The Secrets to Using Large, Expressive Type on Websites

Rob Bowen By Rob Bowen  |  Jun. 16, 2014

When designing a website we have to strike a balance between the visual elements and the text elements of the site. This is no secret, but it is often not thought of in these terms of balancing between the visually expressed aspects of the design and those that are expressed through text. The use of large, expressive typography offers us the ability to combine the two approaches, conveying our message in a highly visual and textual way.

So, let’s examine some of the specifics behind designing with large, expressive typography on the web (and well, sometimes beyond). Not only the why’s, but also looking at some of the how’s that will keep this happening in both an effective and stylish manner throughout the design community.


Why use large expressive type?

There are a number of ways using large expressive typography can enhance a site. We will touch on a few of them here, but know that these are not the only reasons to opt for this oft visually stunning technique.

To grab their attention

The first is a hold-over from the early days of print, and that is that using expressive typography in such a bold way gets the readers’ attentions. Especially when it stands out from the rest. Large type tends to quickly grabs the viewer’s attention, screaming at them “Focus on me!”. This makes it great for any elements on your site that you really want to highlight and want your visitors to immediately see, such as calls to action and your main titles.

With such a proven track record, it is easy to see why this technique has continued to follow along with the written word, and evolve throughout the many fields of design using them. Even without alterations in color, expressive typographical inclusions can quickly direct the user’s focus and attention where it is needed.


To make them feel

Beyond just grabbing attention, bold and oversized type can connect with the readers in other ways too. It can connect with them on an emotional level as well. Expressive typography is the perfect way to evoke a certain emotional response in the viewer. The way we feel can play a huge role in the way we act and the actions we take (or how we interact), making the type we choose for a our designs a very heavy hitter in our work.

If we can get someone emotionally involved in our site, we can create a relationship with much more ease, keeping them coming back time and again. This has to be done with care, however, because that emotional evocation can just as easily cut both ways. They can respond just as negatively as we’d hoped they would positively, so we cannot just go at this without thought and planning.


To boost your message

Another ‘why’ that makes many designers opt to use large type, is the way that it can enhance the overall message they’re trying to convey and helps to maintain brand consistency. This branded boosting of our message is a great way to add style to our reach (and the connection we’ve already discussed). Style can often upgrade the impact of what would otherwise be somewhat blandly expressed, giving the typed words more warmth, and in cases, inflection and emphasis.

This approach further allows us to let our own personality shine through (or that of our clients) creating a much more unique and engaging experience for our visitors. This is another way it can aid us in forging strong relationships with our users.


To establish hierarchy

Steve Krug put it best when he said “People don’t read, but they scan pages”. Using large typography in our site designs is a great way to establish a strong visual hierarchy, allowing our page to be more readily scanned and interacted with by the type of users Krug was discussing. If we don’t mix it up throughout the site and give the reader various points along the page to break up their scanning and attempt to draw them in, we risk losing them quickly as their scanning carries them through the design without interruption.

We often use a number of ways to establish a visual hierarchy in our works to guide the users through them, this just offers us yet another, simpler way to go about it. Using the already present text blocks to play a part in this without having to go over the top with embellishments and the like to assist the scanners.



Follow the rules

Now that we have covered the ‘why’ of the approach, we will take a quick gander at some of the rules that need to be followed to do employ this technique effectively. So let us turn to some of the basics that we need to keep in mind.

Keep it simple

It can be tempting to use a number of different typefaces because they all look so nice and they do all fit the theme of our site. However, it’s best to stick to just a couple of different fonts to keep things from getting too garbled. Many say that the general rule is two. One is too few and looks boring, while three is too many and becomes confusing. Naturally, there’s always times where the rules can be broken, we just have to put a lot of thought into it and tread carefully.


Check your harmony

Does your type blend well with the other elements of the page, or does it end up distracting more than enhancing? Does it throw off the overall balance of the site? Does it keep with the theme and feel of the rest of the site? Does it overpower other important elements? These are important questions to consider for a full visual harmony of the elements. If the answer is no to any of these we probably want to reconsider our font choices.


Readability is a must

It’s understandable that we want to use an interesting and unique typeface, especially when working with large typography. However, we must make sure that it remains readable. This is always the primary rule of any typographical choice, even if it is oversized. While it’s true that we can get away with a lot more with large type, when it comes to readability, not every font is created equally readable. If ever unsure about a font, we need only ask someone who has no idea what it’s supposed to say if they can read it. If they can, we might be in the clear (though a second 2nd opinion never hurts either).