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Printing Industry Exchange (printindustry.com) 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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Book Printing: The “Greyness” of a Block of Type

I know that a term like “greyness” when referring to a block of black text on a print book page sounds somewhat esoteric, but bear with me. This simple concept can affect everything from the look of a book’s design to its readability and even its printability. And all of this can change based on the age of your readership.

In a nutshell, “greyness” of a block of copy refers to the appearance of text on a white page. Even if it is black ink or toner, a chunk of copy appears to be grey when printed on white paper. This will be affected by the thickness or thinness of the letterforms of your chosen typeface, the amount of leading you add (the extra space between lines of copy), and even your choice of ragged right/flush left alignment vs. justified type.

The Backstory

A client of mine whom I’ve mentioned before desiitgns print books for NATO and the World Bank. I confer with her on the design and make suggestions whenever she gets stuck.

A few days ago, she sent me two type samples. They were actually quite simple, with a headline over a paragraph of text copy. Both type samples were set in a sans serif typeface. Both samples had the same sized headline type and text type (let’s say 24 pt. headlines and 10/14 body copy type with a 5-inch column width, for the sake of argument).

The only difference was that the type in one sample was screened back to 80 percent of black, and the other was 100 black.

My consulting client then asked me which sample I thought was easier to read.

So this was a very simple comparison to make, a bit like my eye doctor’s questioning me as to which lens allows me to read the letters on the wall. “Which is better, this one, or this one?”

My Choice, and the Implications for Your Design Work

I chose the lighter type. I thought the 100 black type “felt” heavy.

As simple as this sounds, it is actually wrapped in complexity, so here are a number of things I told my client to consider (and I would ask you to do the same, if your work involves page design for a print book).

  1. People are liable to stop reading if the act of reading tires their eyes. For a brochure, the type choice can be more flexible because there’s less type to read. For a print book, there’s a lot of text to read, and if its initial appearance is daunting, the reader will be less likely to continue.
  2. On a page, it is easier to read serif type. The reader’s eye travels from one serif on one letter to the serifs on the next letter. However, on a computer screen, it is easier to read sans serif type. When I checked my client’s two type samples, I was looking at a PDF on my computer. So I asked my client to make sure she liked the look of the type on a laser printout.
  3. Even within the two categories of serif and sans serif copy, there is a lot of variance in the greyness of a block of type. Some typefaces appear heavy, while others appear light. To me, slightly lighter type seems more inviting because there seems to be less work to do in reading it (i.e., less eye strain over a length of time). I think others may agree.
  4. But if the text appears to be too light, the reader will need to strain to see it, and this will minimize the accessibility of the type.
  5. More than one and a half alphabets (39 characters in English) worth of text (for the width of a column) minimizes readability.
  6. For text type, 9, 9.5, or 10 pt. type is fairly readable. You will probably find that in addition to lightening the perceived greyness of a block of copy, adding leading (space between lines of text) will increase readability. For instance, 10/12 (two points of lead, if 10/10 is considered “set solid” or with no leading) is quite readable (depending on the typeface). However, also depending on the typeface, I personally find 10/13 (one extra point of lead) or even 10/14, to be optimal.
  7. Readability is based in part on the age of your reader’s eyes. At 61, mine are now less flexible than they used to be. (That is, they will change focus from near to far and back again less quickly.) That’s why I like a little more leading in my type. So when you design something, consider the age of your target reader. And be kind. Your text will be more likely to be read.
  8. This should actually be much earlier in this list, but it’s important to remember that readability is more important than design/appearance. If you lose your reader, a superb publication design is wasted. That said, you can usually find a typeface that both looks good and is readable.
  9. As a caveat, print out your type selections. See how they will look on paper, not just on the computer screen. (After all, the final print book will be on paper, and on a computer it’s very easy to view–and design–a publication that is either smaller or larger than the true 100 percent final size. This can lead you to make bad design decisions.)
  10. There are ways to maximize legibility. Flush left/ragged right text is easier to read than justified copy. It also ensures that spaces between words will not vary. Adding leading improves legibility, as noted before. Shortening the width of a column of type improves legibility. In addition, printing text on a contrasting background (ideally black type on white paper) maximizes legibility. Avoiding blocks of reversed type (white type on a black background, for instance) maximizes legibility, as does avoiding typesetting words in all-capital letters.
  11. All of these rules can be broken if you do so in small amounts of copy. For instance, all-capital heads are easier to read than even a short paragraph of all-capital text. This is a major reason that almost any kind of wild type usage is easier to deal with on a poster (for example, the bulbous letterforms used on 1960s psychedelic posters) than on the page of a print book.

“The Rules” As They Apply to Printing

Beyond the rules of design, type legibility, and the mechanics of the eye, there are printing issues to consider:

  1. Understand how your text design will be printed. This is important. For instance, my consulting client chose the 80 percent screening of black type for her print book. In commercial printing, since ink or toner is either present or absent in any given space (black or white but not grey), the printer must simulate levels of grey with halftone dots. In my client’s case (unless she was going to print the heads in black ink and the text in a separate PMS grey ink), all of the letterforms in her text would be made up of little dots, not solid letterforms. This can minimize legibility.
  2. Fortunately for my client, 80 percent of black (toner or ink) is close enough to 100 percent to fool the eye. From arm’s length (reading distance), the text will appear grey. It should not have visible dots from that distance. However, I would not advise my client, or any designer, to print 50 or 60 percent grey type. In fact, it’s always best (if you have the budget) to choose a PMS grey ink rather than a screen of black ink if you want the text to appear grey.
  3. That said, my client’s sans serif type would be more forgiving than a serif face with both thick and thin letterforms. (The halftone dots would be particularly visible in thin letter strokes, or, worse, the letterforms could appear to be broken in certain thin strokes.)
  4. All of this is accentuated if you’re building a color for the text using multiple hues. As a rule of thumb, I’d say that you should never do this. For headline type, it’s ok, but not for text type. This is because even the slightest bit of misregister (of the three or four printing inks used to build your color) would make the text type appear fuzzy and might make it unreadable.

The Take Away

  1. If you must screen a color or build a color, go for simplicity. Screen the text type at a high percentage (closer to 100 percent black), and only build a color for a headline (that is, a mixture of cyan, magenta, yellow, and black). The fewer of these colors you use, the better. If you build a headline color out of magenta and yellow, for instance, the yellow will be light enough to not be distracting if the register of all inks is not perfect. In contrast, if you build a color with cyan, magenta, yellow, and black, even a slight misregister can cause problems.
  2. Don’t make decisions on the computer screen if at all possible. Print out the type samples and see how they look.
  3. Consider the age of the reader. Older eyes change focus more slowly.
  4. Rely on your printer’s expertise and advice.
  5. Readability always trumps design aesthetics. The first goal is to make your printed products legible.

2 Responses to “Book Printing: The “Greyness” of a Block of Type”

  1. I was able to find good advice from your content.

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