Explorations in Typography /
Mastering the Art of Fine Typesetting

Carolina de Bartolo
with Erik Spiekermann

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Ever since people have been writing things down, they have had to consider12 their audience before actually putting pen to paper: letters would have to look different depending on whether they were to be read by mainly other people (in official documents or inscriptions), just one other person (in a letter), or only the writer (in a notebook or diary).2 There would be less room for guesswork if letter shapes were made more formal as the diversity of the readership expanded.11

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Some of the first messages to be read by a large number of people were rendered not by pens but by chisels. Large inscriptions on monuments in ancient Rome were carefully planned, 2with letter drawn on the stone with a brush before they were chiseled. Even if white-out had existed in those days, it would not have helped to remove mistakes made in stone. A bit of planning was also more important then, since stonemasons were sometimes more expendable than slabs of marble.22

Graphic design and typography are complicated activities, but even the simple projects benefit from thinking about the problem, forming a mental picture of the solution, and then carefully planning the steps between.


Scientists have not been content with just calling the human face “beautiful” if it meets certain ideals, or “ugly” if it doesn’t. They had to go out and measure proportions of nose to jaw, forehead to chin, and so on to establish why some faces are more appealing than others.

Typographers and graphic designers often choose typefaces for the very same reason they might fancy a person: They just like that person. For more scientifically-minded people, however, there are specific measurements, components, details, and proportions to describe various parts of a letter. While these won’t tell you what makes a typeface good, they will at least give you the right words to use when you discuss the benefits of a particular face over another. You can say “I hate the x-height on Such-a-Gothic” or “These descenders just don’t work for me” or “Please, may I see something with a smaller cap height?” and you’ll know what you are talking about.

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While metal letters could be made to any width and height, digital type has to conform to multiples of the smallest unit: the pixel. 3 Every character has to be a certain number of pixels wide and high. This is not a problem when the letters are made up of 600 pixels per inch, as is the case with modern laser printers—those pixels are not discernible to our eyes, and we are happy to believe that we are looking at smooth curves instead of little squares fitted into tight grids.

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On screens, however, only 72 pixels make up one inch. We could see each and every one of them if engineers hadn’t already found ways around that. Computer screens, however are not where we read all of our type these days—phones, smartphones, even microwave ovens all have displays. Most screen displays are small and simple, which means black on greenish gray. And the type unmistakably consists of bitmaps: this means that an 8-point letter is actually made up of eight pixels. If we allow six pixels above the baseline, including accents, and two below for descenders, that leaves only three or four pixels for a lowercase character. Despite these restrictions, there are hundreds of bitmap fonts, each unique by a matter of a few pixels, but enough to prove that typographic variety cannot be suppressed by technological constraints.

Rhythm and contrast keep coming up when discussing good music and good typographic design. They are concepts that also apply to spoken language, as anyone who has had to sit through a monotonous lecture will attest; the same tone, volume and speed of speech will put even the most interested listener into dreamland. Every now and again the audience needs to be shaken, either by a change in voice or pitch, by a question being posed, or by the speaker talking very quietly and then suddenly shouting. An occasional joke also works, just as the use of a funny typeface3 can liven up a page.

More information

The most familiar way to indicate paragraphs in text type is by indentation. The first paragraph is typically not indented in order to keep a square upper left corner on the text block. The first paragraph under a subhead is also not indented. Indents of one em are usually sufficient on narrow to medium width columns. Wider columns may require two ems indent. Generous leading may also necessitate a wider indent. Indentations of one or two ems makes the negative space of the indent in a harmonious proportion to the type size.

Exdents are also called hanging indents or outdents because the first line of each paragraph is wider than the other lines. Unlike indents, the first paragraph is exdented just as all the other paragraphs are. In order for an exdent to be noticeable and therefore functional to a reader, the first lines need to hang by at least two ems or wider. Exdenting by a number of ems keeps the negative space in a harmonious proportion to the type size. While they are suited for use on text type in paragraphs, exdents are not commonly used this way. They are often used for listings such as in an index, phone book or dictionary.

Adding extra linespace after the last line of a paragraph is another common way to indicate paragraphs. Extra leading of an additional fifty percent (50%) of the text’s leading will be clear enough of a separation, yet not so much that the paragraphs break up into separate blocks. Using a simple proportion of leading makes the negative space between paragraphs a harmonious proportion to the rest of the typesetting. Extra leading is a clean, clear, modern way to indicate paragraphs.

The amount of leading that you set on text type is an important typesetting decision. Use at least 4 points more leading than your type size to insure legibility. Avoid leading greater than 10 points above your type size. In general, use tighter leading on narrower columns and more generous leading on wider columns. Extra leading between paragraphs is likely not your best option when space is limited, as it increases the overall space that the text occupies on the page.

A graphic element such as a bullet, pilcrow or fleuron between paragraphs can be used either with returns between paragraphs or without returns. What you choose to use as a graphic element should harmonize with the typeface your text is set in. For example, you might choose a simple neutral geometric form as a bullet with a contemporary sans face but a decorative fleuron with a classic serif face.

A plain circular bullet is widely disdained for its banality. Luckily, more interesting selections abound in dingbat fonts. Avoid dingbats that would add unintended meaning to your text. Choose appropriate graphic elements.

Arrows used as bullets should point in the direction of reading. Bullets that are solid forms rather than stroke-based forms will provide a bold accent and clearly differentiate from your text.

Using a rule between paragraphs is a simple way to create separation. The rule can be long or short, fat or thin, dotted or solid, black, gray or a color. Design your line. Be sure to put enough extra leading between paragraphs to accommodate the width of the rule. When you use a rule that is the full width of the column and your type is set ragged right, shorten the right side a bit so that the end of the rule blends in with the ragged edge. The variety of ways to use a rule as a paragraph indicator is endless. Experiment!

