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Typography for Writers

Oh, that information revolution! So much for the post-literate society. Vast sums of content shunted around at the speed of money, media channels around every turn, a torrent of books and periodicals, the Web, the swelling inbox. How does anybody get anything done when there’s so much to read. And, while we’re at it, why does it look so awful?

It’s curmudgeonly and inaccurate to suggest that the hard-won conventions of good typography and editorial design lay in jeopardy with the arrival of desktop publishing and so-called new media – libraries are filled with oceans of lousy work by history’s ostensible professionals. Indeed it’s safe to say more people know more about the ideals of good design than ever before. Yet poorly designed, lifeless text – like eye-glazing prose – remains a familiar shabbiness of everyday life. It is however accurate to say that, with the arrival of the desktop computer, ever-cheaper reproduction technologies, and the Web, a vast section of the population designs with text, a practice that, until recently, was the domain of accredited professionals.

The software tools now in use, however, don’t offer much guidance in how best to plan and execute an effective design: software programs tend to be very big on the how, but silent on the why. Typefaces, at their best a culmination of hundreds of years of lessons learned – and a rare concentration of skill and experience on the part of the designer – are reduced to blips of code to be copied, pirated, and misused at the hands of anyone. And that’s a good thing (well, not the piracy part – type designers must be paid for their work, no matter how easy it is to steal).

And if everyone occasionally finds themselves in the role of text designer, then everyone deserves to know how to do a good job of it. This begins with establishing what the ideals are. It’s not rocket science: the goals of good writing – clarity, vitality, coherent style – are the goals of good text design. So let’s get publishing.

Some Ideals

The craft of typography, the French designer Fernand Baudin once said, begins and ends with making language “visible and retrievable.” I like this notion because it places the ideal right where it should be: in between the arbitrariness and whimsies of design, and the carved-in-stone rules of manuals. Language is an evolving entity influenced by context and usage, and so its recording evolves as well. The dots, ticks, squiggles and spaces that differentiate the components of text, after all, came into being to represent the way we pause between thoughts, change our minds, emphasize, enumerate, and a million other habits, when we speak. They did not come from the CP Style Book.

When Gutenberg perfected a system of casting metal type in the 1440s (moveable type had already been in use for hundreds of years in China), he made visible and retrievable (and thus, inexpensive) an ideal that had been basic to European scribes for a millennium previous, one illuminated in etymology. The word text come from the same root as texture and textile: textus, Latin for cloth. A meticulous rhythm made from the interoperation of letterforms, and an even, approachable texture, is found in the work of the scribes. Capable typographers from Gutenberg to the present have strived for this textile quality, which is rooted in the practicalities of reading: visual disturbances such as contrast and noise draw the eye’s attention as it navigates lines of text.

Letters, when arranged into sentences and paragraphs and instructions on medicine bottles, have a voice of their own, which can either shout or whisper. It can also harmonize or clash with the voice of the content it conveys. The design of type betrays much about the politics, philosophies and stylistic demands of its time, characteristics that can help or hinder: a book on classical French cooking will hardly benefit from being set in boiled-mutton Victorian English letters. Choosing an ideal typeface or group of faces capable of the job at hand, out of the tens of thousands available, may seem ungainly at first. Nothing a little research won’t cure.

And so, a body of text that honours, that breathes the tenor of its content, one that welcomes effortless navigation, attractive enough to draw the eye, and capable of transparency once being read, is our goal.

Differentiation and Emphasis

In designing material intended to be read, much of the job involves imposing a clarifying visual structure to the implicit structure borne by the content. Often this means differentiating this from that: one speaker from another, one section from another, announcing when things stop, start, or resume. Often, particularly among graphic designers, there’s a tendency to overemphasize these differences, either for stylistic reasons or for fear of ambiguity. For example, often the flow of text will suffer interruption by subheads set in bold sans serif, with space before and after, indented, underlined, and with little happy faces above the lowercase i. No ambiguity there, but these brutish subheads will never stop screaming for attention, even when you’re trying to read that which they are intended to help you navigate. Contrast is often one of the first things taught to designers, and while contrast can assist in drawing attention to advertising, it has very little place in reading. When differentiating between elements and parts of text, try to find the breaking point, where the separation is clear, but not hollered.

Other differences the text designer needs to resolve are found at a more local level, within text. Some writers like to drive a point home, or at least adopt a certain theatricality, with use of boldface. Bold letters, in addition to being contrary to the above-stated goals of textual integrity, are a relative newcomer to our alphabets, and are most always unwelcome, unless shrill demand is the stated intention. Emphasis is better accomplished with the italic font that accompanies the main roman in use.

