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Archive for the ‘Typography’ Category

Commercial Printing: Character and Mood in Typefaces

Wednesday, October 13th, 2021

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In addition to providing content (the thoughts that words convey), typefaces provide a sense of character, tone, and value to the process of understanding these words. They tell you, often subconsciously, exactly how to feel about the words you’re reading.

Here’s a simple example. If you were to design a cover for Tolstoy’s print book War and Peace, for instance, and you only had type to work with (no images), you might typeset “War” in an aggressive, sans-serif font, and you might set “Peace” in a floral, perhaps serif, font. (I realize this is somewhat cliché, but I think it makes my point.)

To expand upon this a bit, the typefaces “tell” you how to feel about the subject matter. Not just pro or con, like or dislike, but in a more nuanced way in terms of character and feel. For me, the adjectives that come to mind when I think of war are “loud,” “violent,” and “chaotic”: hence the bold or even extra-bold, sans-serif typeface with abrupt, hard edges. I think of peace as “quiet,” “artistic,” and “uplifting.” These adjectives I associate with the curves and varied weights of a serif typeface.

Granted, the key word here is “I,” and if you’re designing something for an audience, it helps to also predict the emotions, values, and characteristics the reader might associate with a particular typeface. In my own design work, I always like to show my client a few design options using different fonts. And to come up with these design options, I often review samples of what other designers have created to see how they have associated typefaces with a mood, tone, or value.

It absolutely always helps to become a lifetime student of design, noticing everything from billboard designs to brochure designs. In fact, immersing oneself in design samples seems to rub off on one’s own design work. Ideas and approaches seem to come to mind more readily after repeated exposure to visual media.

Examples: The Type at the Top of This Article

The “IJKLM” type at the top of this article was rendered in splashes of brilliant color in a simple sans-serif typeface with rounded ends on all letterforms (no angles, just symmetrical, rounded forms). The drips and bubbles of what appears to be thrown commercial printing ink (a little like Jackson Pollock’s action painting) provide a sense of movement, while the intensity of the colors evokes a feeling of joy, energy, and fun (in me, at least). This is no accident. The artist chose the letters, the typeface, and the colors intentionally to convey a certain tone. In my view, she or he was successful.

Examples: A Dishcloth from a Thrift Store

My fiancee and I are both visual artists. She is a sculptor. I am a painter. I also draw. In addition to bringing these skills into our art therapy work with the autistic, we like collecting art, sometimes in the strangest of places: the thrift store.

This week my fiancee brought home a used dishcloth (still in very good shape). I’m sure it only cost a couple of dollars, but it had been printed (in black commercial printing ink only on white fabric) in an interesting typeface. There were just a few sentences. However, the typeface (which may have been hand drawn) spoke volumes to both my fiancee and me. (Keep in mind that she, in particular, appreciates lettering on everything from curtains to t-shirts to mugs to dishcloths.)

The dishcloth was designed by Primitives by Kathy, LOL, Made You Smile. It included the following lines of type:

“I WILL NOT YELL IN CLASS.” (in a hand-written, sans-serif typeface)
“I WILL NOT THROW THINGS.” (in a hand-written, sans-serif typeface)
“I WILL NOT TEASE OTHER KIDS.” (in a hand-written, sans-serif typeface)
“I am the Teacher.” (set in two lines in a floral, hand-lettered script with a hand-drawn flourish between the two lines and a hand-drawn quill pen under the word “Teacher”)
(Primitives by Kathy)

Here are some things I noted. (I realize you don’t actually see the type treatment, so I will describe it.) Keep in mind that the final two lines, “I am the Teacher,” are almost triple the size of the all-capital-letter treatment of the first three lines.

The first three lines remind me of the sentences children (in the 1960s and probably before) had to write on the blackboard when they had been naughty. In this case the designer made the word “Yell” larger than the rest (this makes sense; yelling is louder than normal speech, and making it larger reflects this tone).

The second line includes what looks like little stones coming from the word “throw.” They arch over the word “things” and travel upwards through and beyond the first line of type. (There are little streaks indicating movement.) This makes sense. It looks like the word “throw” is throwing little rocks.

The third line includes a hand-drawn extension of the letter “E” that extends into the letter “O” of “Other Kids.” It looks a bit like a child’s hand tickling the ear of another kid from behind. The “O” of “Other” has four or five little stress lines radiating outward from the letter that make the “O” look irritated or aggravated.

Finally “I am the Teacher” is large, graceful, and floral. Still, it appears that the teacher in this case was naughty (after all, she or he is writing all of this) and had to stay after school to write these “lessons” repeatedly on the blackboard in chalk.

There’s no other art, just black type on a white background, but it still gives you the feel of a list of sentences on a chalkboard. Moreover, you even get a sense of both the childlike/childish demeanor of the teacher and her/his somewhat inflated self-image.

All of this is done almost entirely with type choices (and contrast of type size, use of all capital letters in the first three lines, and the casual and even personal nature of what appears to be hand lettering).

