Printing and Design Tips: March 2022, Issue #248

Rules for Designing with Color and Type

It’s always nice to have rules, at least as an adult, when they give you both a structure and a sense of control. In graphic design it is no different. I was recently looking through my cache of design books and came upon Digital Color and Type by Rob Carter. This design book (which is well designed itself, and which therefore speaks volumes for the advice it gives) provides a list of rules to help you design with type and color (entitled "Obeying the Rules"). Granted, the following chapter is called "Breaking the Rules." As per the chapters’ implication, the author feels that the best approach is to first learn the rules and then test their limits.

Before I launch into a description of Rob Carter’s rules, let me explain why they exist (my opinion, that is). I’m sure you could find a number of other, similar lists as well. Design rules exist to facilitate reading, to make it easier and more comfortable, and to collect and present related ideas in the most digestible way. They also exist to facilitate reader comprehension and retention. All of these goals either are or are not achieved on an (often) subconscious level as the reader translates marks on a page into objects, events, and concepts visualized in her/his mind’s eye. Graphic design, in general, makes this happen. And type choices and color choices, in particular, are two effective tools of graphic design.

The Rules

All of this comes from the chapter "Obeying the Rules," if you wind up buying Carter’s book. There are 19 rules, and for this discussion I plan to select and describe only a large handful (in no specific order).

1. "For optimum legibility, choose classical, time-tested typefaces with a proven track record" (Digital Color and Type, p. 150). Rob Carter provides a list of eighteen typefaces, including Baskerville, Garamond, Gill Sans, Helvetica, Palatino, Times New Roman, and Univers. These range from sans serif to serif typefaces, from Old Style to Modern. None of them are fancy. All of them are profoundly readable. That is their goal. Think of these like a frame. The frame doesn’t call attention to itself. It showcases the artwork. My suggestion is that in your own design work, avoid fancy display fonts that are fun and exciting, and instead focus on the classics, the workhorses of type.

2. "Be mindful not to use too many different typefaces at any one time" (Digital Color and Type, p. 151). Carter’s book does not set a limit, but as a designer myself I usually stick to two type families, perhaps one serif face (for text, for example) and one sans serif face (perhaps for the captions). Within these families there are usually enough options (bold, roman, italic). Too may typefaces confuse the reader.

3. "Avoid combining typefaces that are too similar in appearance" (Digital Color and Type, p. 151). As a designer I learned first and foremost to make contrasts "BIG." Two of anything placed in proximity (colors, photos, typefaces) that are too similar look like an accident. The goal is to emphasize something, and to do this you need to rely on clearly distinguished differences. For instance, pair a serif face with a sans serif face, such as Garamond with Helvetica.

4. "Use text types of book weight. Avoid typefaces appearing too heavy or too light" (Digital Color and Type, p. 153). The goal is readability. If the typeface is too light, it won’t be visible (too little contrast between the background and the type). If it’s too heavy, the nuances of the letterforms will disappear, and the type will be less easy to see.

5. "Use typefaces of medium width. Avoid typefaces that appear extremely wide or narrow in width" (Digital Color and Type, p. 154). A lot of this depends on the amount of text you are typesetting. For short chunks of copy, your reader’s eye will be tolerant, but in general expanded and narrow typefaces reduce readability. The reader’s eye is used to seeing standard proportions. Also, the reader’s eyes become less flexible with age, so depending on your target readership, be considerate. Too small, too different from the norm, too condensed—all of these undermine your prime goal, which is for your text to be read.

6. "For text type, use consistent letter and word spacing to produce an even, uninterrupted texture" (Digital Color and Type, p. 154). That is, if you have too much space between words, or if you expand the normal space between letters, your reader will start to see individual words rather than groups of words (or ideas), and individual letters (rather than groups of letters constituting words or ideas). As noted earlier, the transition from letterforms on a page to the images they trigger in the mind’s eye has to be smooth. Giving the reader what she/he expects makes this easier. (This is another reason that flush left copy is easier to read than justified type, in which the space between words varies in order to ensure rigid right/left alignment from line to line.)

7. "Use appropriate line lengths. Lines that are too short or too long disrupt the reading process" (Digital Color and Type, p. 155). Your reader’s eye has to return from the end of a line of copy (on the right) to the beginning of the next line (on the left). If this distance is too long (more than 1.5 alphabets or 39 characters), your reader’s eye may get lost. If the line has too few characters (is too short), the eye will go back and forth from line to line in a choppy manner, and this will be annoying to the reader. (This rigid rule can be effectively broken--in this case, for instance--by adding a little space between the lines of type, which is called leading.)

8. "Clearly indicate paragraphs, but be careful not to upset the integrity and visual consistency of the text" (Digital Color and Type, p. 157). That is, according to the example in Rob Carter’s book, it is redundant to both add space between paragraphs and indent them. (One or the other is fine. More than that confuses the reader.) Moreover, if the first line is indented too deeply, the reader’s eye will have to travel back and forth (from the end of one line to the beginning of the next) to find the starting point. Even if this slows reading down by an infinitesimal amount, it still distracts from legibility.

9. "For text type use line spacing that easily carries the eye from one line to the next" (Digital Color and Type, p. 156). Carter’s book suggests adding between one and four points of leading to improve legibility. That is, 10 pt type on 10 pt of line spacing (called "set solid") makes the reader focus on more than one line of type at one time, and this can be confusing. Moving the lines apart slightly (10 pt on 11 pt or 12 pt of line spacing, or one or two points of leading) improves legibility. Moreover, increasing leading can facilitate reading if your typeface is harder to read, if your lines of type are a little long, etc.

10. "When working with type and color, ensure that sufficient contrast exists between type and the background" (Digital Color and Type, p. 161). Imagine black type on a white background. That’s maximum contrast, and it’s also the most readable option. White type on a black background is also at maximum contrast, but it’s harder to read than black on white, so add a little extra leading. Any other combination (say, gray type on a blue background) will minimize the contrast and therefore lower legibility, comprehension, and retention. It will also irritate the reader.

To these I would add one more rule. If you set headlines in color, keep in mind that they will not provide the same maximum contrast as black on white. Type printed in color will also not look as dark as the color swatch from which you chose the color--or the image on the computer screen. So make the type slightly larger than you normally would, and select a darker-value color (perhaps a dark blue, green, or brown). It’s best to buy a PMS color book that actually shows samples of typefaces in different colors (and type reversed out of a color). These are expensive but worth the cost, because you’re making choices based on what you actually see—on paper.

Ultimately, all of this comes down to a few things (rules of the road).

1. Consider legibility first. It doesn’t matter how good the design is if the reader stops reading.

2. Contrast facilitates reading. Anything you do, do "big." Similarity of typefaces or type sizes looks like an accident and confuses the reader.

3. Give the reader what she/he is used to seeing. Good type design should be invisible, or at least unobtrusive.

[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.]