Twelve Points of Typography

There is a fine art of making type illegible-of running it up the sides of pages—and giving it lace edges—and of setting it in long lines that bewilder the reader and make him lose his place. This, however, is a little primer on the old-fashioned technique of making type easy to read. It’s a guidebook for the man who is interested mainly in what he gets off the paper and into the reader’s mind, the man who wants a sign instead of a “de-sign.” Here are a round dozen ABC’s of the typographic business adapted from the house organ of Maran Advertising Printing Services, Baltimore, Md.

  1. Do something simple—Whether for menu, advertisement, catalog page, or typographic “whatnot,” make a simple plan that will enable the reader to start at the beginning of your type matter and follow easily to the end.
  2. Black on white, black on yellow, or red on white? In picking the colors of your paper and ink, the principal thing is to get contrast, for without contrast there is no legibility. Beware, too, of strange colors and unusual color combinations; if dabbling with colors, you run the double hazard of making your printing illegible and insufferable.
  3. Keep it on the square—Rectangular blocks of type, straight even lines, these go a long way to make type inviting.
  4. Not less than 10-point”—That’s a rule you’ll hear often among experienced advertising men. Ordinary eyes appreciate big type, and in textual matter 10-point seems to be about the smallest that can be read with ease.
  5. Don’t crowd—Nothing is more discouraging to readers than an agglomeration of type and illustrations all jammed together like pigs in a trough. Allow room enough for your copy to start with, and allow generous margins around it. Be liberal with use of white space around the engravings.
  6. Spread out—Type set solid is a pain in the eye to the average reader, but lead between the lines and proper spaces between the words make a world of difference. Use lead freely, frequently and uniformly. Give your type air. Let it breathe.
  7. Set it in good old Caslon”—That was the old compositor’s standard reply when asked about typefaces, and the general idea is a good one. Pick a legible typeface and one that will not trip the reader. The professors also advise us that type set all in capitals is definitely hard to read and that readers shy away from big blocks of copy set in italic, boldface, typewriter, or sans-serif type.
  8. Fifty-seven varieties—A good tale speeds best when plainly told. When you have picked a good legible typeface, stick with it. For occasional emphasis and for headlines, subheads, and cutlines, a change of face is refreshing. But if you want your reader to stay with you, beware—oh, beware—of jumping promiscuously from one face to another.
  9. Long or short?—It’s impossible to be didactic about the length of the type line, but it’s very easy to stumble over lines that are too long for comfort. The reader must keep his eyes anchored to the left-hand margin so that he can jump back and pick up the next line. When a line stretches endlessly across the page, like a pack of hounds in full cry across country, there’s too long a jump back to the margin. And that’s quite possibly the place where your reader falls into a visual ditch and abandons you and your good works forever. Lines that are too short are just as irritating as lines that are too long, for they mean a constant back and forth motion that soon exhausts the eye muscles.
  10. River stay ’way—Wide rivers of white space running up and down through type give it a washed-out, uneven appearance. The 3 R’s still apply: “Reset—Revise—Respace.”
  11. Kill the widow!—Solitary words left standing alone at the top or bottom of a column or page make awkward reading and are a blot on any typographer’s scutcheon. Kill them somehow.
  12. Every letter perfect—To the shame of the printing profession, book collectors traditionally distinguish between various editions by typographical errors. Perhaps few will love you better if you proofread your type well and keep it clean. But you will at least have the satisfaction of knowing you have done everything possible to help your readers.

This article first appeared in the June 1964 issue of The Inland Printer/American Lithographer. Although uncredited, it is most likely written by Alexander S. Lawson.

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  1. […] Twelve points of typography Originally published in the June 1964 issue of The Inland Printer / American Lithographer. […]

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