Example: Roy Lichtenstein’s “POP”

This is an example of Pop Art, created in the 1960s by artist Roy Lichtenstein. You can find it using Google Images. It is the word “POP!” The important characteristics are that it was painted in all caps with an exclamation point over a stylized explosion painted in various bright colors, with every pictorial element outlined in black.

It looks exactly like a snippet from a 1960s comic book. Of course this is intentional because Lichtenstein is commenting on popular iconography (perhaps even parodying it). Lichtenstein’s paintings, many of which include stylized comic book images of people with pithy comments in “word bubbles,” gently poke fun at the commoditization and commercialization of American society. To put him in context, one of Lichtenstein’s contemporaries was Andy Warhol.

The “POP!” portion of the painting is rendered in all capital letters in a fat, simple sans-serif typeface. It has a drop shadow to make it feel even more dynamic. In fact the typeface, colors, simplicity, and outlining of everything would also make it a good example of onomatopoeia. Onomatopoeia, which you may remember from grade school, is a word that sounds like what it means. (This is quite a bit like the subject of this blog article, how to make type look like what it means.)

In the case of Lichtenstein’s painting, which is huge (and which therefore causes the viewer to look at a cartoon strip out of context and with a fresh eye), the typeface, colors, and meaning are all congruent. All the elements of the design point toward the same meaning.

If you watch 1960s Batman television shows, the same kind of icon is used whenever the Dynamic Duo fight the bad guys. Their punches are interspersed with Lichtenstein-like bursts with words such as “Boof,” “Bam,” and “KaPow,” which would also be considered onomatopoetic.

The Takeaway

It’s a little like the “Form Follows Function” imperative of 19th and 20th century architecture (as referenced in Wikipedia) and is attributed to Louis Sullivan, an architect (also according to Wikipedia). Even though we’re jumping from dishcloths to Pop Art to architecture, we’re talking about the same thing: the benefit of congruence between the meaning or message of words or an image and the way it is presented.

It’s a bit like an army marching across a bridge. All soldiers break stride at the bridge because if they were in step, they would generate such resonance in their perfect synchronization of marching steps (called mechanical resonance, according to “Why Do Soldiers Break Stride On A Bridge?” Elizabeth Howell, May 22, 2013) that the frequency of vibration would cause the bridge to collapse. In graphic design, when you pair the tone and meaning of the words and ideas (the content) with type, color, and layout that reinforce this meaning, you create an unstoppable force.

Custom Printing: The Nuances of Designing with Type

Monday, May 24th, 2021

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In the 45 years I’ve been in the business of commercial printing, I have grown to love the nuances of type. Many years ago I read about a designer who worked well into the night cutting up and repositioning individual letters with a razor blade. (Everything was done by hand back then. The Macintosh did not make desktop publishing a reality until 1987.) The designer was crafting a logo, and nestling the letterforms closely into one another (which is known as kerning). At the time I couldn’t understand the care and affection he seemed to shower on these pieces of waxed typesetting paper (wax was the adhesive we used). Now I understand completely.

In the last week I have been looking through my print books, noting how other designers have “paired” various typefaces to design logos. I know this sounds like pairing a fine wine with a particular meat or poultry dish, and I think there’s actually some truth in that. Some typefaces work well together. Others do not.

In light of this observation, I’d like to share with you a few rules of thumb and observations as a starting point, as noted in the print book Design Basics by Jim Krause.

Contrast Is Golden

Jim Krause notes that when you choose two typefaces to use in your logo design, it’s usually best to choose a serif face and a sans serif face. They should look different in an obvious way. This creates visual interest, drama if you will. For instance, you might want to set the name of the company (perhaps a single word) in all caps in a bold, sans serif typeface. Maybe you want to make this word very large to indicate its importance. Below this, you might want to use an all-caps treatment of the tag-line wording, set in a Modern serif face with dramatic contrast between the thick and thin strokes of the serif letterforms.

The difference in size between the top line and the bottom line creates contrast, and this allows the reader to mentally separate and then absorb the two lines as two different chunks of text (i.e., as two separate ideas). And the contrast in type weight (heavy first line, light second line) and overall appearance (the boldness of the sans serif face against the graceful curves of the serif face) facilitate the reading experience.

All or at least most rules have truth in their opposites, and in this case Jim Krause points out the need for similarity as well as contrast when selecting typefaces.

In Krause’s type samples, there are similarities in the enclosed portions of certain letters (“R” and “B” for instance, in the specific typefaces chosen). This is true whether the typeface is the bold sans serif face or the graceful serif face. The enclosed portions of these two letterforms have similar shapes and length-to-width ratios.

The similar enclosed areas, which are known to typographers as “counters,” create an “echo,” as Krause describes it. Their common characteristics help make it intuitively logical to place the bold sans serif “COMBINING” above the more delicate serif “DIFFERENT FONTS.” Success in the pairing of typefaces in this case rests on a balance between their similarity and difference. Difference creates dynamism; similarity creates unity.

