Printing and Design Tips: July 2020, Issue #228

"Typefaces Give Voice to Words"

The title of this Quick Tips article, "Typefaces Give Voice to Words," is a quote from my go-to book on graphic design: Design Basics Index by Jim Krause. (This is one of only three or four books I’ll ever need to remind me of all the basics of design and printing.)

If you take a sentence like this: "Typefaces Give Voice to Words" (page 231, from Krause’s design book) and typeset it in three different typefaces, the sentence will say three different things. In his book Krause set one version in an Old Style serif type, another in an ultramodern sans serif face, and the third in a script face. The words are the same, but each version carries a different message.

The serif face projects an elegant and sedate tone. Because of the graceful letterforms (and the serifs), it has a conservative feel, but because of the large "x-height" (the height of the lowercase letters relative to the uppercase letters), it is eminently readable. It seems much larger than the other two versions Krause has typeset and perhaps more direct, or matter-of-fact. Unknown to the reader (or at least only subconsciously known), the serifs carry the eye from one letter to the next. This improves legibility and makes reading more effortless. For me, this increases my confidence in the statement, "Typefaces Give Voice to Words."

The sans serif typeface is harder to read. It is set in all capitals (all-caps). The letters are also wider (individually and together) than in the serif typeface. For me, the statement looks like type from a computer circa 1985: very bold and definitive, somewhat dated, but still having an authoritative flair.

The third example, set in a script face (a particularly good one in that it feels like actual handwriting, with its flourishes and scratchy letterforms), looks like it was hand-written by Benjamin Franklin. It goes beyond the elegant feel I expect for an engraved announcement and actually looks like it was hand-traced from The Declaration of Independence.

So what does this tell us about type in general and typescript that you or I as designers and printing people might choose for any product we might lay out on the computer?

Here are some thoughts:

1. Experiment. When you’re getting started, let’s say with a brochure or a logo, type several words first, and then copy them multiple times (maybe five or six) in a stack, with each set of words above the next one. Then choose a number of typefaces and set each version in a different one. This will tell you several things: not the least of which will be that your eyes should be the final arbiter. Always trust your eyes.

2. In most cases, you will want the tone of the words and the tone of the type to match. "Typefaces give voice to words" even in typewriter script feels like a pithy statement about life (or at least about design). It has a sense of weight. When you typeset it in an Old Style typeface, the more dated and conservative typeface reinforces the serious tone of the message.

3. Study type. Study all the nuances of the letterforms. They can be most graceful. Or not, depending on the typeface. Here’s a list of categories to study: Old Style, Transitional, Modern, Sans Serif, Slab Serif, Script, and Novelty.

4. Your most important goal is to communicate. Even a difficult-to-read typeface can be made more legible (if you need to use it, for instance, to make a point with only a handful of words, such as a headline or a pull quote). However, it’s wise to aim for legibility. If a block of copy is hard to read, your audience probably won’t read it, so your goal of communication will be lost completely.

5. Some typefaces are more legible than others. As a rule, in printed material the serif typefaces (the ones with the little tails on the ends of the letterforms) are easier to read than the sans serif typefaces (no little tails). This is because the serifs give the eye a horizontal line to follow. Your eye moves from one serif to the next, effortlessly. Sans serif typefaces are harder to read on paper; however, they are easier to read on a computer screen. Script faces are exceptionally hard to read, which is why lines of type are broken into smaller chunks when script faces are used for elegant invitations. Expanded and condensed typefaces are also usually harder to read than regular typefaces (whether serif or sans serif).

6. All-capitals treatment of any typeface makes the text harder to read than upper and lowercase. That’s because our eyes don’t actually read every letter. The letters form shapes (let’s say the ascender, or upward stroke of the "k," and the descender, or the part of the letter "g" that extends below the baseline). We see the overall shape of each word as our eyes skim the text. If the letters are all capital, all we see is a virtual rectangle surrounding all the letters (as in the shape of the word "BIKING"). Moreover, setting type in all capital letters, compared to capitals and lowercase letters, feels like shouting (probably in part due to the unspoken rules and expectations of email and texting).

7. Learn to massage type to make it more readable. This will allow you to get away with using less readable typefaces. (By getting away with, I mean that you can still communicate even while using a unique and perhaps less readable--but perhaps more provocative--font.) For instance, if you keep the lines of type short, the type will be more readable. This is why you can use a display typeface in a headline. If you were to use the same typeface in a longer block of text, it might be too hard to read.

8. In accord with item #7 above, you can use a less legible font in a caption, a callout, or a pull quote. It will add character to your brochure or book. But if you use it in the body copy, it may irritate your reader.

9. Adding extra space between lines of type improves legibility. If your pull quote is still hard to read, even when you make the line width short, consider spreading out the lines of type vertically. (For instance, if your type is set 12/14, or 12 point with two points of extra leading, try the same block of copy 12/18, or 12 point with six points of leading.)

10. Setting type in bold face or italic face reduces legibility. So if you do this, keep the block of copy short, use a narrow column width, and consider increasing the leading.

11. Reversing type out of a solid color (including black) reduces legibility. So if you do this, keep the block of copy short, use a narrow column width, and consider increasing the leading.

12. If you’re young, you may be able to read almost any type size. As you get older, this ability decreases. Consider the age of your audience.

13. Type in color is less legible than type in black ink on white paper. Increase the type size, leading, etc., as needed to improve legibility.

14. Increasing letterspacing has been a design tool for years. It looks cool. It also makes the reader more conscious of the shape of each letterform. That said, by breaking down a word into individuals letters, letterspacing reduces the reader’s ability to immediately grasp the meaning of the word. (Your brain processes the individual letters one after the other first, before grasping the entire word.) Another way to say this is that letterspacing decreases legibility. So if you do add letterspacing, restrict the effect to something small, like the tag line of a logo.

15. Study the process by which words convey meaning. A word is just a collection of letters made up of scratches and strokes. But when your reader sees it, she/he does not see these strokes. The reader sees the mental image the word evokes as well as the tone the typeface suggests. It will help you make effective design decisions if you understand the process by which words on a page speak to the reader and create in the reader’s mind’s eye the thoughts and meanings integral to communication.

[Steven Waxman is a printing consultant. He 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.]