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Nine Typography Rules and Thoughts to Ponder

Back when I was an art director and publications manager, I often could not believe the illegibility of type I saw within a particular design piece, a brochure, or poster. Keep in mind that I started in the field of publications as a writer and not a designer, so to me legibility was always paramount as I made the shift from the written word to visual design.

As with many other artistic disciplines, such as music and fine arts, it helps to know the rules before you start to break them. When you understand what makes type legible, you can consciously choose to do something else if you have a particular editorial and design goal that will benefit in the process.

Here are a few rules to get you started. I found them in Digital Color and Type, a RotoVision book by Rob Carter. Where appropriate, I have inserted some of my own rules as well, based on what has worked and not worked in my own design career.

  1. For lengthy sections of text, choose typefaces that have borne the test of time rather than new or trendy typefaces. Within the realm of serif typefaces, Rob Carter suggests such fonts as Baskerville, Caslon, Goudy, Palatino, and Times New Roman. He selects Gill Sans, Helvetica, Univers, Frutiger, Futura, and Franklin Gothic as legible sans serif typefaces. These typefaces have been consistently used over the centuries because in lengthy blocks of text they can be read easily. They don't call attention to themselves. They merely convey information.

  2. That said, feel free to play with more exotic typefaces in headlines. For short blocks of copy, legibility is less of an issue. This may also go for callouts or pull quotes, based on their length.

  3. Keep the number of fonts you use within a poster, brochure, book, or other design job to a minimum. If you choose too many, you will confuse the reader, and he/she won't know what's more important or less important in the overall design of the job. The goal of changing type is to add emphasis to a word, phrase, or headline. In my own experience, if you choose a typeface for the body copy that has a roman face, bold face, and italic face, and then choose a contrasting type for the headline, you will have plenty of design options. Adding more fonts can easily just complicate and confuse matters.

  4. In design, I was always taught that if you draw attention to a contrast between typefaces, the contrast should be obvious, big, and dramatic. Digital Color and Type echoes this belief, noting that one should not combine typefaces that are too similar. If typefaces do look too similar, your reader may not be able to easily identify the relative importance of one design element over another. If you choose a serif face for text and then a similar serif face for the heads, the result could look like an accident. A more effective approach might be to choose a light serif face for the text and a heavier sans serif typeface for the heads. You might then use the sans serif typeface for callouts or captions on the same page. This way, even from a distance, your reader will be able to identify the various elements of a job: heads, subheads, body copy, captions, and so forth.

  5. Upper and lowercase letters are more legible than all caps. The Internet and email have taught us to regard type set in all capital letters as shouting. In addition, words in your design layout that are composed of all capital letters are harder to identify and read than words composed of upper and lowercase letters. Here's why: If you look at the ascenders and descenders of the letters in a word, you will see that the word has a unique shape. When we skim a line of text, our eyes look for these shapes (based on past experience). We don’t read every letter, one at a time. In contrast to a word set in capital and lowercase letters, a word set in all capital letters is shaped like a rectangle. It has no ascenders or descenders to create the complex shape that can immediately identify the word. So it's harder to read. However, if you keep this in mind and use all caps for a few words (like short headlines), you can get away with it and create a pleasing design.

  6. Use the right amount of leading. Leading is the space between lines of type. Use too much leading and the lines of type will not feel connected. Use too little leading, and the block of type will seem dense and impenetrable. If you're setting 10 point type on 10 points of leading (called “set solid”), your text will be hard to read. In this case, changing it to 10/12 (called “ten on twelve point” and also known as using “two points of leading”) will make the type easier to read.

  7. While we're on the topic, setting body copy much smaller than 10 point can make reading harder. Books (including Digital Color and Type) often place the bracket of readability between 8 point and 12 point body copy, but I'd err on the conservative side, keeping in mind that older readers will appreciate the larger type. I'd suggest 10 pt. to 12 pt. for text.

  8. The easiest type alignment to read is ragged right/flush left. The eye travels back to the same starting point on the left after reading each line, and the ragged right margin adds variety and avoids the differences in spaces between words that can occur with justified type. If you do set justified type (the type goes from the left to the right margin on every line, and the spaces between words are adjusted slightly by the computer to achieve this alignment), watch out for large gaps (called “rivers of white”). Also avoid flush right/ragged left type. The alignment forces the eye to return to a different starting point after reading each line. The same goes for centered type. (That said, it really does depend on the amount of type you're setting. The type in a classic, symmetrical alignment of an invitation is centered, but it looks good and is legible because you're only centering a few lines of type.)

  9. Don't set lines of type too long or too short. I once read that one and a half alphabets is the maximum line length for readability. I'm not sure I'd agree. It depends on the typeface, the point size, and the leading. The best thing you can do is experiment. After all, you'll probably be using a different width for the columns of body copy, the captions, the callouts, and pull-quotes. What I'd suggest is that you typeset a block of copy and then print it out on a laser printer. If the copy seems less readable than you’d like, add a little leading between the lines of copy. This will often fix the problem. Granted, you still don't want to set the copy in a “measure” (the traditional term for the width of a line) that is too wide or too narrow.

[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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