(Regarding similarity of shapes in the letterforms of one family of type vs. another, you might want to check out such letters as a lowercase “a” or “g” in different fonts online. Check Google Images, and you will see what Jim Krause means, in Design Basics, about the similarity of shapes in the design of one type family vs. another, even when there are other dramatic differences.)

Krause’s Design Basics print book doesn’t really address the following point (rather, it’s my own observation), but I think it is relevant. Both the top line (“BALANCING”) and the bottom line (“DIFFERENT FONTS”) have similar character widths in the individual letterforms. That is, they are neither expanded nor condensed (as you may find in some other typefaces). Another way of saying this is that the ratio of the letters’ height to width is the same in the heavy, bold, sans serif top line and in the lighter, smaller, and more graceful bottom line of the logo. Again, this creates similarity and therefore unifies the overall design of the logo.

To further illustrate his point about pairing typefaces, Krause presents a second example (same wording, different fonts). In this sample logo, the top line is set in a bold but Modern typeface. (One characteristic of “Modern” typefaces is the sharp contrast between the thick and thin strokes of each letterform.) This line is also condensed (that is, it has tall, narrow letterforms).

In this case the second line is set in a sans serif font. Moreover, it is letterspaced. (Letterspacing is moving all letters apart slightly and evenly–but not by too much. Too far apart, and the letters would no longer register in the reader’s brain as the words “DIFFERENT FONTS.” Instead, they would appear as individual letters, and this would slow down the reading process. When done with moderation, though, letterspacing gives type a sophisticated, airy look.)

One further point is that the second line, which is letterspaced, is set in all-caps. Letterspacing lowercase letters significantly diminishes their readability, and even though treating type in a unique, dynamic manner is important, the type still must be easy to read.

So just as in Krause’s first example, this logo example includes the following: contrast of size (large first line, small second line) and contrast of typeface (a condensed Modern serif font over a light sans serif font). But there are also unifying elements. Both lines are all-caps, and even though the second line is not condensed–like the first line–it still has roughly the same ratio of height to width as the first. And together these create unity.

A third example goes even further. In this type treatment, Krause has paired an extra-heavy, sans serif “COMBINING” with a lowercase “different fonts” set in red (instead of black, as in all other cases) in a script font. The long, graceful ascenders of “different fonts” set in script reach up like fingers into the thick black letters of “COMBINING.”

Normally, setting anything in a script font will minimize readability. And extending letterforms of the second line up into the first “may” also minimize readability. But what makes this work in this case is the simplicity of the wording. The first line is one word; the second line two. Any more, I believe, would be too much and would impede readability. (You could say the same about the dark red script letterforms of the second line extending up into the black heavy letterforms of the first line. There are only four characters: one “d” and three “f’s.”)

All Three Type Treatments

To summarize, this is what all three type treatments share:

    1. There is contrast on a number of levels (type size, visual weight, type style).


    1. This contrast helps create energy in the logos. In all three samples there is a sense of power in the type treatment. You might infer that the company the logo represents is bold and aggressive.


    1. Nevertheless, there are elements of similarity between the typefaces used for the first and second lines.


  1. This similarity creates a feeling of unity. The two lines go together. They are different but compatible.


Whatever you do with type, always make the contrast “big.” Make it look intentional. This is a truism or rule of thumb I learned about 40 years ago.

Krause addresses this in Design Basics by suggesting that designers stay away from pairing two serif faces or two sans serif faces. Although I personally believe one can do this with finesse (if there is sufficient difference between the typefaces), it usually doesn’t work. Why? Because if typefaces look too much alike, then pairing them looks like an accident.

To illustrate his point, Krause places an all-caps, light sans serif typeface (“COMBINING”) above a light, all-caps, letterspaced, serif “DIFFERENT FONTS.” These do fit the rule of not pairing serif (or sans serif) typefaces with other serif or sans serif typefaces. However, the two typefaces Krause chose (and he notes that this is a bad idea) are too similar. In spite of the large size difference (top line vs. bottom line), the type choice still looks like an accident. Together the two lines of type look “gray” because there’s not enough contrast in visual weight between the two type families.

The moral? Whatever you do, if two visual elements are intended to create contrast, make the contrast a big one.

What We Can Learn From Krause’s Design Basics

Ouch. This has to be torture, looking this closely at three words: “Combining different fonts.” But if the aforementioned discussion has done nothing more than get you to look closely at the nuances of type, I have succeeded.

You can gradually learn all of the details (the characteristics of typefaces, their history, etc.) as the need arises. But if you can see how differences in size, visual weight, and type letterform design (as well as the use of all caps type vs. caps and lower case type) can maximize or minimize both contrast and a sense of unity within a logo, you will be well on the way to appreciating the nuances of type design and their power in crafting a provocative logo.

Custom Printing: Learning to Look at, and Really See, Typefaces

Monday, January 25th, 2021

It seems to be a major truth about life that when you pay close attention to something and learn as much as you can about it, you start to see it everywhere. You also start to understand intuitively how it works. I think this is also true about typography for commercial printing, one of the main building blocks of good design. Or, more specifically, becoming fluent in typography will allow you to consciously give a particular voice, or tone, to whatever you design, from logos to posters to brochures to print books.

