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Design Basics

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What is a Descender?

What is a Descender?

From posters to app mockups and social media posts, typography holds a place of vital importance in any design project. In order to master it, there are some crucial concepts like baseline, ascenders, and descenders that you should be aware of. These make up the ABCs of your typography. To help you cover these basics, here is a detailed guide that covers the definition of descenders and how they affect your design, with some common descender fonts that you can get inspiration from.

What is a Descender?

A descender is the portion of a letter that descends below the baseline.

Descender (dɪˈsɛn dər.) Now there's a new word of the day! But don't worry, you don't have to pull out your dictionary or your thesaurus. In this article, we'll learn all about them.

The baseline of a font is the invisible line upon which text ‘rests’ when you type. Another concept useful to know before we dive deep into this topic is the "x-height."

X-height refers to the distance between the baseline and the mean line of lower-case letters in a specific font. Typically, this is the same as the height of the lowercase letter 'x', and that’s where it gets its name.

Where Can You Find Descenders?

You can find descenders everywhere in your typography if you’re paying attention. Most descenders belong to lower-case characters, such as g, j, p, q, and y. However, depending on the font, capital letters can also have descenders; most often the letters Q and J.

And they can also appear on numerals; typically on the numbers 3, 4, 5, 7, and 9.

While many letters can ever so slightly extend over the baseline, this is commonly known as an overshoot, which is different than a descender - they aren't synonyms. The overshoot is the small curve below the baseline that you see for round letters such as ‘o’, when compared with flat letters such as ‘x’.

Types of Descenders

Not all descenders are the same. If you look closely, the descenders of letters <key>j<key>, <key>y<key>, and <key>Q<key> are shaped in more of a slight curve. For this reason, they are called “tails”.

The descender of the letter <key>g<key> is usually more of a loop, while the descenders for letters <key>p<key> and <key>q<key> are almost always a straight vertical line. However, you’ll notice that this might not hold true for all fonts.

Using Descenders in Design

Any typographical work will require your undivided attention when it comes to descenders. Because there is ultimately one major thing for which you should be on the lookout: crashing descenders.

Crashing descenders occur when a descender from a character on one line touches the ascender of a character on the line below or touches an uppercase letter. An ascender, as you might have guessed, is the part of a lowercase letter (such as b) that rises above the mean line.

If your descenders and ascenders crash together and overlap, it makes your copy look untidy, awkward, or very hard to read. A designer’s forbidden territory.

When you have a case of crashing descenders, you will need to play around with the text’s kerning, leading, or tracking in order to provide more breathing room for your characters.
Ultimately, good design means creating something that not only looks good but also conveys a message in the most efficient way possible.

And don’t make the rookie mistake to only consider lowercase letters when checking for descenders. As mentioned, in typography, even some capital letters, numbers, or special characters can have descenders that you should consider in your overall aesthetic.

The tricky thing here is that descenders vary a lot between typefaces. Some extend well below the baseline, while others only extend a short distance. The deeper the descender, the higher the space between text lines needs to be in order to accommodate it.

When you're considering a new font, try typing out a few example sentences so you can see the way that the descenders interact with the ascenders. This is especially critical when choosing the font for your body text.

Fonts with Long Descenders

Example using Architects Daughter.

1.     Aerotic Calligraphy

Calligraphic fonts are harder to use in your design. Because of their long descenders, they are harder to read and therefore not the best choice for body text. But they can make a great choice for invitations or cards.

2.     GretchenHello

GretchenHello is a typeface that looks as if it was done with a calligraphic pen. And it almost has a medieval, or old English aesthetic to it. It has tall ascenders and long descenders that give it a certain elegance. But this also means it’s not the easiest to integrate into your design.

3.     Architects Daughter

Architects Daughter incorporates the graphic, squared look of architectural writing, combined with the natural feel of daily handwriting. You can create interesting designs with it for a logo, packaging, or use it as a simple text overlay to any background image.

Fonts with Short Descenders

1.     Kaleko

This one is a stylish and simplistic font that you can use for every part of your design. With a shallower x-height and fairly short ascenders and descenders, it is more economical with space and better suited for unabridged body text. It's a versatile, modern sans, highly legible, and looks great when blown up in size.

2.     Passion One

This is a great example of a bolder font that serves well in headlines. Since it’s so thick, be mindful of the negative space in between letters as you adjust the kerning for this font.

3.     Philosopher

Philosopher is one of the most well-known fonts with short descenders. The font is interesting, and not all that complicated. So it can be used to write headlines or body copy.

Fonts with No Descenders

That is correct. Some fonts simply do not have descenders. When you’re running out of space, try using these.

Example using Unica One.

1.     Crushed

Crushed was designed initially as a headline typeface. Featuring a condensed body width, Crushed is quite unique as it’s tossing the traditional lowercase aside, for characters that match the cap height.

2.     Unica One

Unica One is a condensed sans serif font. It’s especially great for headlines, yet short texts can accommodate it too. Readability and simplicity are some of the virtues of this unique typeface.

3.     Permanent Headline

This is a font with history! Designed by Karlgeorg Hoefer in 1968 as an extension to Permanent, it is sometimes referred to simply as Headline. It looks fantastic for logos and headlines for print media, and it’s a massive space-saver because of its lack of descenders. Another unique feature of this font is the fact that it does not come in any other formats, like italic or bold.

That's it! These are all the basics you need to know about descenders. We hope we inspired you to take your next typographical design project to the next level!

Read our next Design Tip if you want to continue learning.

Download the PDF version here.
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