View Full Version : A Guide to Effectively Using Typography For Print

07-31-2017, 10:39 PM
I'm going to try something here. Having been a member of this forum for over a year - maybe two - and being able to count the times my advice has been heeded on a closed fist, I thought I would take a more general approach to offering my help, as a professional, to the community. This guide will focus on typography in book interiors. This naturally limits the information provided, but in general typographic principles are moveable, so the information provided can help in cover design as well as interior design.

As a book designer, I've laid out everything from National Geographic periodicals to school textbooks. I've spent years honing my craft because it takes years. My advice would always be to hire a professional - always. Failing that, at least speak to professionals, there are plenty out there who take on low-budget work on the side or who will speak with you about your budget. If you care about your book, you hire a professional book designer to put it together. If your pipe burst, you'd hire a plumber. It's the same with design. Designing something yourself is a sure way to make it look unprofessional, untidy, and lazy.

But for those of you who genuinely cannot access professionals even to talk to or who just aren't willing, here's a guide.

Edit: This guide isn't just for print. Apart from the last section, which deals with page margins - though it also talks about ebooks - these typographic principles should be applied to books designed for both print and digital.

1. Negative Space
One of the biggest mistakes I see people on here make is misunderstanding negative space. Negative space shouldn't be your focus and you shouldn't convince yourself that more negative space equals better looking design. The most important thing in any design is the content; everything else serves to make that content more apparent and more readable.

In book layout, employing negative space is about making sure that text has room to breathe and that the eye can follow the flow of running text. This means making sure lines have enough space (leading) between them, that characters have enough space (kerning & tracking), and that paragraphs are effectively separated.

This is an effective use of negative space:


This is not:


In the second example, the leading is fine, but the use of spaces between paragraphs rather than indents and the lack of adequate tracking mean it is much harder to read. The difference may be subtle, but it's enough to make your book pretty illegible.

This is way out:


This is basically what the default Word settings give you and how I see type arranged on here. I've seen books laid out like this, it's not okay. Everything is so squashed together that your eye can't follow it. People seem to underestimate the importance of first-line indents for paragraphs - excluding the introductory paragraph of a section - but they help our eye naturally flow from one paragraph to the next by showing us, in no uncertain terms, where paragraphs begin once the last has ended. Digital publishing on blogs, etc have given people the idea that line breaks are just as effective, but they're not. They're confusing for the eye and they look like garbage. They work on screen because of increased text size. Reading smaller type like that is hell on the eyes.

In Word, which I imagine is where most of you are laying out books, or at least on word processors, you can access the paragraph and character settings by right-clicking and selecting "paragraph" and "font". We'll be looking at type size later, but to keep things readable for your readers and simple for you, I would advise setting line spacing at 1.5. Double is too much, meaning the eye has to wander in space for a while before finding the next line.


See how it just looks like a new line each time? You don't want that. 1.5, as seen in the first example, is a comfortable space between lines.

2. Taking a closer look at tracking
Tracking is the general space between letters. When we talk about kerning we're talking about influencing the space between specific characters - like how we might pull an A and V closer together. Kerning is a huge part of type design, not so much type layout. Designers might take more notice when we see huge chasms of space between characters, but Word won't let you do that effectively. Instead, you can go into the character section of "font" and do two things: a) switch the character spacing to 0.3, this is the same as giving 30pt tracking near enough, and b) put kerning on - this will make Word do its best at kerning problematic characters together.


Above are three examples of tracking in text. The top is at the settings I've recommended: 30pt tracking and kerned (0.3 in Word), the middle is without any tracking at Word defaults, and the latter is at 100pt (1.0) tracking. As you can see the top version is the most readable. Adding too much space makes the text hard to read (ignoring that it's in Latin) and makes the eye work far too hard to get to the next character, let alone the next word. The first example in section 1 was set in 30pt tracking and kerned. Setting at 0.3 gives you room to reduce single paragraphs or lines if you need to bring lines or words back to avoid widows and orphans - single words and lines going onto the next page.

Text set in uppercase and small caps - such as titles - presents a different challenge as the characters are thicker and take up more space. 30 pt (0.3) spacing isn't really enough to make uppercase easily readable. Rather than 30pt, spacing of 70pt and upwards is effective, I would advise keeping it between 70pt and 100pt (0.7 - 1.0).


You can see the marked difference in readability between the two. As an aside, often small caps look better than uppercase when set together, so using all small caps at a larger size can often be more effective at making a good-looking title - such as a chapter head - than just using uppercase. Please don't use a mix. There are so few typefaces that have well-designed small caps, so they look like trash next to their big brothers.

3. Line length
The eye is only going to want to see so many words in a line before it gets tired and gives up, similarly too few and it's going to tire itself zipping from line to line. The ideal length for a line of text is between nine words and twelve words, you can get away with going up to sixteen but you really need to know what you're doing to do that. If you can keep between that average throughout then you're pretty golden as far as readability goes. If you've ever noticed yourself prematurely dropping to the next line of text in a book, and maybe having to go back to read the end of the previous because you've missed something, the lines are probably too long and laid out by an amateur.