With that in mind, one of the best things you can do to increase your awareness of the nuances of typography is to learn to classify typefaces (i.e., to both recognize and articulate their similarities and differences).

Type Classifications

(First of all, I’d encourage you to use Google Images to find the following typefaces: Garamond, Times New Roman, Bodoni, Clarendon, and Helvetica. If you can get a printout of all uppercase and lowercase letters for each font, that’s ideal.)

The first classification is “serif” vs. “sans serif.” Serifs are the little tails on the letterforms that help you connect the letters as your eye passes horizontally across a line of text. Sans serif faces do not have these tails. In print, they are harder to read. On a computer screen, however, they are easier to read than serif typefaces.

Next, there’s the history of type: Old Style, Transitional, and Modern are the classifications for serif faces. If you refer to the Google Image pages you’ve printed out, you can identify Garamond as Old Style, Times New Roman as Transitional, and Bodoni as Modern.

How do they differ?

Old style letters have graceful transitions between thick and thin strokes in the letterforms (and actually not that much difference between the thin and thick strokes). They also have a slant (just the thick and thin portions of curves) slightly to the left (called a back-slant). Finally, their serifs have graceful (not abrupt) curves smoothing out the transition from the serifs to the vertical, horizontal, and diagonal strokes of the letterforms.

Transitional typefaces are similar to Old Style, but they have more of a vertical orientation (in the thick and thin portions of the letterforms). That is, they don’t have the slant of the Old Style letterforms. They also have wider serifs and more contrast between the thick and thin portions of each letter.

Modern typefaces are visibly different. They have far more contrast (more of an abrupt and less graceful transition) between the ultra-thick and ultra-thin strokes of the letterforms.

Finally, there’s one more serif classification: slab serif (Clarendon is an example). Slab serif typefaces have much thicker, chunky serifs without graceful curves (the graceful curves are called bracketing). Slab serif faces are also called “Egyptian” typefaces.

Among the sans serif fonts is Helvetica, noted in the list above. It has no serifs, no little tails. However, it comes in thinner or thicker varieties (light, regular, bold, demi-bold, black, or similar names). It also comes in condensed and expanded versions. So it’s a very versatile typeface. (It can whisper, or it can shout.)

Most sans serif faces have equally thick strokes throughout an alphabet (in contrast to serif faces). However, this is not always true. Fonts such as Optima have no serifs, but the strokes become thicker and thinner throughout the letterforms.

More Classifications

Here are three more classifications: script, novelty, and dingbats.

Script typefaces look like hand lettering. Moreover, some even look like cursive handwriting. They are, for the most part, hard to read and therefore primarily used in short amounts of copy (as in a formal invitation). If you use these fonts, keep the lines of type short and add lots of space between the lines.

Novelty typefaces are hard to read but they have character. They have names like Gypsy Switch and Buzzer Three (as per Jim Krause’s Design Basics Index). They can convey a mood or tone, but if you set any more than a few words in these fonts, your reader’s eyes will quickly tire (i.e., she/he will stop reading).

Dingbats, also known as printer’s flowers, are the little pictures that come in individual font sets. They are convenient if you need a checkmark, a star, a cross, or a little flourish mark between paragraphs (or any number of other non-alpha-numeric characters).

Cap Height, X-Height, Ascenders, and Decenders

Here are four more type terms you may find useful in distinguishing one typeface from another. In fact, it might be a good exercise to take the sample alphabets you have printed out from Google Images (Garamond, Times New Roman, Bodoni, Clarendon, and Helvetica) and start comparing individual letters from one typeface to the same letters in another typeface. You’ll start to see similarities and differences. You may even start to see how one typeface might be “whimsical” and another typeface might have a sense of “gravitas.”

Back to the classifications:

Cap height refers to the height of a capital letter (measured using flat-top letters like an “H,” not curved letters like an “O” or pointy letters like an “A”). If you compare one uppercase letter from one font to another with both set at the same point size (a 24-point headline, for instance), you’ll see that some fonts will look slightly bigger (larger cap height). And if you do the same thing with a lowercase letter (measured from the baseline to the top of the lowercase letter), you’ll see that some fonts include larger lowercase letters that are therefore (usually) easier to read.

This is especially useful when setting type, because if you have letters that are larger and easier to read without necessarily being wider, you can get more words in the same space compared to the same words set in another typeface. This may not look like much of a savings on one print book page, but if you’re typesetting a 480-page book, the x-height of the lowercase letters may make the difference between your producing a 480-page book and a 512-page book (i.e., one less 32-page commercial printing signature to print and pay for while still maintaining the readability of the text—and therefore the interest of the reader).

