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Archive for January, 2012

Book Printing: How to Make Illegible Type Legible

Sunday, January 1st, 2012

A client of mine just produced a “galley” of her book, 100 digitally-printed reader’s copies for her reviewers to critique before the final offset custom printing run. She loves it, but her husband thinks the type is too small.

The timing is actually perfect. Think of the “galley” as a digital, on-demand book proof that many people—not just one client—will review. If the type is too small, now is the time to fix it.

What Is My Client’s Husband Really Saying about the Type?

Basically he’s saying that it’s hard to read. When he points to a print book that he likes—a book that he wrote–I take note. He likes the body copy type. It’s easier to read. While the target audience for his wife’s book will range from age 20 to 80 and above, those in their 40s and older will have a harder time reading the body copy in her book than in his. And people who have difficulty reading something will not enjoy the experience and will eventually stop.

What Goes into Making Text Copy Readable in a Print Book?

Type has a number of characteristics. Among these are:

  1. Type size (height of the type)
  2. Leading (the space between lines of type)
  3. Measure (column width)
  4. Weight (lightness or darkness of a block of type on the page)
  5. “x” height (the height of a lower-case “x” in a typeface). This will correspond to any other character that has no ascenders or descenders: i.e., portions of type that extend upward from the top of the x-height or downward from the baseline (“l” vs. “g” or “j,” for instance).
  6. Style (light, bold, roman, italic)
  7. Serif, sans serif, slab serif, display, script, etc.

All of these attributes work together to improve or diminish legibility, which is the first requirement of type. It has to be easily readable, particularly in a book.

How Do You Fix Type That’s Hard to Read?

My client’s husband had a point. The type was too small. It was just under the threshold of comfortable reading. But the problem didn’t stop there. Here are some things I noticed:

  1. Compared to the type in her husband’s print book, my client’s type had a low x-height. It was a serif face (the ones with short strokes–like tails—at the ends of the letterforms). This is good, since serif fonts are easier to read in large blocks of copy than sans serif faces (the ones without the little strokes).
  2. It was a complex typeface, more suited to display type (large point sizes within short blocks of copy like headlines and callouts or large pull quotes) than to text copy. The letterforms were ornate and had dramatic contrast between the thick and thin strokes of the letterforms. It was actually classified as a “Modern” typeface because of these qualities. I suggested a typeface with a larger x-height. The designer had provided a sample page set in Century Schoolbook, which has a large x-height, pronounced serifs, and less contrast between the thick and thin portions of the letterforms. All of these qualities improve legibility in a print book. I also suggested increasing the size of the type by one point.
  3. We considered adding leading to the type (more space between lines). This is a good way to improve legibility.
  4. We discussed the fact that increasing the point size and the leading would make the book longer. Obviously this would add to the cost of the project, since more book pages would consume more paper and ink. There would also be more signatures and therefore more time on press at the commercial printer’s shop. It would be an expensive proposition.
  5. As an alternative I suggested “Old Style” typefaces, such as Garamond, which would have less contrast between thick and thin portions of the type than Modern typefaces but would take up less room than Century Schoolbook. Garamond is an Old Style serif face. It would be more readable than a sans serif typeface. In addition, Garamond even comes in a condensed face (narrower letterforms). Garamond Condensed is highly legible but takes up less space than many other typefaces, yielding more characters per inch and hence a shorter book.

I suggested producing laser printed samples of a page in a number of different typefaces to check readability. In the final analysis, the subjective experience of reading trumps any technical characteristics a typeface may have. (Is it readable? Always check with a number of people if you’re designing a print book.)

In addition, I suggested that my client’s designer produce a complete chapter and compare the length of that chapter in the new typeface to the length of the chapter in the old typeface that had been hard to read. This would give a rough idea of the extent to which the new typeface would increase the length of the book.

Laser Printing Doesn’t Always Match the Look of Ink On Paper

Ink printed on paper, particularly the absorbent uncoated stock often used for books, does not always match the printed output from a laser proofing device. Actual ink often spreads a bit (dot gain) as it flows into the paper fibers. In contrast, laser toner sits up on the surface more, since it is a powder and not a liquid. Therefore, it would be wise to show your commercial printer samples of the type and ask his opinion of how the final output will look when actually printed in ink.

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