Good typography is about choosing the right typeface
and point size, determining the best line length
and column depth, defining hierarchy and emphasis—
generally making text and display copy clear
and easy to read. It’s the stuff you deal with daily.
And that’s the problem. Because we work
with type so frequently—usually under tight time
constraints—it is difficult to keep track of all those
details that separate good typography from mere
words on paper. So try looking at type in a new light,
as typographic hardscape and landscape rather than
a myriad of separate details. Think of hardscape as
the black stuff on white paper: letters, punctuation,
figures, and symbols. Typographic landscape is the
background and spacing around the hardscape.
Ligatures were one of the first typographic tools,
having been around since Gutenberg came up with
the idea of automating calligraphy. The most common
are fi, ff, fl, ffi, and ffl. Many additional fancy
ligatures, however, are also now being made available
in OpenType versions of well-known fonts (see
my article, “Typographic Spice Rack: Swash and
Alternate Characters,” in the April/May 2006 issue,
Ligatures have built-in spacing between the
joined letters. When type is set with tighter- or
looser-than-normal letterspacing, the built-in spacing
between the ligature letters will make them stand out
from the rest of the copy and look odd or awkward
(see figure 1).
Some of the unusual ligatures now available in
fonts should come with a caution statement. Typical
ligatures, like the f-ligatures referenced above, fit
in almost anywhere. Fancy ligatures work well in
headlines, subheads, pull quotes, and short blocks
of text copy. Liberally sprinkled through long blocks
of copy, however, they make the text look fussy and
contrived (figure 2). Stick to the basics for anything
over 100 words.
Small caps are capital letters drawn to, well, smaller
proportions. The key word here is drawn. Small
caps are not full-size capitals simply reduced in
size. Small caps have been designed to be close in
proportion to lowercase letters from the same font.
Reduced-size regular caps look weak and spindly
when set in conjunction with full-size or lowercase
letters. If your content calls for small caps, they
should be of the drawn variety (figure 3).
Lining figures are either the same height or are just
slightly shorter than capital letters, and match them
in weight and proportion. Lining figures work best
when combined with caps and where legibility is
more important than typographic aesthetics (figure
4). Any other time they look ungainly.
Tabular figures are similar in design to lining
figures, but are created with a single common width
value to enable setting columns of figures that align.
Save tabular figures for box scores and financial statements.
See figure 5.
Old Style (sometimes called lowercase) figures
are based on three forms: ascending for the 6 and 8;
medial for the 1, 2, and 0; and descending for the 3,
4, 5, 7, and 9. Old Style figures perform best in text
copy and other instances where the figures should
blend in with surrounding letters (figure 6).
Adding two spaces after a period is called French
spacing. Common in books before the 19th century,
it became the norm for copy written with a typewriter.
French spacing is now unnecessary and distracting—
one space after a period is plenty.
Whether it’s an annual report, church newsletter,
or just a grocery list, don’t use “dumb quotes.” It’s a
dead giveaway of a lack of typographic acumen.
Use a real ellipsis rather than three periods. Periods
space closer together than an ellipsis and create a
darker image on the page (figure 7). In addition,
ellipses are normally just slightly smaller than a
period—again so they do not appear too large or
too dark on the page.
Hyphens should have no additional space added to
either side of the character. Another thing about
hyphens: You don’t want a bunch of them stacked
up in the right margin—it’s distracting to the
reader. Some say there shouldn’t be more than two
hyphens in a row. An even better rule is that there
shouldn’t be more than two of any kind of punctuation
in a row. Figure 8 shows how the offending
result can look.
Additional space is normally not put around em
dashes. Very long em dashes, however, can be distracting
in text copy. Sometimes, with a little space
added to either side, an en dash can be used to
replace an em dash. Figure 9 provides examples.
Em bullets are almost always too big. They should
be limited to use with cap letters. See figure 10.
En bullets center on cap height when they begin
a line (see figure 11). They center on lowercase xheight
when used with lowercase text.
En bullets are best set smaller when used with
• a typeface that has a small x-height
• a condensed typeface
Open boxes base-align when they are cap size or
smaller. They center on the point size when they are
larger than cap size. See figure 12.
Solid boxes base-align when used full size. Use with
care as they are almost always overwhelming.
The best word spacing is something that isn’t
noticed. Word spacing that’s too tight makes it hard
for the eye to distinguish one word from the next.
This, however, is almost never the problem—loose
and uneven word spacing is normally the culprit.
When there is excessive word spacing, copy can
break into separate elements, forcing the reader to
read individual words rather than phrases or blocks
of copy. Figure 13 shows an example of how just
two factors—column width and whether the copy
is set flush or rag—can affect spacing and call for
Assigning appropriate space between words is
more of an optical determination than an exact science—
don’t rely on the font or your software application’s
default settings. The best word spacing will
be affected by the proportions of a typestyle, letter
fit, and point size of the setting. Some examples:
• A condensed type design needs less space between
words than an expanded face.
• A block of copy with tight letterspacing needs less
word space than a more openly fitting design.
• Larger point-size settings require less word space
than smaller sizes.
A quick check to determine if there is too much
word space is to turn the copy upside down. If one
word can be easily distinguished from another,
there’s too much.
Hang that punctuation
Punctuation should be outside a flush margin—on
both the left and right side. When a line begins with
a quote, and the punctuation is inside the margin,
the line appears indented. If you’re setting justifi
ed columns and a line ends with punctuation, the
smooth column appears to be pockmarked (figure
14 shows an example of how the column should
look with hanging punctuation). Initial letters
beginning paragraphs almost always look better if
hung outside the margin.
Not all software applications support hanging
punctuation. If yours doesn’t—and good typography
is your goal—you may want to think about switching
to one that does.
Rags, widows & orphans
If you’ve gotten by Design 101, you know that rag
refers to the irregular right margin of a block of
copy set flush left. What’s important about a rag is
that the changes in line length are minor. The best
rags aren’t noticed.
A widow is a very short line—usually one word,
or the end of a hyphenated word—at the end of a
paragraph or column. Widows leave too much white
space between paragraphs or at the bottom of a page.
This interrupts the reader’s eye, disrupts the reading
process, and can even deter comprehension.
Like a widow, an orphan is a single word, part
of a word, or very short line, except that it appears
at the beginning of a column or a page. The result is
the same: It creates uneven visual alignment and can
interfere with reading and comprehension.
Issues with rags, widows, and orphans can be
corrected by manual line breaks and subtle rewrites.
If the former doesn’t solve the problem—or creates
another—try the latter.
It’s about optics
When you’re working in large type sizes, optical
alignment is almost always more important than
• Sometimes line spacing in headlines must be
adjusted to look even. Ascenders and descenders can
make lines of copy closer to each other than lines
that have none (figure 15).
• Left-aligned headlines beginning with round or
diagonal letters, or those beginning with letters that
have a crossbar (T) or an arm (Y), should overhang
the margin to look correct (figure 16).
• Punctuation in headlines almost always looks too
large. A small reduction in the size of the marks will
make things look better.