Ascenders are the parts of the letterforms that rise up above the x-height to the top of the cap height (like the top of the two “h’s” in the word height). The bottom squiggle of the two “g’s” in the word “squiggle,” along with the downward stroke of the “q” are descenders. They reach below the type baseline (the horizontal line on which all the letters sit).

Now if you take all of this information and start comparing the alphabets you printed out in different fonts, you’ll start to see some intriguing and nuanced differences. You may even want to start with such lowercase letters as the “g” and “a,” since in these letters there’s often a lot of dissimilarity (aka, individuality) to be found from typeface to typeface.

What to Do with All This Information

More than anything, learning to distinguish among typefaces, to see the shades of difference and uniqueness between one and another, teaches you to look very closely, and then to select wisely. If you can learn to see the “ear” and “loop” of a lowercase “g” (the ear is the little tail on the top right of the uppermost portion; the loop is the enclosed circle of the “g” below the baseline), you can choose one font over another for a logo design and in so doing add a bit of personality to the design. Even more importantly, the personality or tone you add will more likely be congruent with the brand, or ethos, of the company for which you are crafting the logo. (And your reader may never know this consciously. It may only be a subconscious appreciation of the rightness of your choice of type.)

(As an aside and slice of life story, in the 1980s I studied bicycles in depth before buying a new one—during the start of the health craze. The more I studied, the more bicycles I saw being ridden in the neighborhood. Fifteen years later I took a motorcycle course, and I started seeing more motorcycles on the streets. There weren’t more bicycles or motorcycles. My awareness just made me see the ones right in front of me. Studying typefaces and learning to distinguish one from another—and determining when to use one vs. another and why—will make you far more likely to see typography wherever you go. Choosing typefaces will become an unconscious part of your make-up, and your design work for commercial printing will most likely improve dramatically.)

Book Printing: The “Greyness” of a Block of Type

Monday, October 28th, 2019

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.

Custom Printing: A Handful of Useful Type Terms

Monday, November 17th, 2014

I like type. I think it’s a beautiful art form worthy of close observation and study. I take this position not just from an aesthetic sensibility but from a practical marketing outlook. Type, if well chosen, can convey meaning or elicit emotion. It can inspire and persuade.

In this light, I recently paged through the Design Basics Index by Jim Krause (which I have shared before in PIE Blog posts) for a few useful type terms and descriptions. I will also note why I think they will improve your understanding of the functionality and aesthetics of type, and at the same time improve your design for custom printing.

X-Height and the Baseline

Picture a lowercase “x” in a line of type. Unlike a lowercase “q,” for instance, the “x” sits squarely on top of the “baseline.” The baseline is the imaginary line on which the letters rest: their support, if you will.

The lowercase “q” drops below this line. The portion of the letter that drops below the baseline is called a “descender.”

An important term to consider at this point is the “x-height” of a particular typeface. This is the height of a lowercase (not uppercase) “x.” If you look closely, you will see that the body of all lowercase letters in a particular font rests on the baseline and aligns with the top of other lowercase characters along the “x-height.”

That is, in the word “Design,” which Krause uses in his discussion of typefaces, the tops of the lowercase “e,” “s,” “i,” “g,” and “n” all align (except for the dot above the “i”). The “g” drops below the baseline, and if the word “design” were written with a lowerdase “d” rather than an uppercase “D,” you would say that the top of the “d” rising above the imaginary line across the top of all the other letters is an “ascender” because it ascends above their x-height.

How Is This Relevant to Design?

Beyond the aesthetics of a typeface, the “x-height” is very important in determining whether a typeface (set in a particular size) will be readable.

If you can’t read the words set in a particular typeface at a particular point size, your message will be lost. The type may be beautiful, but it will not communicate with your reader.

Look closely at type sample books or online samples of type, and you’ll see that every typeface has an “x-height” and that this varies from typeface to typeface. Some have higher x-heights; some have lower x-heights. The higher ones are much easier to read. Keep this in mind as you design your commercial printing projects.

Ascenders and Descenders

Going further, the concept of the “ascender” and “descender” described above also pertains to readability.

A word set in all capital letters has a “shape” if you look at it from a slight distance. Imagine a line tracing the outside boundary of all the letters in a word. The word’s shape is a rectangle when it is set in all uppercase letters. Unfortunately, no matter what the word set in all capital letters is, the shape will always be a rectangle.

Scientists who have studied reading patterns have noted that as people read, they don’t look at all the letters in a word. Instead, they look for the shape of the word, a shape they have seen before and have committed to memory.

The word “DESIGN,” for instance, has the shape of a rectangle, as noted above. If, however, you set the word in lowercase letters, “design,” the ascender (the top of the “d”) and the descender (the bottom of the “g” that drops below the baseline) give the word a unique shape, a shape that is not quite a rectangle. (It has a bulge at the top left and bottom right.) This unique shape allows the reader to immediately recognize the word without needing to read all the letters.

In contrast, the uppercase “DESIGN” actually slows down the reader, since he or she will have to look more closely (i.e., not skim the word to recognize it).

How Is This Relevant to Design?

