Modern computer software has put powerful design tools in your hands—but there's a catch: you either have to follow the limited set of built-in templates and accept a canned solution to your design problem, or you can take the do-it-yourself approach and get unpredictable results. Of course, you can always consult a professional, but if you want to try your hand you should check out the tips offered here.
Twelve Typesetting Tips
Ever since Gutenberg, typesetting practices have developed to increase legibility and thus help words communicate their ideas better. Other practices simply give your print a touch of style. These tips are specific to the print medium, but many principles apply to Web design as well.
1. Use serif fonts to increase legibility in body text. Studies show that we read by recognizing word shapes, not letter-by-letter. Serifs make word shapes a touch more distinctive and large blocks of text easier to read and understand. Smaller amounts of type, such as headlines or captions, may use either serif or san serif fonts.
The common default font, Times Roman or one of its variants, probably makes the worst choice for any publication, whether a fax, memo, or newsletter. Experiment with other, more legible fonts for your publication, such as Bookman, Garamond, Century Schoolbook, or many other great choices. For san serif fonts, the usual default, Helvetica (or Arial), is inferior and bland; look for a more distinctive alternative.
Some commonly available fonts, such as Goudy Old Style, Garamond, and Georgia,Times New Roman,Times Roman,Times,Serif, have nonlining numbers (also called lower-case or old-style numbers). They have descenders and ascenders, which increase legibility and elegance in body text. Lining (or upper-case) numbers look slightly too large in body text and should be reserved for spreadsheets or with all caps, but at a smaller point size than the surrounding text.
Whatever your choices, be consistent. Using the same headline and body text fonts throughout a publication unifies it. Occasional departures from your standard choices will then have more impact.
2. Don’t mix boldface and normal text. If you want to add emphasis, try italics. Bold type stands out too much, distracting rather than enhancing. However, boldface may enhance headlines, captions, and paragraph lead-ins. Bolding may also be acceptable for website URLs, which sometimes extend for several lines and need a distinctive treatment. By the way, do not break URLs at hyphens that are part of the address. This might lead the reader to omit the hyphen. Instead, try to break long URLs after a slash or (less desirably) a dot.
While on this subject, it may be important to follow the case specified by the URL's owner. Some servers do not respond if given letters are in the wrong case, although most will not balk whether you use upper or lower case. Also, be careful to use a type face that distinguishes between the lower case letter l and the number 1. Most serif fonts make this distinction.
Forget underlining. An underscore partly obscures the descenders on some letters, hampering legibility. Underlining is appropriate only for special purposes in financial, academic, and legal documents or as links on web pages (but not in print, where the links do not function). Never underline bold or italic words. Ugly.
All caps are also ugly, hard to read, and annoying. Many consider them the printed equivalent of shouting—almost as bad as multiple exclamations marks for really, really, really important stuff. Consider small caps instead. You may need to increase the size of the type slightly and the word spacing as well (not by hitting the spacebar twice—that adds too much space). A possible alternative, although usually less attractive, is to use all caps and increase the size of the letters you would otherwise capitalize.
Finally, remember that headlines are not titles. Instead of capitalizing every major word, use downstyle heads and subheads to achieve an extra measure of legibility.
3. Generally speaking, short lines are more legible than long ones. When your eyes come to the end of an extremely long line, they sometimes get lost trying to find the beginning of the next. An old rule of thumb sets the ideal line length 1½ times the length of the entire alphabet without spaces (roughly 39 characters long). Shorter paragraphs help alleviate the long-line problem. Consider breaking a long paragraph into two or more shorter ones.
One good way to shorten line length is to use columns. The smaller the font size used for body text, the more columns you can easily place on a page. Generally speaking, an odd number of columns gives a layout greater flexibility (page elements can fit in a single column, span several, or stretch across a full page). Even if you don't want to squeeze five or seven very narrow columns into a page, the underlying structure provides guidelines for variation.
An even number of columns offers similar flexibility, but the balanced division of a page, which has a classic look, is somewhat staid. Asymmetry is more lively.
4. Use a lead-in for the first paragraph of an article. You have several options: set the first line or first significant words in boldface, italics, or small caps. Subsequent paragraphs should have small indents with no extra spacing between paragraphs. The word processor's default 1" indent is way too deep. Many typesetters use as few as two m-spaces, but a larger indent, up to ½", boosts legibility.
Reserve block style (no indents, blank line between paragraphs) for business letters, e-mail. and text on websites. Finally, don't forget other kinds of indents, such as double block indents for quoted passages (omit the quotation marks) and hanging indents.
5. Leading (line spacing) can also increase legibility. Avoid the word processor's auto-leading option. By setting it manually, the line spacing will remain fixed even when you have a character or a word of different size. A general rule is to set leading about 120% of the font size for body text, i.e., for 10-pt type, use 12-pt leading. You can get away with a smaller font size without sacrificing legibility by increasing the leading even more.
For a san serif font you can go up to 140%. Solid leading (100%) or even negative leading may be OK for headlines. Twenty words is considered the upper length limit for standard leading. Longer lines require increased leading.
6. Use hyphens, m-dashes, and n-dashes correctly. Regular hyphens are used for (surprise!) hyphenating words and for phone numbers, although some styles, especially European, call for spaces or periods in phone numbers. Be sure to use "hard" or non-breaking hyphens when you don’t want a word or phone number to break at the end of a line.
Use m-dashes for punctuation—emphasis or apposition. If the line breaks at the dash, break it after, not before. Some typesetters put a thin space (narrower than a regular space) around dashes for this purpose.
Use n-dashes for ranges, e.g., 8–10 p.m., Washington–Boston flight, etc., and avoid breaking a line at this character. An n-dash also makes an acceptable minus sign, although it is slightly longer than a true minus character.
