dot-font: Book Design, Part II

Last week’s column began what I planned to be a two-part article on book design, which admittedly was a timely topic for me: I’ve been gathering my thoughts on book design for an upcoming presentation on the same. Given the expansive nature of the topic, I guess it should be no surprise that as I began preparing to write this second part of the article, I realized I had way too much content to shoehorn into only one more column. My gracious (and talented, not to mention insightful, learned, astute) editors at agreed to accommodate a third article in the series. In this second installment, I’ll focus on the spacing of lines, letters, and words within the body text of the book.

Text Type
The most important thing about text type to keep in mind is that everything affects everything else. Whatever typeface you choose, it’s the relationship of type size, letterspacing, word spacing, leading, line length, and margins that makes all the difference between something you can read comfortably and something you’ll put aside for good.

It’s easy to see how the size of the type relates to the leading (the space between the lines, usually measured from baseline to baseline). The more space between the lines of type, the easier it is to distinguish one line from the next, and the less likely your eye is to get confused and slip from one line to another by mistake. If the typeface has a large x-height — the height of a lowercase letter that has no ascending or descending stroke — it will appear larger than a typeface with a small x-height at the same point-size, and you’ll probably want to increase the leading. But even typefaces with small x-heights need breathing space between the lines, so their ascenders and descenders don’t run into each other.

It’s harder to see how letterspacing (the space between the letters) and word spacing (the space between the words) relates to this. In any given typeface, there’s a very narrow range of possible spacing between letters that looks right and feels comfortable to read. Ideally, the type designer has chosen the optimum spacing in designing the font, but sometimes a little variation can help. (I’m usually a purist on this particular topic: There is a proper amount of space between the letters of each typeface, and it shouldn’t be allowed to vary. But digital fonts don’t always respect the spacing the designer had in mind, particularly when the digital font is an adaptation of a typeface first designed in metal.) Since the space within a letter and the space around it ought to be in harmony, a thin, light typeface should actually be spaced more loosely than a thick, bold face — because the open spaces inside a bold letter are actually smaller than the open spaces within a light version of the same letter.

The space around the word is related to the space within the word, so it makes sense that a line of type floating in a huge blank space could be letterspaced slightly more loosely than the same line of type tucked snugly into a paragraph. For the same reason, the space between words might be slightly — slightly! — wider in the line floating in space, to match the looser letterspacing. But the space between words should always be fairly tight: just enough to clearly separate one word from the next without creating big gaps that the reader’s eye can fall into. (The most common problem is narrow columns of justified text, such as we all see every day in newspapers; these almost guarantee poor word spacing and sometimes poor letterspacing, making the text much harder to read.

The longer the line of text, the more space is needed between lines. You can get away with setting text in long lines of small type if you give them enough space between the lines — lots of space between the lines. But for ordinary reading, in paragraphs, there are various studies of the optimum number of words or letters on a line of text; the rule of thumb is about 60 letters, or ten “average” words of five characters plus a space. (The real number depends on the actual text, including the writer’s choice of words and what kind of prose it is.)

The margins are simply the amount of visual space around the block of text. Obviously, this has an effect on the reader’s perception of the text itself, but only really extreme differences will change the way we perceive the spacing within the text block. For the most part, margins are a matter of page layout more than of text typography.

It’s important to keep in mind, though, that the real margins aren’t necessarily the ones that show up nice and neat on our computer screens as we’re laying out the pages. Since books are real, physical objects bound down the middle with glue or thread, a small part of the inner margin is always going to be lost, because it’s buried in the slope of the pages toward the spine. It’s an unfortunately common error in books (and magazines) to forget this visual constriction, resulting in pages that seem to run into the gutter and are hard to read.

Text Typefaces
You might think I’ve left out the most important part of designing the text in a book: choosing the typeface. But there are lots of books and articles and bits of advice on which typefaces work best in continuous prose, and why. What I want to impart is some principles of how to use those typefaces, whatever they are, on the pages of a book.

That said, I can suggest a few pointers. Look for typefaces designed for text setting, not for display or advertising. (ITC Garamond, for instance, is a fine type family for setting ads and brochures — which is what it was designed for — but it has very little to do with the various book faces that bear the name Garamond.) Don’t be seduced by the notion that a bigger x-height makes a typeface more readable; our eyes see the visual space between lines as the space between the bodies of the lowercase letters, no matter how long or short the ascenders or descenders may be, so a face with a large x-height just has to have more generous leading. Look for a typeface whose letter shapes are based on traditional forms, for the simple reason that we’re used to reading them. A text face should also have clearly differentiated letter forms; if the letters are based too closely on the same shapes (like many geometrical faces), then it will be hard to distinguish them in running text.

For typesetting books, it’s useful to choose a type family with a truly comprehensive set of members. A book face should always include old-style figures and true small caps, as well as a full set of ligatures. If your design is going to require italic small caps, make sure the typeface includes them. (Most don’t.) If you’re designing a cookbook, or an art catalog that gives the dimensions of paintings in inches, be sure your typeface has real fractions, and real superior and inferior numerals so you can construct any fractions that aren’t already in the font. (There’s nothing more irritating than faked fractions, where the numbers have simply been shrunk down so they look light and spindly — and then haven’t even been spaced properly. Well, all right, there is something more irritating: decimals where fractions belong. Have you ever actually heard someone say “eight point five by eleven inches”?)

The Universe in a Grain of Type
By now I think I hear my kind (and brilliant, not to mention perceptive, discerning, engaging) editors telling me to wrap it up. Next week, we’ll consider display type in books, along with a few questions about how to handle the front and back matter and about the relationship between the interior and cover.

Posted on: May 4, 2001

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