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Printing Industry Exchange ( is pleased to have Steven Waxman writing and managing the Printing Industry Blog. As a printing consultant, Steven 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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Archive for the ‘Typography’ Category

Custom Printing: A Handful of Useful Type Terms

Monday, November 17th, 2014

I like type. I think it’s a beautiful art form worthy of close observation and study. I take this position not just from an aesthetic sensibility but from a practical marketing outlook. Type, if well chosen, can convey meaning or elicit emotion. It can inspire and persuade.

In this light, I recently paged through the Design Basics Index by Jim Krause (which I have shared before in PIE Blog posts) for a few useful type terms and descriptions. I will also note why I think they will improve your understanding of the functionality and aesthetics of type, and at the same time improve your design for custom printing.

X-Height and the Baseline

Picture a lowercase “x” in a line of type. Unlike a lowercase “q,” for instance, the “x” sits squarely on top of the “baseline.” The baseline is the imaginary line on which the letters rest: their support, if you will.

The lowercase “q” drops below this line. The portion of the letter that drops below the baseline is called a “descender.”

An important term to consider at this point is the “x-height” of a particular typeface. This is the height of a lowercase (not uppercase) “x.” If you look closely, you will see that the body of all lowercase letters in a particular font rests on the baseline and aligns with the top of other lowercase characters along the “x-height.”

That is, in the word “Design,” which Krause uses in his discussion of typefaces, the tops of the lowercase “e,” “s,” “i,” “g,” and “n” all align (except for the dot above the “i”). The “g” drops below the baseline, and if the word “design” were written with a lowerdase “d” rather than an uppercase “D,” you would say that the top of the “d” rising above the imaginary line across the top of all the other letters is an “ascender” because it ascends above their x-height.

How Is This Relevant to Design?

Beyond the aesthetics of a typeface, the “x-height” is very important in determining whether a typeface (set in a particular size) will be readable.

If you can’t read the words set in a particular typeface at a particular point size, your message will be lost. The type may be beautiful, but it will not communicate with your reader.

Look closely at type sample books or online samples of type, and you’ll see that every typeface has an “x-height” and that this varies from typeface to typeface. Some have higher x-heights; some have lower x-heights. The higher ones are much easier to read. Keep this in mind as you design your commercial printing projects.

Ascenders and Descenders

Going further, the concept of the “ascender” and “descender” described above also pertains to readability.

A word set in all capital letters has a “shape” if you look at it from a slight distance. Imagine a line tracing the outside boundary of all the letters in a word. The word’s shape is a rectangle when it is set in all uppercase letters. Unfortunately, no matter what the word set in all capital letters is, the shape will always be a rectangle.

Scientists who have studied reading patterns have noted that as people read, they don’t look at all the letters in a word. Instead, they look for the shape of the word, a shape they have seen before and have committed to memory.

The word “DESIGN,” for instance, has the shape of a rectangle, as noted above. If, however, you set the word in lowercase letters, “design,” the ascender (the top of the “d”) and the descender (the bottom of the “g” that drops below the baseline) give the word a unique shape, a shape that is not quite a rectangle. (It has a bulge at the top left and bottom right.) This unique shape allows the reader to immediately recognize the word without needing to read all the letters.

In contrast, the uppercase “DESIGN” actually slows down the reader, since he or she will have to look more closely (i.e., not skim the word to recognize it).

How Is This Relevant to Design?

If you want to use uppercase-only type, keep it to only a few words, or you’ll lose your reader. If you run the type over several lines, make the lines very short, and put a lot of extra horizontal space between them (i.e., add extra leading).

Serif and Sans Serif Type

Design Basics Index by Jim Krause includes a few magnified images of serifs (the little tails on letterforms that help draw your eye from one letter to the next as you read a line of text).

Old-Style serifs are curved. They taper gradually from the vertical and horizontal strokes of the letters. Krause uses Goudy as an example of an Old-Style typeface.

Modern serifs are thin and abrupt. They change direction instantly from the horizontal and vertical strokes of a letterform (there are no gradual curves in the serifs). Moreover, there is a more dramatic contrast between the thin and thick strokes of a letter in a Modern typeface than in an Old-Style typeface. Krause uses Bodoni as an example of a Modern typeface.

Slab Serif type has fat, chunky serifs. This category of type is also called “Egyptian type,” and you may be reminded of Old Wild West signs and posters when you see these typefaces. Krause has chosen Clarendon to illustrate Slab Serif typefaces.

In contrast, Sans Serif typefaces have no serifs. However, you will find that some are narrow and tall while others are wide and chunky. You will also find that some, like Optima, actually have letterforms that are thinner or thicker in different places (most sans serif faces are of equal weight in all strokes of the letterforms).

