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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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Custom Printing: Choose the Right Font for Readability

I was at the house of a small literary publisher recently. We were discussing paper choices and binding options for an upcoming book. Apropos to nothing, both the husband and the wife (the publishers) asked my opinion of the typeface for the text and the titles of the new book. They knew I had been an art director and that I still did a little graphic design on the side.

I looked at the type on the copyright page (since it was smaller than the book text), I also looked at the text and subheads in the body of the print book. My clients had printed out the pages on white stock, yet the final printed book would be manufactured on a cream press sheet.

The type is too small, I said. And too light. In addition, the subheads are in a Modern font (sharp contrast between the thin and thick strokes in the letterforms), and the subheads are too small. Plus the type will be printed on a cream offset sheet (which will reduce contrast between the words and the paper). Uncoated offset paper also absorbs ink, so there will be a less-than-crisp edge to the type letterforms. All of this will impede legibility.

They both agreed. They had been concerned, but they had not been able to articulate precisely why they had been concerned. Now they knew.

What I Suggested

One of the publishers (the wife of the husband and wife team) said she would choose a few fonts for the print book designer to consider. She asked for my opinion. Here are the thoughts I shared with her and her husband:

  1. Choose another sans serif typeface for the body copy. Choose one that is standard, without artistic flourishes in the letterforms. Readability is more important than style for text-heavy printed products.
  2. Make sure the sans serif body typeface is darker than the current choice (compare a new page of type to an old page).
  3. Add a point of leading between the lines of copy and increase the point size of the body copy slightly until it is readable.
  4. Consider the audience. If readers will be middle aged or older, their eyes will not shift focus as quickly as they used to, so these readers will appreciate the slightly darker type and the slightly larger point size, plus the extra leading.
  5. For the headlines and subheads, choose an Old Style typeface instead of a Modern typeface. I told my clients to Google each of these general categories. They would see the differences and probably also see a list of fonts within each category. I suggested New Century Schoolbook and Garamond. I told my clients that legibility trumped aesthetics. The Old Style fonts would have less of a dramatic contrast between thick and thin strokes in the letterforms, and this would improve legibility on an uncoated, rough, cream printing paper.
  6. I also suggested that my clients bump up the point size on the copyright page.

Now For Something Completely Different: A Poster

But what if my clients had also needed a poster or other large format print for their trade show booth at a print book seller’s convention? I probably would have told them something completely different.

Posters, large format print signage, and even some brochures have a particular trait that sets them apart from print books or even short booklets. They have very little type. In their case, while the goal is still legibility first, the reader’s eye can tolerate more ornate letterforms and even more contrast between lighter and darker chunks of copy precisely because they will be reading the printed piece for much less time than a print book.

For instance, my clients could choose a Modern font for the headlines of a poster, and since there would be fewer words, the contrast between thick and thin strokes in the letterforms would be an artistic element of the overall design, not an impediment to legibility. Granted, setting the headlines in all capital letters might detract from legibility when using a Modern typeface, but even then, if the headlines are very short, even this might work.

The key words are “might work.” It is an artistic decision based on experience and close observation. The two kinds of design work (books and short-form promotional items) are different enough that you really need a skilled designer with a good eye and experience to make the best visual choices.

What You Can Learn from This Case Study

Here are some thoughts:

  1. If it looks and feels wrong, try something else. My clients are not designers. However, they do read, and they had trouble with the lightness of the type. It bothered them. That’s a good enough reason to change it. When in doubt, show someone else, or a number of other people, and ask for their opinions.
  2. Consider your audience. You may be 22, but your audience may be older. (When I was 22, it didn’t even occur to me that one’s eyesight could be so different, simply because I had not yet been middle aged. It’s easy to think that everyone can see to read equally well.)
  3. Consider the size of the type and the “threshold of readability,” which will also depend on the lightness of the type and whether it is an artsy font or a “workhorse” made primarily for reading and only secondarily for its appearance.
  4. Keep in mind that you can improve legibility (even of a problematic typeface) by increasing the point size, increasing the leading, or decreasing the length of a line of type. There are no rules that can’t be broken; rather there are ways to work around the challenges. And if you set type in all capital letters, make sure your lines are short. (Your reader depends on recognition of the overall shape of each word to facilitate reading. Each word has a distinctive outline, and a reader can skim a line of text and recognize a word’s shape with only a glance. But the shape of every word set in all capital letters is the same: a rectangle. And this means your reader will need to scan all letters in the word to grasp its meaning.)
  5. Remember that these rules differ based on the kind of work you’re doing. A poster or other large format print is different from a print book. However, in most cases it’s different because there is less type, and your eye can tolerate more diversity and flourishes in the letterforms when there’s less type to read. Think of a billboard. Then think of a novel. For these, you need two totally different approaches when selecting type.

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