A typeface is all the characters, in all sizes, cuts, and weights, of a uniform type design. Univers, a wonderfully thought out and comprehensive 1950s ‘face, has ultra-thin, thin, normal, broad, very broad, and ultra-broad weights, each in upright and italic cuts, in multiple sizes. A font, or fount, is a set of characters in just one size, cut, and weight.
Fit for Purpose?
Type foundries (yes, typography goes back to the days when designers carried crucibles of molten metal around!) intend their designs for specific uses. The Times ‘face is for newspapers – narrow columns and small sizes with no extra white space between lines. Newspaper ‘faces have large lowercase letters and are surprisingly thin.
Garamond, on the other hand, is a late Renaissance design for books – broad columns with plenty of space between lines. Book ‘faces have small, fat letters.
There are also headline, advertising, and novelty ‘faces with individualistic flourishes: great for short passages; irritating en masse.
Anyone with a keyboard can change the look of text at a stroke, yet type size is an area of wholesale confusion. Let us get a few points straight.
First off, type-size covers the distance from just below the descender line (where letters like “y” reach) to just above the capital height (where letters like “A” and “h” rise). It is not the height of the average capital or lowercase letter.
Second, no two faces will look the same size, even if their type-size is identical: 10pt Times is almost double the size of 10pt Garamond!
Another point is to do with, well… points: the Medieval duodecimal survivor that defines type-size. A point is about a seventy-second of an inch: say 0.35mm. The different sizes of a typeface are not simple enlargements or reductions. The larger the type-size, the tighter the letter-forms.
Cut and Weighed Right?
Eventually, computer-induced euphoria at being able to toy around with italics, ultralight or expanded type has to end in decision. The criterion is simple: use normal type for massed copy. Italics, bolds, thins, and novelty typefaces make for torturous reading, period!
OH, AND PLEASE DO NOT SET TYPE IN CAPITALS, UNLESS FOR THE SHORTEST OF PASSAGES! IT DOES NOT COMMAND MORE ATTENTION. IT IS PLAIN OFF-PUTTING! THE PLAYFUL SHAPES OF LOWERCASE LETTERS, THEIR PLENTIFUL ASCENDERS AND DESCENDERS (LIKE IN “t” and “y”) MAKE LOWERCASE SETTINGS SIGNIFICANTLY READER-FRIENDLIER.
We can control the spaces between letters in a word, between words, and between lines. Computers’ default settings are fine for massed copy, but we might space headlines tighter. A rule of thumb is to leave the equivalent of a lowercase “i” between words and compress the words themselves somewhat in larger type-sizes.
Kerning is a related concern. It means adjusting letter-spaces in combinations like “AV” or “ry.” Some typefaces also feature ligatures – custom characters for combinations like “ffi” or “iti.”
Leading, a term left over from the days when type was cast in lead, means extra line-spacing. The Times ‘face was intended to be “set solid” – to work well in 8 point type-size set on 8 point line-spacing (8/8pt setting). This was adequate for crowded London Tube commuters in the 1950s. A good rule for today’s reader is to allow 20-odd percent leading – setting 8pt type on 10pt line-spacing, or 10pt type on 12pt line-spacing. (Incidentally, we can also set type on negative leading. Try setting a headline in, say, 18/14pt!)
In this context, settings mean the way we arrange type: ranging, grid, and column widths.
Most computer users reckon they have to set type justified – with both ends of the column following straight lines. Justified type does look calmer, quieter, and more formal. Yet, there is an important ergonomic argument against it. When type is justified, letter-spaces (within words) and especially word-spaces (between words) vary to help make each line as long as the others in a column. This subtly burdens the reader.
Hyphenation (carrying words over to the next line) can help even out word-spaces. But it is often problematic (notoriously so in English). Worse, a commonsense rule states that not more than two in every ten lines, and no two consecutive lines, should be hyphenated, lest we burden the reader further…
The lesson is, avoid justified setting!
Centered settings can look formal. Sadly, they are illegible, except in headlines and short passages. This leaves ranged-left as the most ergonomic setting.
Paper settings were, of course, fixed. Web settings are flexible. Still, setting some sort of grid for computer screens and a related one for mobiles pays off. A grid guides the reader as to what is main-stage, what is subsidiary, and what is merely a signpost to something else.
A grid also helps keep column widths under control. Now, column widths are critically important. They are also a subject of near-universal ignorance. So what follows is perhaps the most important message of this article: never let a column width fall below one-and-a-half alphabets (40-odd characters), and (much more important), never let it rise beyond two-and-a-half alphabets (65 characters). If we abuse this rule, we force readers’ eyes to jump irritatingly or to wonder where one line ends and the next one begins… (Unless, of course, we are dealing with the infamous ‘small print’ in an insurance contract!)
The above is a mere distillation of the wonders of typography. Apply it to your content, and readers will thank you subliminally by placing more orders, while your clients will thank you materially by giving you more jobs! Perhaps best of all, the fairly widespread ignorance on matters typographical means your rivals will be left guessing the reasons for your success. And what can be better than that?
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