A good roman and it accompanying italic, working in concert, are often enough to the job, but now and again text design benefits from the third option of well-made small capitals, which are called upon, like italic, from an ancillary font (software programs frequently offer a formatting option to “make” small caps, but this merely distorts full-sized capital letters, ruining the balance of form with which adjacent letters). Small caps are essential to set acronyms such as AFL-CIO and other strings of capital letters appearing within text.

Thinking Structure

Paragraphs are gathering of thoughts, or sentences, contributing to a larger idea. When the idea is delineated, and a new group of thoughts is to be written, a new paragraph begins. This transition must be made clear to the reader. This is brutally plain logic to most editors, and even a few writers, but it’s lost on an alarming number of designers.

As one navigates any form of document, moving from section to section, opening paragraphs need to have their presence announced. The beginnings of a new passage of paragraphs can be indicated in any number of ways – through ornamentation, enlarged or dropped initial capitals, small capitals, or simply by the presence of open space beforehand. The least successful way to herald the start of a new passage is by indenting the first line. When opening paragraphs are indented, especially if appearing at the top of a page or column, there’s nothing to indicate that the text is not a continuation of what came before.

Paragraphs that follow opening paragraphs can also announce their beginnings in myriad ways; the least successful of which is, well, anything other than indentation. Line spaces between paragraphs break up the colour of a text block, which stands in the way of comfortable reading, as does most any form of ornamentation, such as the anachronistic pilcrow. ¶ “See what I mean?” he asked. ¶ “Shut up,” she answered.

The opposite is true of blocks of text onscreen, where the inherent jitteriness of poorly hinted or anti-aliased type in large volumes actually benefits from being broken up.

Not indicating the beginnings of new paragraphs at all, thus setting all openings blunt left, ensures the bafflement of the reader, and is roughly as discourteous as impregnating the page with itching powder.

Punctuation

Keeping in mind the intrinsic role of punctuation in describing the patterns and logic of spoken language, and keeping in mind the goal of minimizing disruption on the page, punctuation frequently needs to be addressed on its own merits. The North American habit of using double quotation marks to mark dialogue, for example, can be abandoned in favour of the British method of using single quotes: this small change greatly reduces the noise on a page heavy in dialogue. Hearing the distant rumble of editors and proofreaders taking up arms, I’ll ask that you compare the same page set both ways, and get back to me. In the meantime, and while we’re at it, it’s time to abandon the Victorian-era eccentricity of using the em dash to set off phrases. An en dash, with normal word spaces on either side, is far more attractive, and far less ruinous to the quality of text.

Punctuation marks in digital typefaces haven’t always been properly instructed to sit adjacent to other characters, and so one must be on guard for unwelcome collisions and improper alignment between letters and brackets, braces, parentheses, quotation marks, and so on.

Selecting Type

In the Fonts menu of your applications are the typefaces installed by the operating system, probably some more installed by your word processor, likely others installed with a Web browser, in addition to ones you may have installed yourself. Often these are knockoffs of established designs – the Times New Roman and Palatino installed as a default by most operating systems are shallow parodies of the designs of Stanley Morison and Hermann Zapf. But most likely, the fonts accessed through menus are meant for the screen only. Verdana, Georgia, Arial, Trebuchet, etc., these fonts are optimised for a low-resolution environment, to be called upon by Web pages and for working onscreen in applications, and tend not to do terribly well on paper.

And so, it’s worth your while to do a little research, and think about the requirements of the text you work with. Basic requirements for a working type family might be a full complement of roman, italic and small caps. If you require mathematical symbols or fractions, you may need a family that furnishes these. If you need characters from foreign languages with accents and other modifiers, or possibly need to invoke Cyrillic or Greek text, then you’ll need a family with these parts. The websites of large type vendors offer excellent information on their products, as well as sell directly over the Internet.

· • ·

Some graphic designers think of type as simply a graphic element, to be shoehorned into a grid, or filtered and tweaked like a photograph, as though the words were something merely to be looked at, rather than read. On the other hand, as typography is a fussy, conservative craft, often practiced by snobs and charlatans. But in the main, designers with a healthy respect for text are willing to share their knowledge and experience. And there are excellent reference resources, both online and in book form, the most comprehensive of which is Robert Bringhurst’s accessible masterpiece, The Elements of Typographic Style (Hartley and Marks).

 

 

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