Often used to indicate the beginning of a new section within a text, initial capitals are larger than the text size and set on the same baseline as the first line of the first paragraph. Set an initial capital on the first paragraph and use indent or space between as the paragraph indication on the remaining paragraphs. Initial capitals can have a classic quality, so they often look best with classic typefaces.

In order to use exdents as a paragraph indication with an initial capital on the first paragraph, you will need to exdent the initial capital. To set multiple columns of text with an initial capital on the first column, you'll need to shift the type in subsequent columns down so that all top baselines align.

An initial capital may be set for the first letter, first word or first line. Set the initial capital in the same typeface or a different typeface than the rest of the text. If you choose to use a secondary face for the cap, be sure to use two typefaces that are clearly different from each other rather than two that are very similar.

Like initial capitals, drop capitals are often used to indicate the beginning of a new section within a text. Set a drop capital on the first paragraph and use indent or space between as the paragraph indication after that. Drop capitals are larger than the text size and set on the same baseline as the second or third line of the first paragraph. Avoid setting a drop cap deeper than the number of lines in the first paragraph.

Even more than initial capitals, drop capitals have a very traditional feel, so they often look best set with classic typefaces. A drop capital may be set for the first letter or first word. Kern the type next to the drop capital so that it reads continuously. A drop capital can be set in the same typeface or a different typeface than the rest of the text. Again, if you choose a secondary face for the cap, be sure it is clearly different from the text face rather than very similar.

You are now exploring on your own. Caution! The typesetting controls in the Toolbox allow you to create some settings that may be less than ideal from an aesthetic and/or functional standpoint.

Named after the drought-resistant species that blooms near Carol Twombly’s California home, this face hybridizes the sturdiness of the slab serif designs from in the 19th century with the graceful proportions of 16th century roman book letterforms. The true italic is shown here and, like the entire range of weights in this family, it is highly legible and has a friendly appearance.

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Howard Kettler, commissioned by IBM in the 1950s, designed this monospaced face for use in their typewriters. As IBM did not secure legal exclusivity to the face, it soon became the standard face throughout the typewriter industry. It was nearly released with the name “Messenger,” however, describing his change of heart about the name, Kettler said, “A letter can be just an ordinary messenger or it can be the courier, which radiates dignity, prestige and stability.”

In 2002 Sweden’s largest daily newspaper, Dagens Nyheter (DN), commissioned Örjan Nordling and Göran Söderström to redesign the its sans serif typeface. It was designed as a companion to its DN Bodoni, a face Nordling had created exclusively for DN. While the newspaper's needs called for a more compact setting, the family was adjusted for FontShop to provide better legibility and to include a range of consistent weights from thin to black. The name Dagny is an abbreviation of Dagens Nyheter as well as an old nordic female name meaning “new day.”

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Designed by Hans Reichel in 1995, the original condensed weight was developed from the idea of combining the clarity of a narrow Futura with a “slightly roman touch” to make a space-saving yet legible face. Now available in a wide range of widths from wide to compact, its relative narrowness is a distinguishing characteristic along with its missing spurs in the letters d, g, m, n, p, q, r and u.

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Originally designed by Claude Garamond (c. 1480–1561), this Adobe version was created by Robert Slimbach in 1989. Of the many versions of the Garamond typefaces, this one is considered the most authentic to Garamond's original intentions. It embodies a classic, elegant French Renaissance style and provides excellent readability. More than 500 years after his death, the number of roman typefaces based on or derived from the work of Claude Garamond is astounding. A truly timeless design.

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In 1997, Matthew Carter successfully managed to create a typeface family designed for clarity and legibility at low resolutions on the screen. Inspired by Didot and Scotch Roman, the face has a friendly charming character, which is no small feat to achieve in the small pixel spaces of the screen.

This is a 1983 reworking of the original typeface designed by Max Miedinger and Eduard Hoffman in 1957. This version was designed with a more structurally unified set of heights and widths and it uses a numerical classification scheme like Univers. The entire family consists of 51 fonts. Shown here is the bold weight, Helvetica 65 Bold.

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Erik Spiekermann originally designed the face as part of a commission for the Deutsche Bundespost (West German Post Office). Designed to work equally well in print as on screen and released to the public in 1991, it gained such popularity that it soon became known as “the Helvetica of the 1990s.”

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This is a humanist sans serif face designed by Jan Maack in 2007. According to the designer, it is a face that “captures the tone of the voices of young people talking.” He also reports that he made “a light version for talking intimately, and the bold version for speaking out loud.” The rounded terminals and softly arced diagonals makes for a casual yet elegant face.

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Myriad was designed by Carol Twombly at Adobe and first issued in 1992. A humanist sans serif, the face is quite reminiscent of Frutiger, but is slightly narrower in width and has the distinguishing feature of a circular dots on the lower case i and j. It also has a true italic companion face as well as oldstyle figures.

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In 2007, Slovenian designer Mitja Miklavcic drew this face to meet the technological and aesthetic requirements of contemporary magazine use. His primary goal was to develop a softer yet more dynamic version of a 19th century slab serif wood type. A large x-height and pronounced serifs make it quite legible at text sizes. It has several unique design details, including slightly exaggerated ink traps and a fairly upright italic.

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Designed by Steffen Sauerteig of eBoy in 1998, this rugged face was intended to “meet the demands of modern office communication.” It has 4 proportionately-spaced weights as well as a monospaced OCR variation.

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