7. Replace tick marks or hash marks by true quotes and apostrophes (also called "smart" or "curly"). Reserve the former for mathematical expressions like feet and inches, measurements of arc (minutes, seconds), or geographic coordinates; alternatively, you may prefer primes, which are slanted and therefore a bit more elegant. American style places commas and periods inside quotes, British outside. Also, the British use single quotes where Americans use double quotes and vice-versa.
8. Once and for all, break your typewriter habits. Professionally typeset documents do not double space after colons or periods. Just remember: single space after all punctuation.
9. Consider left justification, sometimes called "ragged right," especially for text set in short lines. Full justification may look more professional at first glance but produces less legible paragraphs. Why? Unequal spacing makes the eye "stumble" and creates distracting rivers of white space running down the page. Worst of all, full justification may stretch a very long word to fill a short line. Although most newspapers use full justification, it is suitable only for text with very long lines, as in books, and for some advertising purposes, such as logos.
10. An ellipsis marks an omission in a quotation or a rhetorical pause, indicated by a series of dots or periods. You may use either three periods or a true ellipsis character, which will not break at the end of a line as three periods might. At the end of a sentence most grammarians require an additional period or other appropriate punctuation. This is a grammatical rule, not typographical; some typesetters break it when using the true ellipsis. Otherwise you may need to kern the fourth period manually, i.e., adjust the space before it to equal the spacing between the dots.
11. The © (copyright), ® (registered trademark), and to a lesser extent ™ (trademark) symbols almost always look better reduced, sometimes by as much as 50%, depending on the font. Likewise, check boxes and bullets may look better reduced by 20–30%, again depending on the font choice and the specific bullet character.
12. Ampersands replace the English word "and" its French equivalent "et," from which the character is derived. Its elegant calligraphic character adds interest to logos, headlines, and other bits. It is permissible in body text in English, but some authorities frown on using it in this context.
13. (OK, so it's a baker's dozen.) Break the rules occasionally. In some cases it's just the right thing to do. But you'd better have a very good reason for abandoning these tried and true principles for good typesetting.
Ten Layout Tips
The four main elements of graphic design are contrast, alignment, repetition, and proximity, so they are the subject of the first four tips.
1. Contrast. Contrast the size of the elements on a page. Obviously, the most important element should probably be the largest. Use a really big title to contrast with normal-sized body text, for example. A 14-point headline doesn't have nearly enough impact with 12-point body text. Rough rule-of-thumb: make headlines at least 50% larger than the following text. Use contrast in other ways: color, font (not more than two, please), space, etc.
2. Alignment. Don't put a graphic just anywhere. Make sure the various elements of your layout, both graphics and text, visually link with other elements. That doesn't mean everything should be jammed up against the left margin, though. You can have several alignments working at the same time. Avoid mixing left, right, and centered justification. Use the same-length indents consistently.
3. Repetition. Repeat certain elements for emphasis. Be consistent. Adopt a style and stick to it. Using the same colors, fonts, type size, and graphical elements (dingbats, for example) will give your publication a sense of unity.
4. Proximity. Group related elements. Put the contact information in the same area of a business card or advertisement, for example, using the same type size, making it a single visual unit.
5. It is more important for the top of a page to be neat than the bottom. For that reason, consider putting a header on each page rather than a footer. It is important that this page element include the name of the publication, date of the issue, and page number. That way, when viewed independently (in a fax or a photocopied reprint) the readers easily identify the source.
Some layout software will ensure that lines of body text are aligned from column to column, but you may have to do this manually in some cases by increasing or decreasing leading in a given column. Don't try to fill each column to the bottom of a page. White space, a little or a lot, can be a welcome relief to the eye.
6. The eye tends to go first to the upper left and lower right corners of a page or spread. Take advantage of this tendency by putting the most important information in one or both these positions. An image or other graphical device placed there may help emphasize the importance of the adjoining article there. Visualize facing pages (e.g., pages 2–3, 4–5, etc.) as one large canvas for type, graphics, and white space.
7. Be realistic. Does an eight-page newsletter really need a table of contents? Put something informative in that valuable space. Likewise, don't underestimate your readers' intelligence. When an article flows from one facing page to the next, ditch the "continued on page X" tag. A reader will naturally turn a page to find the end of an article, but you may chose to indicate the continuation with such a tag or even a wordless arrow. In general, avoid more than one jump. One is sufficiently annoying.
8. Do include photos, but avoid static line-ups of people grinning at the camera. Get an action shot. Move in close to the subjects (or crop and enlarge) so you can recognize them. And don’t forget an informative caption.
Graphs and charts also add interest and clarify information in the text. Clip art can be effective if it is tasteful and sized appropriately. If you use a graphic, make it large enough to have impact. Forget tiny little cartoons sprinkled throughout a newsletter. They distract.
9. Readers like the familiar and may complain when you redesign your publication. They have a point. If your design is consistent they know where to find what they are looking for. On the other hand, occasional change is also good: it may give your publication a fresh feeling and may even cause you to look at the components in a new way.
10. Avoid the gray-page syndrome. Even dignified publications break up large blocks of text with typographic devices. Judiciously applied sidebars, drop caps, pull quotes, bullet and numbered lists, decks, dingbats, and rules give a page variety and focal points. However, just because you have an arsenal of techniques, you don't have to use them all at once. Simpler designs impact readers more than distracting, complicated layouts. Remember: not every space needs to be filled; white space is the most important single graphic element.
Short glossary of
Banner Top-of-the-front-page name of the publication, may
include logo, motto, or other elements. Mistakenly called the masthead.
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© R. Michael Conner 1999–2001. All rights reserved.