Why Typography Matters in Higher Education

Posted: February 16, 2016

Typography can be defined as the style, arrangement, or appearance of printed letters on a page. It’s a way of manipulating type to assist in learning and recognition.

With more competition than ever before, I believe that all higher ed marketers should at least be familiar with the basics of typography in order to make their work memorable and easy to consume. Just like everything else we do, typography is about putting your audience first.

Typography Basics

Many people often confuse font and typeface. While they are closely related and determine how your text will look, they are actually different things.

Typeface is a concept. Also called a font family, it’s a group of font attributes which all share common design elements. Some common examples of typefaces include Arial, Times New Roman, Calibri and Verdana. One of our personal favorites is Paralucent.

Paralucent Font

Font is a specific manifestation of a typeface. For example, a specific typeface can be bold, light, thin, italic, heavy, medium, etc.

Font Type Examples

Now that you understand the basic distinction between typeface and font, I’ll get more into the details. Here’s a throwback to everyone’s favorite subject in school, anatomy.

Anatomy of Typography

As you can see below, there’s a lot that goes into the formation of a single character. I won’t dig into all of the components, but I’d like to explain a few type classifications that everyone should know.

Anatomy of Typography

A serif font has decorative ends.

A sans-serif font has blunt ends, unadorned.

Serif and Sans Serif

Script is meant to imitate a fluid stroke of handwriting and provides an elegant look.

Script Font

Decorative fonts are used more for headlines and instances when true personality needs to shine.

Decorative Font

At this point, I’m sure you’re wondering why all of this impacts you, the higher ed marketer. Let me explain.

Trends in Typography

In recent years, we’ve noticed a few trends in typography that are particularly popular in higher education marketing. It’s important to be aware of these trends in order to make strategic marketing decisions.  In some cases, you may want to follow the trend. For example, when a trend enhances user experience, there’s a reason everyone is jumping on board. In other instances, a trend is simply a fad. Something that’s popular now but may fade quickly. Every institution is different, so think strategically about your goals before implementing any major design decisions.

Decorative Type

In today’s world of flat, simple website design, an institution can set their design approach apart by using boldly decorative type. While the type used for paragraphs and small text on websites should be simplistic and easy to read at any size, large and sparse text has the opportunity to be decorative. This brings energy, personality, and an individualistic flair to flat websites.

Dramatic Type Over Photo

Dramatic type overlaid on top of a high-definition photo or an HTML5 video is bold, just like decorative type. This treatment may use either small, minimalistic type in a vast sea of white space, or BIG and BOLD type spread from edge to edge. Both have the same underlying visual message of “If you have any reason to be on this website, this is it! Read me!”

NC State Admissions Hand Drawn Type

Hand Drawn Type

The novelty of text on the computer and 80’s-style pixelated texts is a thing of the past. In an increasingly organic, “where was this bok choy grown?” world, we seek authenticity. Hand-drawn type is now our novelty and communicates authenticity and transparency. It is a fun form of type, and if used sparingly, communicates particularly well to a young, hip audience.

Note: This is a perfect example of a trend that we expect will come to an end at some point in the near future. We’ve used hand drawn type in some of our recent work, but we know that in the coming years it won’t make the same impact as it does today.


Slab Serifs

In contrast to hand-drawn, free-flowing type, slab serifs get another message across. Slabs are grounded, unwavering, and collegiate. Slab serifs are best used in headers and large type. They provide a great balance between modern and authoritative, and are widely used on higher ed websites.

Open Source Fonts

There are about two thousand open source fonts provided between sites like Google Fonts and TypeKit! Open source fonts are defined by their availability on the open web. They are optimized to “wow” in just about any browser, and surprisingly, most are free!

For the Higher Ed Marketer

Higher ed has become such a competitive industry that you need to use every tool at your disposal to convince the audience that you are a serious contender. Typography is an often overlooked component of design that can make a big impact.

Good type isn’t something that usually stands out to the audience. Most people won’t look at a billboard or brochure and comment on the elegant typography. They won’t have the design knowledge to tell you why the typography is working or not. But, if used properly, they’ll remember your work as something bold or beautiful.

Staying abreast of trends in typography, as well as understanding and employing the basic principles of good typography, will help your team make the best design decisions possible across all marketing channels. If you’d like to learn more about typography, specifically in higher ed marketing, let us know! We’d love to help you take the next step in improving your visual designs.