If you want to use uppercase-only type, keep it to only a few words, or you’ll lose your reader. If you run the type over several lines, make the lines very short, and put a lot of extra horizontal space between them (i.e., add extra leading).

Serif and Sans Serif Type

Design Basics Index by Jim Krause includes a few magnified images of serifs (the little tails on letterforms that help draw your eye from one letter to the next as you read a line of text).

Old-Style serifs are curved. They taper gradually from the vertical and horizontal strokes of the letters. Krause uses Goudy as an example of an Old-Style typeface.

Modern serifs are thin and abrupt. They change direction instantly from the horizontal and vertical strokes of a letterform (there are no gradual curves in the serifs). Moreover, there is a more dramatic contrast between the thin and thick strokes of a letter in a Modern typeface than in an Old-Style typeface. Krause uses Bodoni as an example of a Modern typeface.

Slab Serif type has fat, chunky serifs. This category of type is also called “Egyptian type,” and you may be reminded of Old Wild West signs and posters when you see these typefaces. Krause has chosen Clarendon to illustrate Slab Serif typefaces.

In contrast, Sans Serif typefaces have no serifs. However, you will find that some are narrow and tall while others are wide and chunky. You will also find that some, like Optima, actually have letterforms that are thinner or thicker in different places (most sans serif faces are of equal weight in all strokes of the letterforms).

How Is This Relevant to Design?

Look closely at different serif and sans serif type samples (maybe a paragraph of each), and you’ll see that some are more legible than others. You’ll also find that each of these type samples has a slightly different mood or tone. An Old-Style typeface may seem more stately and serious, and a Modern typeface may seem more avant garde. For a poster, a slab serif typeface may be more dramatic and persuasive.

So the bottom line is that you should observe type closely, set your message in a number of different typefaces, and then think about which choice is most readable and also most congruent with the tone and content of the message you wish to convey. The more you know about type, the better able you will be to select the best typeface for a particular custom printing project.

Commercial Printing: Intriguing Facts About Fonts

Tuesday, June 10th, 2014

I would encourage you to use Google Images (as well as Google Web) to find samples of each type characteristic or category. Type “Google Images,” then search for “Modern” Type, for instance. You can find detailed images and descriptions in this way.

Typography is one of the most important and complex aspects of the graphic arts, involving aesthetics as well as the highly computer-intensive arena of prepress. In no special order, here are a few facts and descriptions regarding typography and fonts.

A Brief History of Type: Old Style, Transitional, and Modern

It always helps to get a type sample print book to familiarize yourself with all the variations in typefaces. These now are available online as well as in printed form. Type books and websites display either full alphabets and numerals or selected passages of text (“The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog,” for instance) in various typefaces.

As a starting point, let’s look at the “Old Style,” “Transitional,” and “Modern” classifications for serif faces (the typefaces with little extra strokes on the ends of the letterforms).

Old Style faces include Garamond and Goudy. There is not as much variation between the width of thick and thin strokes in the letterforms as in Transitional or Modern faces. In addition, there is a somewhat diagonal stress in the letterforms. (For instance, if you look at the difference in thickness of the letterform as your eye travels around the letter “O” set in Garamond type, the thinnest portions of the letter are somewhat asymmetrical, causing the letter to appear to lean slightly to the left.) Finally, the serifs are bracketed (that is, the letterform curves into the stroke of the serif).

Baskerville and Fournier would be good examples of “Transitional” typefaces. They have more contrast between thick and thin strokes as well as a more vertical “stress” than the Old Style typefaces that preceded them. In addition, the serifs are horizontal (as opposed to slightly slanted, as is often the case in Old Style typefaces).

Modern typefaces go even further. There is far more contrast between the thin and thick strokes of the letterforms (very thin vs. very thick). In addition, serifs and horizontal strokes of the letters are exceptionally narrow (almost hairlines), and the serifs have no bracketing (i.e., no curves into the serifs, just abrupt angles). Finally, the letterform stress is vertical. Gone is the slanted stress of Old Style type. Bodoni and Didot would fall into this category.

Sans Serif Typefaces

The aforementioned are only the serif faces. Another category entirely, sans serif faces have no little “tails” on the ends of the letters. Letterforms in this category are simpler, with no variance, or very little variance, from thick to thin in the letters. Other terms associated with sans serif (French for “without serifs”) are “Grotesque” and “Gothic.” You’ll see these words in the names of the typefaces, such as Century Gothic or Monotype Grotesque.

Due to their overall heavier look than some serif typefaces, sans serif typefaces are useful for headlines, providing contrast to the lighter tone of a block of body copy set in a serif typeface. Sans serif type can be a bit harder to read in large amounts of copy than serif faces (this is the traditional wisdom, although many people now dispute this). Some people believe the strokes of the serifs carry the eye more easily from one serif typeface letter to the next.

Helvetica and Futura are sans serif faces. Optima, another sans serif face, actually breaks the rule of most sans serif faces in that its letterforms include strokes of varying thickness (but no serifs).

