Rob Hardy on books


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Making the Printed Word Legible and Readable



Rob Hardy


Let's say you have read a popular volume like the delightful Just My Type: A Book About Fonts by Simon Garfield, and you have a new awareness of how important typefaces are. You didn't used to pay attention to fonts, but you'd like to know some practical information about how to use type, and how to avoid basic mistakes. If you have realized that type matters, you will do well to get the primer Type Matters!: Simple Tips for Everyday Typography (Merrell Publishers) by Jim Williams. It is a handsome volume, with flexible covers, two ribbon page markers, and an elastic loop in the back so that you can hold the end pages close to the back cover. Williams was asked by a design company in Manchester, England, to give a series of talks to help its designers with day-to-day typography, a presentation that was later printed up, was popular, and is now bound as this fine-looking book. It is obvious that every page has been carefully laid out, usually with examples (good and bad) of type at work in black, and comments or instruction in red. The pages are thick and their color creamy. The fonts are labeled, but this is not a book of font specimens, although there are plenty. It is, rather, a broader view of what makes a page communicate well and what makes it look good. 




There's a classic xkcd comic that shows two figures looking at a sign with letters badly spaced. One of them groans, "Argh!" in anguish. The caption says, "If you really hate someone, teach them to recognize bad kerning." I thought of this cartoon many times as I read these pages. This book teaches good and bad kerning (and much else) in the section on setting text. As in many examples here, there is often contrast between how your computer wordprocessor would do the job and how you would want it done by a pro. For instance, to take the example cited in the book, the two letters Yo might be a challenge to a word processor. Indeed, as I look on my screen as I type, in Times New Roman, it is as if the Y is in a rectangle which abuts the rectangle surrounding the o. This means that although that right arm of the Y hangs out there, and although the o might be moved to go under it a little, the leftmost part of the o does not begin before the rightmost part of the Y ends. Good kerning, which it seems my computer cannot do, would close the gap and eliminate some of the white space, making things look more balanced. Argh! I have just realized this as I am typing - bad kerning! (The software for the Times New Roman you see on the webpage here is more sophisticated, and does the kerning better.) 




Here's another example taken from my own experience, something that I had seen and had no idea anyone else had noticed, let alone given advice against. Sometimes I will look at a page and there will be a white ribbon running down some of the lines, a ribbon composed merely of the spaces in between words, the spaces by chance running nearly vertically from line to line and so calling attention to themselves. It's not something I have thought much about, but any time thinking about those white streaks is time that should have been spent reading. Someone else has been thinking about these white streaks. They are called rivers, and in fact, the OED attributes its first citation of the word used this way to G. B. Shaw in 1897. Williams calls them "unsightly," and like bad kerning, now I know that these are eyesores that a careful designer would have avoided, by using a different layout, size of font, or hyphenation. 




Type Matters! is well organized. The first part, "Background," gives a three-page history of type design, and gives some basic terminology. You may have been told to pay attention to every jot and tittle, and while jot can mean the tiniest part of writing or the least detail, a tittle in typography is specific: it is the dot above the i or j. Here is also a bright explanation of why some type faces of the same point size (basically the maximum vertical dimension of letters in a font) look bigger, although they are not. The second part is "Setting headlines and display type." There is a hilarious example of two contrasting letterheads, one for a financial advisor, and one for Rocco the Clown. They are both set in Copperplate Gothic BT and then in Jabberwub. I don't have to tell you anything but the names of the typefaces. The shapes of the letters should not imply that you would be amused by your financial advisor, nor that you would take your clown seriously. By far the longest part of the book is the third part, "Text setting," the basics for the regular readable page (rather than headings or display types). There are loads of examples here, including a particular peeve of mine, white letters on black background; this is often bad on the page and worse on a web page, but it happens all the time. Williams shows how typefaces that are nicely legible black-on-white despite (or due to) thin strokes and fine serifs can require active concentration to read when they are white-on-black. There's nothing wrong with a little white-on-black, and an example he shows using the sans serif, uniform stroke News Gothic Demi BT, is fully legible. You can learn here the considerations required in using raised or dropped capital letters in beginning paragraphs, the difference between capitals and small capitals, the use of dashes (the shorter nut dash and the longer mutton dash), different ways of indicating paragraphs, and much more. 




There are two pages on those desiderata, legibility and readability. They are not the same thing. Legibility is "the clarity of individual characters and how easily they are deciphered." Readability is "the level of comprehension and visual comfort when reading typeset material." There are many examples here of both, emphasizing the great lesson that the type and its arrangement do their best work when they are quiet and do not present the reader with any distraction from the ideas in the words they form. Good type and arrangement, on the page and on the computer screen, help encourage the reader to continue reading, or at least do not discourage continuation. This book is an excellent introductory volume from which I learned a lot; those who want to learn more will do well to study its helpful bibliography and its directory of museums and other organizations that are dedicated to good typography. These may be simple tips, but they could change the way the world reads the writing you want to present. 




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