Obviously every line isn't going to be the perfect length, you'll get the occasional eight or fourteen, but that's okay. So long as, on the whole, you sit between nine and twelve. This doesn't mean you have to count every line in your book either, if one paragraph is sitting comfortably the rest are likely too as well. Especially if you arrange text correctly, i.e. correctly justified (that's section 4). Above is an example of good line lengths (while observing our previous settings, 0.3 character spacing and 1.5 leading). Below are examples of lines that are too long and too short, even when set well otherwise they still look awful and are hard to read:



4. Alignment
Alignment is really down to what you're laying out. On the whole, books are left justified, meaning each line except the last stretches across the page, as below:


But if you're laying out poetry, you're going to want to just range text left. That's the default setting on Word.

Anyone who has read a newspaper will know that justified text can look awful. This is because in newspaper layout you just hit justify and hope for the best most of the time, you ignore the rivers - spaces that appear throughout paragraphs - that appear and get on with it. In book layout you want to take a bit more care. In the previous example you see justified text arranged correctly. In design terms, it uses hyphenation and justifcation settings that cut down on natural rivers - namely glyph rescaling and more specialised letter spacing. Unfortunately in Word and Word processors you have far less control over justification. However, if you use the kerning and tracking settings mentioned previously, you should be okay.

5. Colour
Black on white, please. Don't make your text a dark grey, and don't add random colours, it's... well, it's stupid. You might be able to get away with colour in titles and headings, especially if you're laying out a technical book rather than block text. Otherwise, black on white. This is a short section because it's that simple.

Covers: obviously you'll use colour more, but keep it simple. You might have an illustration with a hundred colours but that doesn't mean you have to follow suit. Use a maximum of three colours in covers and make sure all type is visible and readable. Try not to use grey, as it gives the text an unfortunate edge.

6. Type choice
Choosing the right typeface is vital to book design. As with everything else, this is about readability. In that vein, never - and I mean never - set your book in a sans-serif typeface. Whether you're laying out a print book or ebook, always set running text in a serif typeface. Annotations and captions can be set in sans, as they need to be differentiated and often only go on for a couple of lines. Footnotes should be set in the same font as the rest of the page.

So here's the thing about sans-serif typefaces: they're not designed for text, even when they say they are. Whether you call them gothic, Egyptian, or grotesks; sans-serifs have always been titling typefaces. They look like trash in running text and need so much space to make them readable that you'll be breaking all the rules I've just kindly laid out for you. Even typefaces that have their moments in running text, like Futura, are still vastly inferior to serif faces for readability. I'm serious, if you ever try and lay a book out in Helvetica, I'm going to come over there and break your keyboard. Not only is it unreadable, but setting a book in sans-serif is a tell-tale sign that you don't know what you're doing. Seriously, I would rather you lay your book out in Comic Sans (don't, though).

So what serif fonts should you go with? Not Cambria. Word defaults are not your friend. As a rule, I have five serif typefaces I use: Minion, Caslon, Garamond, Times New Roman, and Warnock. Firstly, they're readable in print and digital, at large and small sizes, and they have a wide range of weights - that's bold, heavy, italic, regular, etc.


The advantage of a wide range of weights is that you don't have to switch to another typeface for headers and chapter heads, giving a more consistent look across the book. "Pro" fonts are especially useful as they generally include "medium" weights and italics for all their weights, as well as including Arabic and Cyrillic glyphs.

The advantage of these serifs in particular is that they are well deisgned, so they look great within the parameters of this guide. Veer into less reputable serifs and you're going to struggle to get the spacing right. Also, when I say serifs I do not mean typewriter fonts or monospaced digital fonts like Courier New - they're worse than sans-serifs for book layout.

6a. Sans-serifs and when to use them
So you're not laying your book out in sans-serif, good. But that doesn't mean they don't have their place. Using sans-serifs in headers and chapter heads can create an effective contrast between headers, text, and annotations. But always keep in mind that, contextually, sans-serif typefaces are titling typefaces. That's where they belong, in titles with yards of space around each letter. Sans-serifs are very limited typefaces, they can be great for different weights in size, but their italics are almost always awful. You need to know what you're doing to use sans-serifs effectively; really need to know what you're doing.


See how the caption doesn't get lost in the rest of the text? And how the header is distinct? That's a good way to use sans-serifs.

A bad way to use them is to use Helvetica. Sans-serifs can occasionally be beautiful, like the bold Futura in that example. Then sans-serifs can be hellspawn, like Helvetica. Helvetica is popular because people go to design school and are told it's a great typeface and they never argue, then everyone else hears the same thing because it's the in-thing to wax lyrical about how great Helvetica is. That, and it's everywhere. The thing is, Helvetica is a copy of Akzidenz Grotesk. It's an unoriginal typeface based on another typeface that was, in fact, a group of similar looking sans-serifs bundled together under one name. It is pants. Contemporaries like Futura and Univers are miles better, Gills Sans, Franklin Gothic, Benton, even Calibri are better bets.