Slab Serif or Egyptian Typefaces

You may have seen type on Old West style posters with pronounced thick, horizontal serifs that are chunky like slabs (much thicker than the horizontal serifs of Modern typefaces). Clarendon would fit into this category. Letterforms have a vertical stress, and there is little variation from thick to thin within the letterforms. All of these qualities made for dynamic, easy to read posters in the Old West. These faces are also called “Egyptian” typefaces.

Script Typefaces

These are just what their name implies. Script faces look like they were drawn with a pen. They have a certain formality, although they are very hard to read as text (and somewhat easier to read as headline type). You might use them in a poster or an invitation.

Decorative Typefaces

Stencil, Rosewood, and Hobo are three examples of decorative faces. Decorative type can be very effective in conveying a mood within a large format print like a poster or billboard, if the text comprises only a few words. Through its appearance alone, such a typeface can give your reader a sense of the meaning of the words. As to their readability, though, decorative typefaces are hard on the eyes when used for complete headlines or body copy.

Why You Should Care

With these type classifications in mind, you will start to see the subtle differences between typefaces. And that will be a good starting point to help you choose the most appropriate typeface for your headlines and body copy, typefaces that will reflect the tone you are trying to convey with your graphic design project while still being readable.

Typefaces are not interchangeable. Set a few sample words (or a headline) from your brochure printing job or print book cover in several different typefaces (use only a few words, and use the same words for all examples you’ll create this way). You will see the subtle or even dramatic ways in which its tone, or mood, or even meaning will change as well.

Commercial Printing: More Intriguing Facts About Fonts

Wednesday, June 4th, 2014

Here are a few more facts and suggestions regarding fonts, a topic about which volumes could be written.

More Type Distinctions

“Regular,” “Bold,” “Semibold”–the list goes on. The best way to acquaint yourself with the font choices available to you in InDesign (or any other page composition software package) is to select “Font” under the “Type” menu and review the pop-up font listing menu (or you can do the same thing if you have a font management utility such as Suitcase).

In InDesign, you will see an “A,” an “O,” or a “TT,” or maybe even another designation. These indicate Adobe, OpenType, and TrueType fonts (three popular font formats), then the name of the font family (such as Helvetica), a sample (actually the word “Sample” in the specific typeface), and then an arrow. Touch the arrow with your mouse pointer, and you will see a list of the faces available within the fonts (such as regular, italic, bold, and bold italic).

Personally, I find the families of type (such as Helvetica) with the greatest number of typefaces to be the most useful in designing a print book, brochure, large format print, or whatever. One of my own Helvetica type families includes the following:

  1. Light Condensed
  2. Light Condensed Oblique
  3. Medium Condensed
  4. Medium Condensed Oblique
  5. Bold Condensed
  6. Bold Condensed Oblique
  7. Black Condensed
  8. Black Condensed Oblique
  9. Black
  10. Black Oblique

As you can see from the listing, this particular family of Helvetica type (and there are many other families of Helvetica) starts with a light version and works its way through a medium, bold, and then black version. If I want to stay within one font family in a print book, for instance, I can provide various levels of emphasis, or contrast, by choosing a lighter or darker typeface from the same type family. At the same time I can give the print book a unified appearance by staying within one family of type (for the heads, subheads, text, captions, sidebars, etc.).

In this particular type family, all of the Helvetica fonts except for the last two are condensed (narrower than usual). I have other Helvetica font families that contain regular, italic, and bold versions of Helvetica without any condensing of the typefaces. Personally, I like the condensed Helvetica fonts because their narrow width allows me to include more words in less space. The same character count in the standard, non-condensed type might be the difference between a 120-page print book and a 150-page print book (i.e., this one design decision could save a lot of money over an entire press run while still providing an attractive, readable print product).

Always Use the Actual Typeface

Many computer applications allow you to highlight a word and then select an icon to make it bold, italic, or regular (or “roman,” which is the traditional name for regular). This is usually available in the Style menu. Resist the urge to do this. It’s always best to highlight the text, go into the actual Font menu, and choose the specific Helvetica Bold typeface (or any other typeface). Otherwise you may notice font substitutions when you get the actual type back from your commercial printing supplier (the proof or the printed document).

Kerning vs. Tracking

Here’s another definition and distinction. Page composition software will allow you to tighten up (or loosen) the spaces between letters to improve the readability of text. When you do this to a block of copy, this is called “tracking.” When you tighten up a pair of letters, it’s called “kerning.”

More specifically, this is a useful tool to use when you have pairs of letters like “AW” or “AV,” particularly when they are set in capital letters. Due to the shape of the two letterforms, there is often too much space between them. Kerning allows you to tighten this up, which improves readability and gives a more professional look to the typography.

Extended Character Sets

Known by various names, the extended set of characters available in some type fonts will include letters with accents (umlauts, the cedilla, etc.), ligatures (sets of two letters traditionally run together such as “fl” or “fi”), fractions, swash capitals (capital letters with a script-like flourish), superscripts, and subscripts. You may also need to add a trademark or copyright symbol to your print job, or even a degree symbol if you’re referencing a temperature, and all of these would be located in this extended character set as well.

