Skill in Spacing Acquired by Experience

Continuing the discussion of spacing begun last month, I offer a quotation from a paragraph written just 50 years ago. Ben Sherbow, an advertising man who carried the torch for good spacing, remarked that it was “probably the most difficult problem in type arrangement, and the last thing anyone ever learns to do well.”

Just what Mr. Sherbow would say about some of the current excesses of typographic spacing now appearing in the periodicals is conjectural, but he would probably continue his attempts to educate the contemporary crop of typographers.

In setting up standards of correct spacing is not necessary to restrict the typographer to a complicated list of rules. You must, however, trained his eye to detect instantly irregularities of spacing which will affect the legibility of the printed message.

For example, the classic word space for types in straight-matter composition is the 3-em space, but mature judgment would certainly indicate a change if the type selected is a boldface, a condensed, or an extended type. Even under the present trend of tighter spacing, in which the 3-em space has been discarded in favor of the 4-em space, the same set of judgments must be brought into play.

The reputable European typographer, Jan Tschichold, in his list of compositor’s rules, suggests that the width of the lowercase “i” is used as a standard for word spacing, a recommendation which would automatically compensate for any change in the style of type selected. Should the type size be quite small, such as 6 or 7-point, narrower-than-normal spacing will make reading difficult. At the other extreme, an 18 or 24-point type can be quite legible with the equivalent of a 5-em space between words.

All too frequently individual printing offices set up house rules which further restrict good spacing. It is an article of faith in some plants to forbid the use of over two consecutive lines ending with broken words. Thus, in order to escape such a tyrannical prescription, the comp or operator must find refuge in wide spacing. Readers are rarely slowed down by hyphenations, but white gaps between words certainly have that effect.

I recall observing in a book printed by Daniel Berkeley Updike some 15 uninterrupted lines of hyphens, indicating that the great Boston printer cared more for good spacing than for house rules on hyphens.

Inevitably linked to the concept of what represents good word spacing is the letterspacing of lowercase letters. The solutions vary from that of the typographer who red-stamps “verboten!” against every letterspaced word or line to the operator who inserts spacebands between letters in order to justify the line quickly.

Of course the purist in such matters cites the fitting of each individual letter into the word picture and the care exercised by type designers to serve the compatibility of adjoining characters. Bruce Rogers, the finest typographer of the century, stated that lowercase type “should practically never be letterspaced,” adding that the larger sizes of types might be an exception “in a minor degree, as the spaces between the letters naturally are larger.” Most of the traditional printers agree, but it is relatively simple to escape the difficulty in book composition, since the line lengths are generally more comfortable than in commercial printing.

The dubious practice in many newspapers of inserting the photograph of a columnist in a one-column story can only result in a spacing problem impossible to solve with any degree of success. Aside from the newspaper porkchop, the spacing difficulties encountered in narrow line widths can sometimes be solved, particularly in advertising, by resorting to flush right or left format. This practice may even save space in addition to contributing the virtue of even word spacing.

An extreme not really very much removed from that of allowing no letterspacing is the requirement that the practice be used only if every character in the line is spaced. Such a solution is most practical in composition in which spacing is accomplished automatically, by such machines as the Monotype, in hot metal and the newer phototypesetting machines.

One of the impediments to good typography in this method is that ligatures (fi, ffi, etc.) cannot be used, introducing an inconsistency. It may also be necessary to use a minimum word space in order to accommodate the requirements of an intransigent situation.

Most experienced typographers, while they may accept letterspacing of lowercase roman with equanimity, become a band of brothers in expressing disapproval of letterspacing italic, citing the narrower fitting (aside from slug-cast type) of the sloped letter and its dependence upon the freedom of writing. There is almost unanimous agreement also about exercising restraint in the letterspacing of black letter, which by its very name denies all of the letterspaces, a further inconsistency.

In many situations in which letterspacing may be required, printers will space out to an en quad between words, and then letterspace to justify the line. While this is an economic solution it does not meet the requirements of careful typography. But, given the mechanical restrictions of type, measure and copy, the printer must in the last resort rely upon his own good judgment or seek the aid of his customer and adjusting the copy to the introduction of whitespace.

It is therefore not so much a reliance upon inflexible rules which should guide the typographer in his approach to the difficulties of fine spacing, but a basic understanding of the requirements of his job.

As Bruce Rogers has already stated, “printing is fundamentally a selection of materials already in existence,” so the young designer will find it more productive to examine the work of the acknowledged masters of the art then to slavishly follow up book of rules.

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


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