How Is This Relevant to Design?

Look closely at different serif and sans serif type samples (maybe a paragraph of each), and you’ll see that some are more legible than others. You’ll also find that each of these type samples has a slightly different mood or tone. An Old-Style typeface may seem more stately and serious, and a Modern typeface may seem more avant garde. For a poster, a slab serif typeface may be more dramatic and persuasive.

So the bottom line is that you should observe type closely, set your message in a number of different typefaces, and then think about which choice is most readable and also most congruent with the tone and content of the message you wish to convey. The more you know about type, the better able you will be to select the best typeface for a particular custom printing project.

Commercial Printing: Intriguing Facts About Fonts

Tuesday, June 10th, 2014

I would encourage you to use Google Images (as well as Google Web) to find samples of each type characteristic or category. Type “Google Images,” then search for “Modern” Type, for instance. You can find detailed images and descriptions in this way.

Typography is one of the most important and complex aspects of the graphic arts, involving aesthetics as well as the highly computer-intensive arena of prepress. In no special order, here are a few facts and descriptions regarding typography and fonts.

A Brief History of Type: Old Style, Transitional, and Modern

It always helps to get a type sample print book to familiarize yourself with all the variations in typefaces. These now are available online as well as in printed form. Type books and websites display either full alphabets and numerals or selected passages of text (“The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog,” for instance) in various typefaces.

As a starting point, let’s look at the “Old Style,” “Transitional,” and “Modern” classifications for serif faces (the typefaces with little extra strokes on the ends of the letterforms).

Old Style faces include Garamond and Goudy. There is not as much variation between the width of thick and thin strokes in the letterforms as in Transitional or Modern faces. In addition, there is a somewhat diagonal stress in the letterforms. (For instance, if you look at the difference in thickness of the letterform as your eye travels around the letter “O” set in Garamond type, the thinnest portions of the letter are somewhat asymmetrical, causing the letter to appear to lean slightly to the left.) Finally, the serifs are bracketed (that is, the letterform curves into the stroke of the serif).

Baskerville and Fournier would be good examples of “Transitional” typefaces. They have more contrast between thick and thin strokes as well as a more vertical “stress” than the Old Style typefaces that preceded them. In addition, the serifs are horizontal (as opposed to slightly slanted, as is often the case in Old Style typefaces).

Modern typefaces go even further. There is far more contrast between the thin and thick strokes of the letterforms (very thin vs. very thick). In addition, serifs and horizontal strokes of the letters are exceptionally narrow (almost hairlines), and the serifs have no bracketing (i.e., no curves into the serifs, just abrupt angles). Finally, the letterform stress is vertical. Gone is the slanted stress of Old Style type. Bodoni and Didot would fall into this category.

Sans Serif Typefaces

The aforementioned are only the serif faces. Another category entirely, sans serif faces have no little “tails” on the ends of the letters. Letterforms in this category are simpler, with no variance, or very little variance, from thick to thin in the letters. Other terms associated with sans serif (French for “without serifs”) are “Grotesque” and “Gothic.” You’ll see these words in the names of the typefaces, such as Century Gothic or Monotype Grotesque.

Due to their overall heavier look than some serif typefaces, sans serif typefaces are useful for headlines, providing contrast to the lighter tone of a block of body copy set in a serif typeface. Sans serif type can be a bit harder to read in large amounts of copy than serif faces (this is the traditional wisdom, although many people now dispute this). Some people believe the strokes of the serifs carry the eye more easily from one serif typeface letter to the next.

Helvetica and Futura are sans serif faces. Optima, another sans serif face, actually breaks the rule of most sans serif faces in that its letterforms include strokes of varying thickness (but no serifs).

Slab Serif or Egyptian Typefaces

You may have seen type on Old West style posters with pronounced thick, horizontal serifs that are chunky like slabs (much thicker than the horizontal serifs of Modern typefaces). Clarendon would fit into this category. Letterforms have a vertical stress, and there is little variation from thick to thin within the letterforms. All of these qualities made for dynamic, easy to read posters in the Old West. These faces are also called “Egyptian” typefaces.

Script Typefaces

These are just what their name implies. Script faces look like they were drawn with a pen. They have a certain formality, although they are very hard to read as text (and somewhat easier to read as headline type). You might use them in a poster or an invitation.

Decorative Typefaces

Stencil, Rosewood, and Hobo are three examples of decorative faces. Decorative type can be very effective in conveying a mood within a large format print like a poster or billboard, if the text comprises only a few words. Through its appearance alone, such a typeface can give your reader a sense of the meaning of the words. As to their readability, though, decorative typefaces are hard on the eyes when used for complete headlines or body copy.