Access these “glyphs” (which is the traditional name and also the name used by InDesign) through the “Window” / “Type and Tables” / “Glyphs” path.

Handing Off Fonts to Your Commercial Printing Vendor

When you send your InDesign file of your job to press, also send copies of your fonts (screen and printer fonts) to your printer in order to avoid possible font substitutions, which could reflow copy in your file.

Another way to ensure the accurate printing of the fonts is to hand off a PDF of the file with all fonts “embedded” (included within the PDF). Your file will print exactly as expected.

If you’re designing a poster, or another job with minimal text, your third option is to convert the text to outlines (go to Type menu, then use “Create Outlines”).

Printing Industry: Designing for the Visually Challenged

Monday, February 3rd, 2014

We all get older. It’s much better than the alternative. But as we age, our eyes find it more difficult to read text, and perceive color and contrast. I’m going to be 56 shortly, and I’m already noticing this. If you design printed products for a middle aged (or older) crowd, it is even more important than usual to consider the eyesight of the audience when you design brochures, print books, or any other custom printing product.

Along these lines, I recently read a useful article on legibility for older readers on The article is called, “Type Talk: Designing for the Aging Eye” (Ilene Strizver, 10/16/13), and it makes a number of good suggestions about how to select the most readable type for a print book, print newsletter, or any other job. After all, if your audience can’t see something, or if their eyes tire and they stop reading, no amount of aesthetically pleasing design will make up for this.

Choose Legible Typefaces

The article lists the ideal attributes of readable type. These include typefaces with tall x-heights (the height of a lowercase “x”), open counters (the enclosed parts of a letter, like the inside space of the capital letter “Q”), and uniform strokes (not too much contrast between the thick and thin lines of a letterform).

The article also suggests using sans serif type for body copy, avoiding condensed and expanded typefaces, and using a minimum number of fonts per page (two would be ideal, according to the article).

Basically, when you’re designing custom printing products for the middle aged, for seniors, or for the visually impaired, you would want to avoid complex display typefaces or script faces. These may be ideal for conveying the tone of your printed piece, but they impede reading. In fact, the simpler the type—i.e., the typefaces most people are used to seeing: the boring ones–are actually the most readable typefaces.

Make the Type Larger Than Usual

“Type Talk: Designing for the Aging Eye” encourages designers to make type for the elderly a bit larger than usual. If you’re used to specifying body copy at 9, 10, or 11 pt. (with one or two points of extra leading), then use 12 point type on 15 points of leading (12/15, or three extra points of leading) as a starting point. (For a more visually challenged reader, you might even want to set the text in 16 point type.)

Choose Type Weights That Are Neither Too Light Nor Too Heavy

That is, set your type in “roman,” “book,” or a similar weight. Avoid weights like “extra bold,” “black,” or “light.” According to the article, “research indicates that italic type is 18 percent more difficult to read than Roman (upright) letters.” Therefore, if you want to emphasize a word, consider making it bold instead of italic. Also, avoid the urge to make a style of type (such as all captions in a book) all italics.

Keep Type Formatting Simple

Uppercase and lowercase letters are easier to read that all uppercase letters. This is true for anyone at any age. For middle aged eyes, it’s particularly true. Therefore, set all body copy in uppercase and lowercase type. If you feel the need to use all caps, use them only for short headlines.

The article also notes that ragged right (flush left) copy is easiest to read (because the space between words does not vary, unlike justified type). It also suggests making column widths neither too narrow nor too wide (experiment, and solicit feedback from a few readers). Making sure the letterspacing (overall space between letters) is a little wider than usual is also a good move.

Keep Good Contrast Between Type and Background

It’s always easier to read type that stands out from the background substrate. Black type on a white background is ideal—all the better if your reader’s eyes are aging. Screening back type makes it harder to read, as does printing type over a busy background (like surprinting type over a photo). Conversely, having too much contrast can tire the eyes. For instance, if you’re designing a single-page flyer, avoid printing black type on bright fluorescent paper stock.

Break Up the Copy into Chunks of Information

The easier you make it for your reader to navigate the printed page, the more pleasurable the reading experience will be, particularly if your reader has diminished eyesight. According to the article, breaking body copy into shorter paragraphs, creating bulleted lists, adding extra white space to the page, including a number of subheads, and, in general, laying out copy in easily digested chunks all make for an easier reading experience.

Finally, make sure the hierarchy of editorial importance (as reflected in size differences and type differences between heads and subheads, body copy, captions, and such) can be grasped immediately—even at arm’s length. For anyone, this will make reading easier; for the visually challenged, it may make the difference between your custom printing job being read or not being read.


Be sensitive to your reader’s eyesight. Don’t assume that everyone’s vision is the same as yours (which is a very easy assumption to make). Think about your readers and their challenges. Then compensate as needed using the tools of the design trade. Your reader will love you for it, and you will get your message across.


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