Typographic Literacy

Subject: Typographic Literacy
From: Gwen Barnes <gwen -dot- barnes -at- MUSTANG -dot- COM>
Date: Thu, 13 Apr 1995 16:43:26 GMT

-> Begging the question: How does a hard working, no freetime, techwrit
-> aquire typographic literacy? Anyboy got an idea?

Here is a crash course, distilled from 20 years as a typesetter:

Proportion is more important to readability than the presence or absence
of serifs. I have talked about X-height: that is the height of a lower
case "e" or "o". Its proportion relative to the cap height (an upper
case E or M for instance, is one of the things that determines
readability. For headlines it doesn't much matter, but for large amounts
of text one should use a well-proportioned font where the X height is
somewhere between 45 and 60 percent of the cap height. On some fonts,
certain lower case letters are actually *taller* than the caps.

Large X height fonts include Avant Garde, pretty much anything
beginning with ITC for instance ITC Garamond (which I hate), and the
engineers' favorite, Eurostyle. Medium X height fonts include Optima,
Futura, Palatino and Univers. Bernhard is a small X height font. Look at
samples of these fonts side by side and you will see what I mean.

The set width of a font is also important. Extremely condensed fonts
are harder to read, as are extremely expanded fonts. Times Roman is a
moderately condensed face, with good readability. Palatino is a little
wider, Helvetica and Univers wider still. Eurostyle is very wide, so is

The relative difference between the widest and narrowest character in a
font also affects readability. A novelty font such as Avant Garde shows
the largest extreme, whereas Futura provides the same "geometric" effect
as Avant Garde, but with much better proportions.

Line length is important. So is justification. I don't really care for
ragged margins in books, it looks cheap in my opinion. A good rag is
harder to set than you might think -- it varies line endings within a
hot zone that depends on the proportions of the font for best effect,
and hyphenation should be limited but not completely eliminated. Type
set ragged should NEVER have the first line of a paragraph indented,
and should have extra space between paragraphs, about half a line to a
full line of white space. Paragraph indents are optional on justified
text -- if you have extra leading between paragraphs you don't need to
indent, unless your columns are very narrow.

A column width of 1-1/3 to 1-2/3 of the lower case alphabet length of a
font is considered optimum for readability -- this is about the amount
of text the eye can take in with a single glance. Justified margins help
the reader find the end of the line, and avoid a distracting visual
pattern. Hyphenation should be controlled to no more than 2 successive
hyphenated lines. Avoid too much variation in interword and
intercharacter spacing just to justify a line. Avoid "rivers" of white
space running through a paragraph, although narrow columns are more
susceptible to this than ideally proportioned ones.

Leading or interline spacing is also important. Use more leading for
large X height fonts, or extremely small X heights. Well proportioned
fonts such as Times and Palatino can be set solid unless you are trying
for some special effect. Generally give sans serif fonts a hair more
leading than serifs. Proportion is everything. Add about half a
line of leading between paragraphs unless you want your book to look
like a newspaper or a typewritten letter.

Some fonts tend to create particular impressions in the reader's mind.
Optima is a good example -- it is unique in that it lacks serifs as
such, but is more ornamented than a typical sans serif font. It conveys
an impression of refinement and intellect, which is why you see it on so
many university publications. Eurostyle is the sweetheart of engineers,
and has a very mechanical look. Helvetica is "plain" and blends into the
background -- people other than typographers hardly notice it. Same for
Times Roman -- it does not draw attention to itself. If you
want a subtle 1930s "deco" look, use Futura. For a 40s or 50s style use
Franklin Gothic. If you want to pretend you're IBM or Vogue Magazine,
use Bodoni. For a graceful look, try Palatino.

Kerning is usually handled automatically within the font, and by your
application. There is less need to be concerned with manual kerning now
than in the past. Tracking is the reduction of white space between
characters, allowing a tighter fit. Use less tracking on small sizes,
more on large sizes and headlines. Ad people like "TNT" or "tight not
touching", the further east you go the more the ad people want the
letters to touch.

The right size for a book is 10 or 11 point, depending on the design of
the font. Go ahead and use a smaller size for captions (set them in
italic as well so they are distinctly different from the text). The
weight depends on the type of paper the finished book will be
printed on, and how good your laser printer is. Use good paper in your
laser printer to make your camera-ready masters. I recommend Hammermill
Laser Print or Laser Plus. They have a bright white color and a hard
finish that produces much better results than standard cheap photocopy
paper. Worth the extra expense. Your office supply store will have it.

Most book fonts come in a "book" weight which is just right for most
purposes -- darker than "light", lighter than "medium". Use a matching
boldface that contrasts enough but not too much. For instance, Futura
Bold is too much contrast for boldface with Futura Book -- use Futura
Medium or Futura Demi bold instead. Use a larger, bolder version of the
book font for heads, or pick a contrasting font. Pick up your headline
font in your running headers and footers for a nice effect.

Some fonts reproduce better on laser printers than others. Lucida is a
good 300 dpi laser font, as it was designed specifically for that
purpose. Higher quality laser printers and imagesetters can make
effective use of real typographer's fonts. Get well-designed versions of
the fonts you want to use. In my experience the ones from Adobe are the
best for clean lines, proportions, kerning and spacing.

You aren't stuck with Helvetica and Times Roman for books -- there are
many other well-designed fonts you can use instead to give your books a
bit of distinction but without adding distraction. Sabon is a very nice
book font, so is Adobe Garamond (note the difference in proportion
between this and the ITC version of Garamond). Franklin Gothic is
enjoying a comeback -- it predates Helvetica as the 'standard' sans
serif font. Consider Univers for a slightly more "Euro" feel -- it comes
in a vast number of weights and set widths. New Baskerville is nice for
a change also, but sets wider than Times.

There's probably a lot more, but this should get you started and help
you sound like an expert when the engineers start pushing their pet
theories on you.

If you are a million dollar New York art director, feel free to
disregard any of this advice. Otherwise, learn to apply the basics
first, before you begin experimenting.

A final word. A copy of PageMaker no more makes one a typographer than
a copy of Lotus 123 makes one a CPA.

Gwen gwen -dot- barnes -at- mustang -dot- com
MSI * Connecting the world 805-873-2500

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