6b. Typeface by genre on covers
The title of this section is misleading, there is no guide by genre on what typefaces to use. It's important to remember that. I've had more than one interaction in which someone has used, say, a script font on a romance cover and when questioned on its use have replied, "but that's what other romance books use". That may be so, but chances are if you've seen a good cover with a script font on it then it's come from a designer who knows how to use it and who has either made their own or can afford a great script.

Your DaFont script is going to look awful, simple as that. Script fonts, blackletter, any kind of "fancy" text is far too advanced for you to use effectively. So don't try. Don't try and emulate people how are better than you when you don't know what you're doing. Especially when the type your using are free fonts that no real type designer has set foot near. Besides, blackletter looks trash, why do you think the Germans got rid of it?

6c. Comic Sans
Much as it's fashionable to extol Helvetica's made-up virtues, it's also cool to beat on Comic Sans. It's arguably more popular than Helvetica, but that doesn't mean you should use it in your books. It was designed for a purpose, missed that purpose, but still did its job for Microsoft. Unfortunately, it's become the go-to "fun" font for passive-aggressive memos. Just leave it alone, don't use it but don't be mean about it either.


7. Type size
Another short one, because it's simple. The standard size is 12pt, that's whay you'll see in most books - especially in hardcover. Another common size, especially in trade paperbacks, is 10pt with 15pt leading. This is fine too. Below 10pt, however, and you're losing readability. Above 12pt and, unless you're making a book especially for those with difficulty seeing, you're going to big. Between 10 and 12pt, with 1.5 leading is where you want to stay. Whatever gives you the best line length for your page size.

8. Margins and page layout
So you have the fundamentals of typography in your mind, you're ready. But how do you lay out a book? Margins - the border around the page effectively - are free space, usually occupied solely by running headers and page numbers. These are arbitrary and you should only decide on the margins after you've worked out your page size, and maybe even after working out how you're going to lay out the text. There's no set rules on how to choose margin size, and Word is going to have a bunch of its own settings to help you. This is fine for ebooks, where the margins are going to be pretty standard and equal. But in print, you need a different kind of layout.

The inside margins in print are smaller than the outside margins - usually half - and the top and bottom margins are pretty arbitrary. If in doubt you can use Jan Tschichold's rules for margins, which are pretty sound. I'll show you how to deal with those below. I'm going to use a 9x6 book size, though I might normally use a 8" book. These are just industry standards, the beauty of these rules is that they apply to your book whatever size they are.

So, here's my spread where I'm working my margins out:


I'm going to start by drawing lines from corner to corner across the spread, so I have a big X over the whole thing:


Then I'm going to draw a line from the bottom outside corner to the opposite top corner on both pages:


This gives me a weird pattern that I can move my margins to line up with, like this:


And I can add my text:


As much as Jan would like us to think these are the absolute rules of book layout, they're not. What they are is a great fall-back if you're stuck. I tend to use this formula anyway and I know what I'm doing with margins and book design, it's just a lot easier. Obviously, Word isn't going to let you draw all over it, but if you can influence the margins to give you real space you're going to end up with a better looking, more professional book. From there, you have plenty of space to add running headers and page numbers.


8. Conclusion
A lot of the things you need to keep in mind is what not to do. It's important to keep things simple and give text room to breathe. There's a reason a lot of books look very similar inside, it's because it's readable and it works.

Don't try and go off book, you don't know what you're doing. It's why you need a professional to do it for you, but if you're not going to get a professional it's best to go by a formula that will make sure you create something recognisable regardless of how bad you are at it. Moreover, a formula will mean that all your books look consistent, and that's important. There's nothing worse than all your books being set in different - often stupid - fonts and being all over the place. Keep it functional and make sure you make the content king.

Dennis E. Taylor
08-01-2017, 12:23 AM
This is great info, but I'm guessing it's just the basics. Any chance you'll do a post on Typography for book covers?

08-02-2017, 07:03 AM
Thank you for posting this! It reminds me to save up money to hire a professional.

08-02-2017, 10:11 AM
Great post--lots of good info here. :)

M Louise
08-02-2017, 10:32 AM
Thanks for this. Because I've spent years working in InDesign, most of this is familiar and also argued from a text editor's point of view: how paragraphing works, what makes captions distinctive, why we don't leave widows and orphans at the bottom or tops of pages, the rationale behind weighting headings, how to choose fonts that let you employ italics and bold that look good, how to ensure 'smart quotes' across fonts, kerning difficulties when you have graphic elements on the page, conventions around numbering and superscripts, etc. Anyone who has ever worked on a cookbook knows how crucial a careful and consistent layout is and how hard it is to fit in all the anomalies!

I'd also like to know more about typography and cover design, especially your thoughts on text for the spine, blurbs at the back etc.