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Type Terminology

“Language structures consciousness” is a phrase I once heard in philosophy class. The ability to identify and verbalize makes us aware, and awareness empowers us.

In the study of graphic design, one of the main tools is typography, and understanding a few of the arcane names of various parts of the letterforms can help us make informed choices in design: choices pertaining to aesthetics, readability, and the limits of various printing processes.

Here are a few terms to get us started.

“X-Height” and Readability

The x-height refers to the height of the lowercase letters within a particular typeface, based on the height of the “x” in the alphabet (i.e., a letter without ascenders or decenders). Another way of saying this is that the x-height is the distance between the baseline of text and the top of the main body of the lowercase letterforms within a type font.

Why is this important?

The x-height will vary widely from typeface to typeface. In some fonts, the lowercase letters will appear large in relation to the capital letters. In others they will appear much smaller. Since readability is of prime importance in any design, choosing typefaces with an x-height that allows for easy reading (at whatever point size you have chosen) is crucial. Or, if you want to use a typeface with a smaller x-height, you will need to increase the point size of the type to ensure legibility.

Conversely, you can make a large block of type take up less space by choosing a typeface with a slightly smaller x-height. For instance, if you are designing a book of fiction (basic type on a page), and the book is 330 pages in length, you might be able to reduce it to 300+ pages by choosing a body copy typeface with a slightly smaller x-height. A shorter book will cost less to print, so balancing readability (large enough x-height for legibility) with budget (saving pages) requires an understanding of the concept of x-height and an awareness of the threshold of legibility.

“Condensed Type” and the Length of a Book

Another trick to improve legibility while decreasing the amount of space needed for a large amount of type is to choose a condensed typeface. Condensed type is narrower than standard type. Although you can artificially condense type within a page composition application like InDesign, it's best not to do this. An actual condensed typeface, such as ITC Garamond Condensed, has been designed intentionally as a condensed face. The aesthetics of the condensed letterforms have been taken into consideration. So it's not the same as taking Garamond type and squeezing it up.

Again, choosing a typeface like ITC Garamond Condensed yields a number of benefits. First (if you're designing a text-heavy book), the condensed face will give you a shorter (i.e., less expensive) book. Garamond Condensed also has a reasonable x-height, so it will be more readable at a given point size. And, since it's a serif face, it's easier to read.

“Serif vs. Sans Serif” Typefaces and Legibility

Serifs are the little strokes on the ends of letterforms. You will see them on such typefaces as Times, Baskerville, Garamond, and Palatino. The strokes, or tails, lead your eye from one letter to the next. Various studies have proven over the years that, with ink-on-paper, a serif typeface is easier to read than a sans serif face (sans serif typefaces might include Helvetica, Avant Garde, Futura, and Franklin Gothic).

Keeping in mind the ease of reading type printed on paper in serif typefaces, the exact opposite is true on a computer monitor. The regular grid of pixels in strict horizontal and vertical alignment apparently minimizes the legibility of serif type. So choosing a sans serif typeface such as Helvetica (or Arial) would be prudent in this case.

The “Hairline” of a Type Character

Picture the crossed strokes that comprise the letter “X.” For type set in a sans serif face such as Helvetica, the width of these two stokes would be equal. However, in Oldstyle serif faces, such as Garamond, the two strokes would be very different in thickness. The thinner of the two strokes in the “X,” which would probably also be the thinnest stroke within the alphabet within that font, is called a hairline.

Why is this important?

Aside from the aesthetics of the typeface, you might consider the hairlines when building colors. For instance, if you were printing type in the process colors (cyan, magenta, yellow, and black), you would be laying down multiple halftone dots of each process color to create a color build (simulated color). Laying down multiple dots of color to create a hairline of an “X” within body copy (small text) would be problematic. It might even be more of a problem if you were trying to do this on a digital press with toner rather than an offset press with ink.

Keeping this in mind, you might choose to print the body copy of the job in black ink or toner only.

For larger type, because of the thinness of the hairlines within a particular typeface, you might choose a color build that only includes two of the process colors. For example, you might build a dark blue with cyan and black.

Another thing to keep in mind is that some of the process colors are more forgiving than others: yellow, for instance. When you build a color with magenta and yellow, if the halftone dots are not in precise alignment (i.e., in perfect register), the human eye will not be as disturbed by the misregister since the yellow color is so light.

Understanding what a hairline is, and knowing that you need to be careful in building colors within a serif typeface, you might choose a sans serif face instead.

For instance, you might set the body copy in black ink or toner only, and then create a color build for headlines and large “call-outs” or pull-quotes using a sans serif face. The contrast between the serif type of the body copy and the sans serif type of the other design elements will be aesthetically pleasing, and since the strokes of the sans serif typeface will have no hairlines, combining multiple process colors to create the type should not pose any problems.


[Steven Waxman is a printing consultant. He teaches corporations how to save money buying printing, brokers printing services, and teaches prepress techniques. Steven has been in the printing industry for thirty-three years working as a writer, editor, print buyer, photographer, graphic designer, art director, and production manager.]

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