Why You Should Care

With these type classifications in mind, you will start to see the subtle differences between typefaces. And that will be a good starting point to help you choose the most appropriate typeface for your headlines and body copy, typefaces that will reflect the tone you are trying to convey with your graphic design project while still being readable.

Typefaces are not interchangeable. Set a few sample words (or a headline) from your brochure printing job or print book cover in several different typefaces (use only a few words, and use the same words for all examples you’ll create this way). You will see the subtle or even dramatic ways in which its tone, or mood, or even meaning will change as well.

Commercial Printing: More Intriguing Facts About Fonts

Wednesday, June 4th, 2014

Here are a few more facts and suggestions regarding fonts, a topic about which volumes could be written.

More Type Distinctions

“Regular,” “Bold,” “Semibold”–the list goes on. The best way to acquaint yourself with the font choices available to you in InDesign (or any other page composition software package) is to select “Font” under the “Type” menu and review the pop-up font listing menu (or you can do the same thing if you have a font management utility such as Suitcase).

In InDesign, you will see an “A,” an “O,” or a “TT,” or maybe even another designation. These indicate Adobe, OpenType, and TrueType fonts (three popular font formats), then the name of the font family (such as Helvetica), a sample (actually the word “Sample” in the specific typeface), and then an arrow. Touch the arrow with your mouse pointer, and you will see a list of the faces available within the fonts (such as regular, italic, bold, and bold italic).

Personally, I find the families of type (such as Helvetica) with the greatest number of typefaces to be the most useful in designing a print book, brochure, large format print, or whatever. One of my own Helvetica type families includes the following:

  1. Light Condensed
  2. Light Condensed Oblique
  3. Medium Condensed
  4. Medium Condensed Oblique
  5. Bold Condensed
  6. Bold Condensed Oblique
  7. Black Condensed
  8. Black Condensed Oblique
  9. Black
  10. Black Oblique

As you can see from the listing, this particular family of Helvetica type (and there are many other families of Helvetica) starts with a light version and works its way through a medium, bold, and then black version. If I want to stay within one font family in a print book, for instance, I can provide various levels of emphasis, or contrast, by choosing a lighter or darker typeface from the same type family. At the same time I can give the print book a unified appearance by staying within one family of type (for the heads, subheads, text, captions, sidebars, etc.).

In this particular type family, all of the Helvetica fonts except for the last two are condensed (narrower than usual). I have other Helvetica font families that contain regular, italic, and bold versions of Helvetica without any condensing of the typefaces. Personally, I like the condensed Helvetica fonts because their narrow width allows me to include more words in less space. The same character count in the standard, non-condensed type might be the difference between a 120-page print book and a 150-page print book (i.e., this one design decision could save a lot of money over an entire press run while still providing an attractive, readable print product).

Always Use the Actual Typeface

Many computer applications allow you to highlight a word and then select an icon to make it bold, italic, or regular (or “roman,” which is the traditional name for regular). This is usually available in the Style menu. Resist the urge to do this. It’s always best to highlight the text, go into the actual Font menu, and choose the specific Helvetica Bold typeface (or any other typeface). Otherwise you may notice font substitutions when you get the actual type back from your commercial printing supplier (the proof or the printed document).

Kerning vs. Tracking

Here’s another definition and distinction. Page composition software will allow you to tighten up (or loosen) the spaces between letters to improve the readability of text. When you do this to a block of copy, this is called “tracking.” When you tighten up a pair of letters, it’s called “kerning.”

More specifically, this is a useful tool to use when you have pairs of letters like “AW” or “AV,” particularly when they are set in capital letters. Due to the shape of the two letterforms, there is often too much space between them. Kerning allows you to tighten this up, which improves readability and gives a more professional look to the typography.

Extended Character Sets

Known by various names, the extended set of characters available in some type fonts will include letters with accents (umlauts, the cedilla, etc.), ligatures (sets of two letters traditionally run together such as “fl” or “fi”), fractions, swash capitals (capital letters with a script-like flourish), superscripts, and subscripts. You may also need to add a trademark or copyright symbol to your print job, or even a degree symbol if you’re referencing a temperature, and all of these would be located in this extended character set as well.

Access these “glyphs” (which is the traditional name and also the name used by InDesign) through the “Window” / “Type and Tables” / “Glyphs” path.

Handing Off Fonts to Your Commercial Printing Vendor

When you send your InDesign file of your job to press, also send copies of your fonts (screen and printer fonts) to your printer in order to avoid possible font substitutions, which could reflow copy in your file.

