Is There an Art To Spacing?

The traditional typographer might will answer this question in the affirmative. Certainly he would have centuries of accepted practices to back him up. Prior to the introduction of movable type, the calligraphers had brought to handwriting a remarkably well-developed sense of fitness in the spacing of letters and words. Naturally enough the early printers sought to emulate the best examples of the writing masters.

An examination of 15th century printing will disclose that tight and orderly spacing was the norm, in books set in either roman type or blackletter. By and large this president has been followed by careful printers ever since, but during the 19th century standards of craftsmanship declined noticeably.

This factor was partially the result of the speed-up in production following the advent of power printing presses, which permitted the rapid expansion of periodical printing. Compositors paid at piecework rates and evidently lost interest in maintaining the standards of the close spacing.

Effect of High Production

When typesetting was finally automated by Ottmar Mergenthaler’s Linotype machine, spacing was accomplished by a wedge called a space band. Here again the concept of high productivity interfered with good spacing, particularly when each operator was made to believe that the primary virtue was the ability to “hang the elevator.”

Newspaper typography suffered the most from the lack of standards, but even book composition wide word spacing became a commonly accepted practice. All too frequently, in slug composition—the most common method of typesetting in the United States—the printer depends upon a single thickness of space band for all jobs, regardless of type size.

The so-called “wide range” band tapers from approximately three points to eight points. Thus, in a tight line, the narrowest spacing is three points between words—just about right or the traditional space for 10-point type, but too wide for 8-point or 6-point. Since the tight line is the exception, it follows that most word spacing under such conditions will be too wide.

Trend to Very Tight

During the last two or three years there has been a definite trend toward the use of extremely tight spacing. This is basically the result of the wide use of phototypesetting, particularly in display composition. In many instances the fad has resulted in grotesque letter-fitting, which is easily accomplished either by camera procedures or by paste-up. The overlapping of serifs is now common practice when roman types are used. It is quite obvious that many of the advertising designers have little understanding of the intricate problems of letter-fitting which are exemplified by sound type design over the last five centuries. Some display typography may benefit from such a unique treatment, but already it is becoming tiresome from overuse.

The jamming of individual sans serif letters is even more capricious and often leads to virtually illegible composition. Typesetters who are expected to follow this trend with metal pipes types find themselves shaving letters for almost every job. Again, it is the indiscriminate use of such design trends which leads to excess. The one advantage of “letter-jamming,” however, has been the calling of attention to narrow spacing of straight-matter composition.

Optical Considerations

The justification of lines of type calls for either spacing-in or spacing-out as a decision to be made by the operator or compositor at the end of every line of type he sets. Since the comp must replace the spaces one at a time, he is very conscious indeed of the optical considerations of the task.

The slug-machine operator tends to “count bands,” thinking only of getting a line cast. Obviously spacing-in is always the most desirable decision to make.

The compositor has the advantage of seeing the line in his hand, which allows him to vary spaces considerably, depending upon the letters which begin or end a word. The space following a comma, for example, might readily be reduced while that between words in which two ascending letters are juxtaposed might be left alone. The range of spacing material at the disposal of the compositor is sufficiently varied to give him a great deal of latitude in his optical spacing.

At the keyboard, the narrowest space normally available is the thin space, a four of the em. Hair spaces, which do not have combination teeth, are manufactured in for widths, ¼-point, ½-point, 1-point and 1½-points. However, most operators are reluctant to use them as they must insert them by hand, and at the transfer position the spaces have an annoying tendency to drop into the mold disc.

Equipment Trends

The mechanics of typesetting have therefore interfered with good spacing. The composing machine manufacturers have endeavored to assist printers by providing space bands in a range of widths and by supplying a number of logotypes (Te, Wo, etc.) which reduce the space within the line. The Monotype machine, with its unit system, simplifies the problem of spacing, but it is still a step removed from the compositor exercising esthetic judgment in the composing stick.

Phototypesetting seems to offer the greatest variety of choices to the operator of the keyboard, at least in the more sophisticated machines. It is to be hoped that printers will take advantage of such equipment by providing skilled operators who know how to obtain the best typography from even the most complicated machines.

The fad of jamming display letters will pass on, as have all the other stunts to attract attention, but printers can at least be thankful that the redeeming feature of the present mode has promoted interest in a most necessary factor of legible typography—close word spacing.

This article first appeared in the “Typographically Speaking” column of the October 1968 issue of Printing Impressions.


One Comment

  1. […] the discussion of spacing begun last month, I offer a quotation from a paragraph written just 50 years ago. Ben Sherbow, an advertising man […]

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