Typography tips for poster design

I used to design type posters almost every­day; now it’s mainly brochures and reports. Recently I was won­der­ing if my process is solid enough to meet both needs – and more impor­tantly, how many design crimes are included in that process. Ideally I should have reviewed all my design projects, with my nose in a good typog­ra­phy manual. What actu­ally hap­pened was, I opened a new art­board on my com­puter and started doing what­ever, paus­ing to jot down any thoughts or ques­tions. (Turns out, I really miss making posters.) So here is my jum­bled, crowded report. 

Choose your page. 

Even if you hate plan­ning, you can’t avoid this step. Digital posters are usu­ally square, because that works across all social media. Paper prints often use the ISO series (A4, A3, and so on) which imposes a unique ratio on your layout. Even so, you still have to choose between por­trait and land­scape. Each has a dif­fer­ent effect on the layout.

Paper also influ­ences your colour options. Stock paper usu­ally comes in white, so that’s always your default. If you can work with white paper, do it; skip all the fuss. But since design is about com­mu­ni­cat­ing intent, it’s always tempt­ing to run away from the default. That’s fine: for starters, fill the page with black. This makes every­thing on the page jump at the eye, appear­ing to exist in a vacuum. 

Use as much con­trast as possible. 

This applies to colour, to sizing, to text ori­en­ta­tion. If your back­ground is black, your most impor­tant state­ment should be in white, or yellow. If your body copy is 24 pt, make your head­line at least 72. But you’ll prob­a­bly like what you get when you jump straight to 240, or expand to the very edge of the page. If the head­line isn’t play­ing nice with the body copy (‘DIY’ is such a short block, it spoils the bal­ance) rotate it by a sig­nif­i­cant amount. When each block has an axis to itself, they don’t dis­turb each other.

Aim for solid colour fills.

Expanding on colour: posters should be printed in spot colour when­ever pos­si­ble, not process. Spot colours come in exact tones, usu­ally spec­i­fied by the Pantone chart. Process colours are cre­ated with halftones – that is, by print­ing tiny Cyan (blue), Magenta (sort of pur­plish red) Yellow and Black (called K for some reason I forget) dots next to each other. This means that it’s hard to create a solid block of colour, and your shapes can’t have an ideal def­i­n­i­tion at the edges. If you’re run­ning small dig­i­tal print­ing jobs, you can cheat by spec­i­fy­ing one of the four colours (for blue, use 100% C with the other three values at 0). Your printer may hate you though. For reg­u­lar process colours, make sure that one of the four pig­ments is at 100%, for at least one full spread of ink. Another tip: you can’t achieve a really rich black with just 100%K. I usu­ally add a little Cyan or Magenta to give it depth.

(Note: if more than three pig­ments pass 70%, your print may over-sat­u­rate and bleed ink.)

Get used to low­er­case lettering.

Sentence case… Title Case… ALL CAPS. Your letter case can make a big dif­fer­ence to your design. The lower-case alpha­bet used to form a com­plete writ­ing system, sep­a­rate from the cap­i­tals. Capitals were devel­oped for stone-carv­ing, lower-case was cre­ated from hand­writ­ing. So nat­u­rally, lower-case is more approach­able. It’s easier to work with caps because all the heights line up nicely into a rec­tan­gle, but you’d be losing visual inter­est. You want curves swoop­ing up and down. If you want, you can even lose the first capital.

Find a good font. 

It’s a typo­graphic poster, remem­ber. Start with the feel of your mes­sage: serif or sans-serif? Sans-serif is usu­ally less dec­o­ra­tive, no small dashes at the ends of the ver­ti­cal strokes. This has been the graphic design default for decades. If you’re on a Mac, you have Avenir and Helvetica as system fonts, so you’re good to go. If you’re on Windows, you have its poor cousin, Arial (I per­son­ally prefer Calibri). But since you’re online, go to Google Fonts and grab Archivo, IBM Plex, Fira Sans, and Libre Franklin (my go-to for years). I also love the fonts from the League of Moveable Type, espe­cially League Spartan. 

For the black poster above, I used Jost, a remix of the Futura font, because I wanted straight lines and sharp edges. The red and yellow poster uses League Gothic from the League of Moveable Type, because it has nice long letter stems that I could edit for even more length. If you want curves to play with, then con­sider Archivo or Fira Sans. 

