Typesetting & typography: lessons, rules and the exceptions

Typesetting & typography: lessons, rules and the exceptions

Pinned to my corkboard is an article about the “Hellvetica” typeface. No, I did not spell it incorrectly. Hellvetica is a demented version of Helvetica with wonky kerning, illustrating why mastering typesetting and typography is essential for any designer. Below are a few of the rules I follow when I plan how the text will appear in my projects.

1. Consider context and audience

When it comes to choosing a typeface, context matters. The typeface selected is the first impression a user will have, and each typeface possesses a mood and voice. If a designer chooses a font that doesn’t fit, the audience will feel disconnected from the message. Also, before choosing, it is imperative you learn your client’s goals. Clients may already have a style guide which you will have to follow, or, they may be unwilling to buy a license for the “perfect” typeface.

2. Typographic hierarchy

When reading, the copy needs to be organized and easy to scan. To do this, graphic designers create visual typographic hierarchies that help readers navigate and prioritize different parts of the text. Each section, heading, subheading, body copy, caption, etc. should be distinguished by contrasting elements such as weight, colour, size, space, and different typefaces. This creates focus, direction, and order to the copy.

Be warned though. “Over-design,” where you have too many contrasting elements, can be dangerous and make your typesetting look like a ransom letter. The safest bet is the minimalist approach; combining two contrasting typefaces, such as a serif with a sans-serif, or using a single typeface with different weights. Try the website FontJoy to experiment with font pairings.

3. Text needs to breathe

Legibility relies on how much space there is between letters, words, and text lines. Tracking, kerning, and leading are the processes of white space adjustment between typographic elements.

Tom Sewell recommends that when adjusting kerning, designers imagine that between each letter there are balloons of equal size and volume, forcing the letters apart without the balloon being squeezed above or below. Sewell also suggests imagining the character ‘o’ between each word to create perfect spacing.

It is recommended that leading never be the same or less than the point size of the type. However, depending on the font, the ascenders and descenders may either require more space or, for typefaces with a small x-height, less, as vast gaps are created between lines. For leading, the general rule is to set it usually 20% larger than the point size.

Another consideration is the line length itself. If a line of text is too long, the reader’s eyes will lose focus between lines. If the line is too narrow, a reader’s eyes will move onto the next line before they finish the current one, potentially missing important information.

According to the Baymard Institute, the optimal line length is considered to be 50-60 characters per line, including spaces; yet, other sources suggest that up to 75 characters is acceptable.

4. What’s the justification?

The alignment of your copy affects its readability. For Latin-based languages, left-aligned text creates a rag on the right which allows our eyes to easily judge the distance from the end of one line to the start of the next. Centre-aligned copy should be used sparingly for items that run over only two or three lines at most. This is because unlike left-aligned text, there are no common points where lines begin and end. Justified text is also problematic because there is no visual cue for when the line ends. Furthermore, inconsistent gaps between words may also affect readability, slowing down reading time.

5. Don’t stretch it

Unless you are after a specific effect, skewing, stretching, or otherwise distorting a typeface is going to affect its readability, legibility, and form. While skewing text is a quick solution to “fake” italic or back slant a typeface and adding an outline will produce a “bold” effect, eventually kerning and leading may require subsequent manipulation.

While all this advice is useful and will help when planning future projects, the beauty of typography and typesetting is that, once you know the rules and practice them, you can break them.