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What is noticed

Rather than dwelling on archaic and often intrusive characters that have become little more than a typographer's antique folly (see sidebar: "Ligatures as quaint"), you should take the time to make sure the rest of your type is set properly for readability.

  • Justification: Even people who don't notice type do notice when there are big gaps between the words. Some typographers still cling to Goudy's flip quote, "Anyone who would letterspace lowercase would steal sheep." For commercial printing letterspacing was simply impractical. But large gaps between words are more noticed by readers than smaller spaces between characters spread out along a line.
  • Hyphenation: Hyphens are something many readers wish they'd never see. They interrupt a word, they interrupt a thought, in the worst cases they interrupt a line between pages. While hyphenation is an absolute necessity when text is justified, it needs to be done carefully, thoughtfully, and accurately. And it's important to learn what a "discretionary" or "soft" hyphen is-they're hyphens that only appear when necessary. I still occasionally see work from designers who don't know what a soft hyphen is-they add hard hyphens, the text changes, their hyphen moves to the middle of the line and they have too much else to do to notice.
  • Tracking: Once again I'll use the book "Stop Stealing Sheep" as an example. The tracking used in this book is so loose, and the word spacing so tight, that sometimes it's hard to tell where words begin and end. While people can and do read this text, my survey (albeit a casual one) has found that a large majority of the readers questioned found the book tedious to read (though most couldn't pin down exactly why). The book ends with the line, "There is no bad type," and while you might agree with that, the book is living proof that there is type used badly. The body text face, Adobe Minion Multiple Master is a beautiful typeface but here it looks ugly. The same face is set properly and gracefully in Robert Bringhurst's book "The Elements of Typographic Style," and with the two books side-by-side it's hard to believe they're the same typeface.
  • Electronic manipulation: I'm not Goudy, but I'd like to start a new maxim, "Anyone who would electronically condense or expand a typeface would also stretch the truth." Typefaces were designed at a certain width for a reason. I regularly see Palatino that has been condensed to 80% Why? Why? Why? Choose a real condensed typeface like ITC Garamond Condensed or Cheltenham Condensed. Or use a real condensed sans serif like ITC Franklin Gothic, Frutiger, Futura, Gill Sans (Humanist 521), Helvetica (Swiss 721), Adobe Mezz Multiple Master, Adobe Myriad Multiple Master, or Univers.

    The absolute worst typefaces to fool with are those that are essentially geometric, and yet some designers just can't leave poor Futura alone-they're constantly pulling at it. Multiple Master typefaces (and some GX faces) are designed to be flexible within a limit. Those typefaces can be altered because its part of their design. But unless a typeface is designed to be stretched or squeezed, leave it alone!
  • Swashes: If GX ever actually catches on, the world can expect to see a sea of swash characters. No techno trend will have made such an impact since the original ovals of the first Mac (or maybe the unreadable PhotoShop backgrounds behind type). Swash characters were never meant to be everyday things. They were not designed to be used in paragraph form. They're "fancy" letters for headings and they should be used sparingly.
  • Underlines: Some designers still insist on using them. If God had wanted man to use underlines he wouldn't have created italics.
  • Italics: Bold text generally stands out too much. But italics are wonderful for emphasis to help readers hear the text with a more conversational tone.
  • Typographic Quotes: Surprisingly, people are starting to notice the difference between neutral typewriter quotes and true typographic quotes-maybe because even today's word processing programs can automatically insert the proper typographic characters. Most designers know enough to convert straight typewriter quotes, but many are not really diligent about it, and last minute changes often include these stick-like quote marks.
  • Em- and en-dash: "--" is, of course, wrong. But em-dashes can also be too long in headlines where en-dashes are more appropriate. En-dashes used to be used between sets of numbers, like "March 18-22" but as few people set them there anymore, they've lost their meaning to all but a very few readers.

Not noticed, but felt

There are some typographic refinements that readers may not consciously notice, but they do appreciate them in a subconscious way, just knowing that something looks "more elegant."

  • Old Style Figures: Readers do notice these figures as opposed to standard lining figures, and inevitably find them "elegant." More and more new typeface designs include them, for example, Adobe's modern slab-serif PMN Cecilia does them particularly well.
  • small caps: While readers don't notice small caps, they can be distracted by words set in regular caps-they can simply jump off a page. But small caps blend in with the lowercase and are far more subtle. Expert sets include special small caps designed with a weight that matches the lowercase, but even software-induced small caps (which then tend to be lighter than the body text) are better than full caps.
  • Typefaces: Don't ask a reader off the street to name a typeface, they won't be able to do it. Matthew Carter once said that people can name their TV anchorperson by their face, but they can't name the typeface in their newspaper the same way. Even so, people do recognize faces as "familiar," and certain typefaces are more formal or casual than others. Some designers use the same two or three typefaces for everything, when they wouldn't dream of using the same two or three colors or styles of illustration. For an interactive system that tells you if a face is formal or informal, and what kind of feeling it has, visit EsperFonto.

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Copyright © 2000 Daniel Will-Harris, www.will-harris.com