Don’t just Google for ‘free fonts’. Really, don’t. You’ll just get badly-drawn alpha­bets that don’t include punc­tu­a­tion marks or num­bers. (Some design­ers lock cer­tain glyphs in the free ver­sion; others just don’t bother making them.) A good font should have a full char­ac­ter set. It’s always better to use fam­i­lies of fonts, because you get dif­fer­ent weights: a thin, a medium, and a bold, at the very least. Good fam­i­lies also give you con­densed and expanded ver­sions, ital­ics, small caps, old-style numer­als, and spe­cial lig­a­tures (join­ings between let­ters, like fi and tt). One more thing: a lot of so-called free fonts are marked ‘per­sonal use only’. You’ll want to check your license before you pack every­thing up for your clients.

Check your spac­ing and your kerning. 

Especially for free fonts, you may have to adjust the spac­ing between let­ters. As you increase text size, the let­terspac­ing also goes up, but large text needs less space than small text. Adjust accord­ingly. General rule: check the coun­ters of your let­ters (such as, the neg­a­tive space in the letter ‘o’). Your space should­n’t be more than that, unless you’re aiming for some vibe. If let­ters are touch­ing, it’s too close. Again, you can do this delib­er­ately. I often use extra-wide spac­ing with all-caps text, which by default needs more allowance than lower-case.

That’s let­terspac­ing, which affects all of your text. There’s also kern­ing, which we use to adjust awk­ward letter com­bi­na­tions. (Consider the word awk­ward – the space between the ‘w’ and the ‘k’ usu­ally needs some work.) Good kern­ing is a black art that takes a lot of expe­ri­ence and taste to acquire, but here’s a useful tip: don’t touch the first and last let­ters in the word you’re kern­ing, just dis­trib­ute the space between let­ters until it feels even. Also, some design­ers swear by flip­ping the text upside down, so that the eye can judge the shapes with­out being biased by the famil­iar­ity of a word. Honestly, I just use ‘auto-kern’ unless it’s a huge head­line, or a word­mark logo.

Fun fact: if you man­u­ally kern a 500-word essay, you auto­mat­i­cally join the Illustrati. 

And then there’s line-spac­ing – the ver­ti­cal gap between lines. You prob­a­bly don’t want to have enough space for a whole line to fit in your gaps, and you don’t want your ver­ti­cal strokes touch­ing. (Imagine having p on one line, d on the next; if the line-height is too small, they’ll get in each oth­er’s way.) Every font has its own sweet spot, but you’re prob­a­bly safe with 150% of your text size; for 10-point text, lead­ing would be 15 points. (My default used to be 120%; imag­ine that.) As with letter-spac­ing, body text needs more room than large text.

There is a simple prin­ci­ple behind all these rules: keep things orga­nized, keep things uni­form. Put all related text in the same box, and apply uni­ver­sal set­tings to them. Don’t get fancy and change things on a whim; build rhythms and pat­terns that make sense for the whole piece of text.

Mind the body. 

If you have at least a hun­dred words, start your text size from 10 points. The MS Word default used to be 12, but print­ers have gotten sharper, and good fonts now have spe­cial adap­ta­tions for small text. You can go all the way down to 6 points, and people should still read it fine. It helps to make your head­line size a mul­ti­ple of your body text size. Don’t mind if you have a wide margin around your layout. As long as it feels right, sur­round­ing white­space is a plus, not a problem.

The ideal para­graph should be rel­a­tively narrow, around 7 – 12 words wide. This makes the text more read­able, and more man­age­able as a layout ele­ment. If you have to use a wider column of text, add some extra line-spac­ing to air things out. If the text is long, try using mul­ti­ple columns. Don’t let two con­sec­u­tive lines end with a hyphen if you can help it; three hyphen-end­ings per para­graph is a good limit. You can avoid hyphen­ation by using normal align­ment, and adding line breaks your­self with the Enter key. Don’t abuse the bold and italic, unless you want to make the text look jumpy.

What we’re aiming for is the ideal of typo­graphic colour – get­ting the text block to feel like it’s woven into the page. When the font is too airy and light, you tighten up the spac­ing. When every line is thick and brood­ing, you spread things out. Just keep every­thing light and even between the text and back­ground. You can try squint­ing at your page: every­thing should look nice and gray, no dark or light spots.

