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letterimage.pngIn the old days of digital video, choosing text for titles and other supers was easy: Arial, Times, or Comic Sans - will "size 48" work?  But as the lines have blurred between all types of creative software, we video types are constantly getting more control over our text.  And that's a good thing: a professional approach to typography improves most video, and in some cases, makes or breaks the deal.

So here's a quick glossary of font-related terms, along with a handful of best practices.

Describing Fonts:
cap height - The height of a standard capital letter, like "S" in most fonts.  See also x-height.

serif - Refers to the "little curlies" at the edges of the characters in some typefaces.  Times, Georgia, and Garamond are common that have serifs, while Arial, Helvetica, Verdana, and Tahoma are common sans-serif ("without serif") fonts. 
x-height - The height of standard lowercase letters (like "x") in a given font.  The ratio of x-height to cap height contributes a lot to a font's look and feel -- for example, fonts with a relatively large x-height (like Georgia) tend to be more readable on-screen, while fonts with a relatively small x-height (like Garamond) appear more "frail."

Manipulating Fonts for Screen:

kerning - The space between individual pairs of letters -- in Photoshop, you can adjust this by using Alt+Left Arrow or Alt+Right Arrow while typing.  Similar to tracking (see below) -- but kerning has an unexpected consequence.  Typographers "nudge" different pairs of letters to fit together nicely, and this affects different font weights (bold, normal, light, etc.) differently.

Software, especially on the PC, tends to "fake" font weights when you use the bold or italic buttons -- and these "faux" manipulations throw off the font's kerning, and therefore its aesthetic.  That's why, when you see several entries for one font ("Arial," "Arial Bold," "Arial Light"), it's better to use the appropriate weight and variant rather than relying on your software's "bold" or "italic" button.


leading - The vertical space between lines of text.  Sometimes, instead of reducing your font size (and making the text harder to read on-screen), you can squeeze that extra line onto the screen by tightening the leading in your text.

scale - Although it's almost always a bad idea, imaging software is capable of squishing text in ways it was never meant to squish, throwing off the proportions that make the font aesthetically pleasing.  If you need to adjust your text, you'll almost always get better results by using your software's text-specific tools to adjust font size, tracking, and leading than by using "resize handles" to scale the text once you've created it.
tracking - The (uniform) space between each character in a font.  Adjusting the tracking in your editing software is the easiest (and most visually appealing) way to increase the space between the characters in a word or headline - and text with higher tracking tends to be easier to read on screen.

em - In the olden days, an em-width corresponded to the width of a capital letter "M," but that's not true anymore.  Instead, in digital typography, a font's em-width that corresponds to the font's size in points.  You may come across ems in Photoshop and web work.

en - Corresponds to half an em -- and therefore, in modern typography, to half the current font size.

pica - 1/6 of an inch

point - 1/72 of an inch (or 1/12 of a pica)

If you'd like more depth on any of these topics, Wikipedia has excellent resources for typography, and I'm happy to write more if you email me suggestions to that end.

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