Another way to ensure the accurate printing of the fonts is to hand off a PDF of the file with all fonts “embedded” (included within the PDF). Your file will print exactly as expected.

If you’re designing a poster, or another job with minimal text, your third option is to convert the text to outlines (go to Type menu, then use “Create Outlines”).

Printing Industry: Designing for the Visually Challenged

Monday, February 3rd, 2014

We all get older. It’s much better than the alternative. But as we age, our eyes find it more difficult to read text, and perceive color and contrast. I’m going to be 56 shortly, and I’m already noticing this. If you design printed products for a middle aged (or older) crowd, it is even more important than usual to consider the eyesight of the audience when you design brochures, print books, or any other custom printing product.

Along these lines, I recently read a useful article on legibility for older readers on The article is called, “Type Talk: Designing for the Aging Eye” (Ilene Strizver, 10/16/13), and it makes a number of good suggestions about how to select the most readable type for a print book, print newsletter, or any other job. After all, if your audience can’t see something, or if their eyes tire and they stop reading, no amount of aesthetically pleasing design will make up for this.

Choose Legible Typefaces

The article lists the ideal attributes of readable type. These include typefaces with tall x-heights (the height of a lowercase “x”), open counters (the enclosed parts of a letter, like the inside space of the capital letter “Q”), and uniform strokes (not too much contrast between the thick and thin lines of a letterform).

The article also suggests using sans serif type for body copy, avoiding condensed and expanded typefaces, and using a minimum number of fonts per page (two would be ideal, according to the article).

Basically, when you’re designing custom printing products for the middle aged, for seniors, or for the visually impaired, you would want to avoid complex display typefaces or script faces. These may be ideal for conveying the tone of your printed piece, but they impede reading. In fact, the simpler the type—i.e., the typefaces most people are used to seeing: the boring ones–are actually the most readable typefaces.

Make the Type Larger Than Usual

“Type Talk: Designing for the Aging Eye” encourages designers to make type for the elderly a bit larger than usual. If you’re used to specifying body copy at 9, 10, or 11 pt. (with one or two points of extra leading), then use 12 point type on 15 points of leading (12/15, or three extra points of leading) as a starting point. (For a more visually challenged reader, you might even want to set the text in 16 point type.)

Choose Type Weights That Are Neither Too Light Nor Too Heavy

That is, set your type in “roman,” “book,” or a similar weight. Avoid weights like “extra bold,” “black,” or “light.” According to the article, “research indicates that italic type is 18 percent more difficult to read than Roman (upright) letters.” Therefore, if you want to emphasize a word, consider making it bold instead of italic. Also, avoid the urge to make a style of type (such as all captions in a book) all italics.

Keep Type Formatting Simple

Uppercase and lowercase letters are easier to read that all uppercase letters. This is true for anyone at any age. For middle aged eyes, it’s particularly true. Therefore, set all body copy in uppercase and lowercase type. If you feel the need to use all caps, use them only for short headlines.

The article also notes that ragged right (flush left) copy is easiest to read (because the space between words does not vary, unlike justified type). It also suggests making column widths neither too narrow nor too wide (experiment, and solicit feedback from a few readers). Making sure the letterspacing (overall space between letters) is a little wider than usual is also a good move.

Keep Good Contrast Between Type and Background

It’s always easier to read type that stands out from the background substrate. Black type on a white background is ideal—all the better if your reader’s eyes are aging. Screening back type makes it harder to read, as does printing type over a busy background (like surprinting type over a photo). Conversely, having too much contrast can tire the eyes. For instance, if you’re designing a single-page flyer, avoid printing black type on bright fluorescent paper stock.

Break Up the Copy into Chunks of Information

The easier you make it for your reader to navigate the printed page, the more pleasurable the reading experience will be, particularly if your reader has diminished eyesight. According to the article, breaking body copy into shorter paragraphs, creating bulleted lists, adding extra white space to the page, including a number of subheads, and, in general, laying out copy in easily digested chunks all make for an easier reading experience.

Finally, make sure the hierarchy of editorial importance (as reflected in size differences and type differences between heads and subheads, body copy, captions, and such) can be grasped immediately—even at arm’s length. For anyone, this will make reading easier; for the visually challenged, it may make the difference between your custom printing job being read or not being read.


Be sensitive to your reader’s eyesight. Don’t assume that everyone’s vision is the same as yours (which is a very easy assumption to make). Think about your readers and their challenges. Then compensate as needed using the tools of the design trade. Your reader will love you for it, and you will get your message across.


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