To jus­tify or not to justify? 

Some clients will spec­ify that you should align both ends of your text; they feel it looks cleaner. Hospitals look cleaner than hotels, but who wants to market their con­sumer prod­ucts in a hos­pi­tal lobby? Left-aligned or ragged-right text has a straight back­bone on the left, and a nice flow­ing edge on the right. (The rag is the uneven edge; the straight edge is called ‘flush’). For right-aligned, this bal­ance is flipped. The first option is how we nat­u­rally write in our books. The second is often useful for dis­tin­guish­ing cap­tions from normal text. (Tip: always put the straight edge of the text box next to photos and other boxy ele­ments.) I’ve also set full para­graphs in right-aligned text. It def­i­nitely gets atten­tion. You need to tidy your ragged edge your­self, keep­ing it random – make sure that three lines never slope in the same direction.

But when you need to jus­tify, remem­ber that this is the kind of thing that humans do better than machines. Don’t leave glar­ing gaps in your text. If you get a big hole on this line, make sure no holes come in the same place on the line above or the one below. Keep things read­able, adding hyphens and line breaks when nec­es­sary. As for cen­tered text – it needs a lot of white­space, it’s harder to read, and even when it works, it looks del­i­cate. Think it through carefully.

Watch your punctuation. 

By default, your quo­ta­tion marks will actu­ally be teardrop-shaped prime marks, which are math­e­mat­i­cal sym­bols for feet and inches. Find out how to turn on real typog­ra­phers’ quotes, which look like sixes and nines. For best align­ment of block text, quote marks and list bul­lets should be shifted to the left, so that the text in the list aligns with the rest of the para­graph. However, this is pretty dif­fi­cult to do with­out pro­fes­sional desk­top pub­lish­ing software. 

Prune your text. 

Here’s a fact: seri­ous design­ers spend a lot of time rewrit­ing text, or nego­ti­at­ing for changes. On the ego side, most killer posters only use one head­line phrase with two or three neat blocks for small text. (That’s a simple, sure-fire for­mula.) On the prac­ti­cal side, you can fix an awk­ward line by replac­ing a long word with a short one. You can delete repeated phrases to shorten your text, espe­cially when you’re close to your page limit… Maybe this seems extreme; still you’ll need to stan­dard­ize for­mat­ting every day. Many writ­ers have bad habits when it comes to bold­face, under­lin­ing and ital­ics, so you can either pick one format for empha­sis, or you can send it back for a rewrite. If the doc­u­ment has seven head­ing levels you will have to fix the text. As for tables and lists… Trust me, edit­ing is often more rea­son­able than dec­o­rat­ing the prob­lem. Because a flow­ery mess is worse than a humble one.

Finally… do one crazy thing.

Just one, and it does­n’t have to be a whole type illus­tra­tion. (I was just copy­ing this Paul Renner trib­ute poster.) One simple choice is a full-bleed head­line (one big enough to touch both sides of the page), but you can also set a whole para­graph in full-bleed. A flat shadow on your head­line could change every­thing. Or you can make some­thing semi-trans­par­ent. Just give your­self a one-sen­tence mis­sion, and make sure that it does­n’t start fight­ing the main message. 


Well, that’s every­thing. I hope there are some help­ful reminders in here, but if you’re truly new to typog­ra­phy, you’ll need some­thing with struc­ture. I rec­om­mend Butterick’s Practical Typography – includ­ing ways to handle type in MS Word. Fonts​.com has a sim­i­lar col­lec­tion, maybe less opin­ion­ated. There’s also these two short PDFs cre­ated by Tim Brown and Adobe Fonts. Behance is your friend, Pinterest is your teacher. 

If you need fonts (I mean usable fonts, not the ones that you got from some shady zip folder) simply go to Beautiful Web Type and down­load every­thing. But prob­a­bly delete your hun­dreds of bad ones first, to save headaches later. Also, it’s good to have favourite fonts, espe­cially for lots of text. It takes time to figure each font out, so use your cham­pi­ons when­ever you can.

May the font be with you.

P.S.: If you want to read the text I used for the last two posters, here you go.