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Tips on Type

How to use typefaces , what the terms mean

Most people don't pay much attention to typefaces, but they have been the basis for all printed communication since Gutenberg invented movable type. As computer users, we use type in everything we do: spreadsheets, data bases, e-mail messages, and of course, word processing and desktop publishing in print or online. We should know more about it than most of us do.

For example, the terms "typeface" and "font" are often used interchangeably in today's world of scalable, computer-generated type, but they differ significantly.

A typeface is a family of letters, numbers and symbols that share the same design characteristics and parameters, regardless of size, weight or style or whether implemented in wood, metal or digital form. Examples are Times Roman, Helvetica, etc. The advent of digital type, especially scalable fonts, has blurred the distinction between typeface and font. To understand the difference, remember that a typeface is designed first, then a font is created from that design.

A font traditionally is a collection of alphanumerics and symbols of the same typeface in one particular size, weight and style. For example, 9-point Helvetica regular is one font, 10 point bold is another font, and 9-point Helvetica italic is still another. Digitized scalable fonts we use with our computers can be scaled to any size.

"Typography" is the term used to cover the art and technique of using type to compose printed material, or the arrangement and appearance of printed matter. Some typography terms carried over from traditional printing still live today but may not be understood by many computer users.

Kerning, for example, is the adjustment of space between certain combinations of letters in proportionally-spaced typefaces to eliminate awkward letterspacing. Each letter in a typeface is designed with a set space to its right, but certain combinations (Ta, Wo, etc.) look awkward when you see them with standard spacing.

Kerned pairs are combinations of letters that have the spaces between them adjusted to make them easier to read and more pleasing to the eye. The space is usually reduced (in the Ta and Wo examples above, the a would snuggled closer under the top crossbar of the T and the o would be moved closer to the base of the W), but in some cases may be increased. Type experts often use the number of kerned pairs available in a given font as one measure of its quality.

Leading is simply the spacing between lines, so called because in the days of handset type thin strips of lead alloy were inserted to provide such space. Letter spacing and word spacing, as the names imply, are the distances between letters or words. All three types of spacing can be controlled in many computer applications, often very precisely.

Typefaces are divided in several way. First, there are monospaced and proportionally-spaced faces. Courier is the best example of the former; each of its characters occupy the same width whether it is a fat "m" or a skinny "i." Times Roman is a typical proportionally-spaced face; as the name suggests, width occupied by each character is proportional to its actual size. Typewriter type was monospaced (with a very few exceptions) and generally came in two sizes. One was Pica, called that because its characters were 10 to an inch, or one pica wide. Elite type was smaller, 12 characters to the inch.

Fully justified columns, flush at both right and left, were almost impossible to achieve on a typewriter because it was difficult to get the subtle, precise letter- and wordspacing that made justification possible with handset type or that produced, a line at a time, on linotype machines (which were pretty much state of the art when I got my first newspaper job).

Typefaces are also divided into two categories in another way. They either have finishing strokes, called serifs, like Times Roman, or are plain, without serifs, like Arial and Helvetica. Not surprisingly the former are called "serif" faces, and the latter "sans-serif " faces. Serifs are not just embellishments in type. They play major roles in the readability, appearance and style of a face.

Another type division is between "uppercase" and "lowercase" letters, more carryover terms from earlier days when type was set by hand. Metal letters were arranged in cases on a sloping work bank divided into small compartments, sort of an open-faced cabinet lying at roughly a 45-degree angle. The more frequently used small letters occupied the lower, handier cases. Less frequently used capital and small capital letters, figures and punctuation marks were in the higher, or upper, cases.

Type involves a lot of artistry, not just in the design of typefaces but in the way they are used. A skilled art director or layout artist can achieve all sorts of effects, evoke differing moods, just through careful selection and placement of type. Conversely, ill-advised use of type literally destroys the effectiveness of printed matter.

In the early days of laser printers and desktop publishing (circa 1986-89) we saw a great deal of this.What we called the "ransom note school of publishing" flourished. Novices suddenly given 19 typefaces to play with used 12 of them, often on one page! The result was Novices suddenly given 19 typefaces to play with used 12 of them, often on one page! The result was so busy and distracting it was hard to focus on any one item on a page. We're seeing some of this on the Web, as new site creation tools make it easy for anyone to build Web pages. (An added factor here is overuse of animation, banners and other elements that often contribute little, distract much, in terms of getting across a message. My biggest

gripe is use of type in various colors on totally inappropriate background colors: dark blue on black, for example. That makes for difficult reading indeed.)

Artists and designers recommend using no more than two typefaces in any document: a serif face for body text, and perhaps a sans-serif face for headlines, subheads and captions. "This won't allow me enough variety," you complain? Not true! You can achieve more than enough variety by using regular, bold, italic and small capital styles in different weights (light, medium, heavy) and sizes.

Don't try to cram too much on a page. Type is much more readable with adequate leading (e.g. 10 point type with 2 points of leading, or 10 on 12 as we used to instruct typesetters, meaning "set 10-point type on a 12-point slug"). Decent-sized margins and gutters between columns also improve readability.

Use "lift" or "pull" paragraphs and subheads to break up large blocks of type. A lift paragraph is one that summarizes or makes a significant point about the subject and is pulled from the body text. It is set into the body text in a distinctive type style (bold, italic or both, often in a larger size than body type) and may be set apart by rules above and below.

I hope these few comments and tips will help you understand and use type better in the future.


© Algorithmica Japonica Copyright Notice: Copyright of material rests with the individual author. Articles may be reprinted by other user groups if the author and original publication are credited. Any other reproduction or use of material herein is prohibited without prior written permission from TPC. The mention of names of products without indication of Trademark or Registered Trademark status in no way implies that these products are not so protected by law.

Algorithmica Japonica

December, 1998

The Newsletter of the Tokyo PC Users Group

Submissions : Editor


Tokyo PC Users Group, Post Office Box 103, Shibuya-Ku, Tokyo 150-8691, JAPAN