am

    I’d also recommend looking at Phil Baines’ book Type & Typography, which carries a lot of useful information and provides thorough (and useful) historical context.

  • oscar

    gravatarJul 13, 2006
    10:19 am

    I would recommend Ellen Lupton’s Thinking with Type over Stop Stealing Sheep, but they’re both good books.