Until the early 19th century, virtually all type was
of the text variety. Type was for books, pamphlets
and newspapers. It wasn’t until the advent of the
Industrial Revolution—and the accompanying need
for advertising—that display type became popular.
Display type is, of course, widely used, but even
today, most of what we read is text type.
Type between 6 and 14 points is generally considered
to be text type. At these sizes, it is best to use
typefaces that are easy to read, set with an even texture
and light to medium weight.
EASY ON THE EYES
An easy-to-read typeface is a legible typeface.
Generally, the most legible typefaces offer big features
and have restrained design characteristics.
Although these attributes may seem conflicting, they
are not. “Big features” are type design qualities such
as large, open counters, ample lowercase x-heights
and character shapes that are obvious and easy to recognize. The most legible typefaces are moderate.
They are not excessively light or bold; character
stroke weight changes are subtle; and serifs, if the
face has them, are not particularly long or heavy.
BIG FEATURES IN LITTLE LETTERS
Open counters help to define a character. The
white space—within letters such as o, e and c—aids
character recognition. A full-bodied x-height often
accompanies open counters and can also enhance
the legibility of text typefaces. Because more than
95 percent of the letters we read are lowercase, the
larger their proportions, generally the more legible
they will be. Large, however, does not mean enormous.
Very large x-heights, such as those in Antique
Olive and Americana, force ascenders and descenders
to be truncated, thereby detracting from typographic
Individual letter shapes can also affect typeface
legibility. For example, the two-storied a in Berkeley Oldstyle and Slate is much more legible than the
single-storied a in Futura and Avant Garde Gothic.
The lowercase g based on roman letter shapes in Gill
Sans and Agilita is more legible then the simple g in
Helvetica and Glypha.
THE “JUST RIGHT” SERIF
The ideal serif is fairly short and slightly bracketed,
and it is heavy enough to be obvious without being
obtrusive. Charter and Apollo, for example, have
great serifs. Individual letter legibility begins to suffer
as serifs take on exaggerated shapes. Very long,
exceptionally heavy or unusually shaped serifs are
the bane of character legibility.
THE POWER OF LIGHTWEIGHTS
Lighter faces are usually more legible than heavier
weights of type. They enable full, open counters and
unmodified character shapes. Studies have shown
the optimal character-stroke thickness for text
typefaces is about 18 percent of the x-height. The
medium weights of Albertina, Mentor and Linotype
Ergo are good examples of the ideal ratio.
If you squint while looking at a block of text copy,
you should see an even, gray texture on the page.
Typefaces that do not space evenly or have strongly
contrasting stroke weights create an uneven—and
Beatrice Warde, Monotype’s famous marketing
manager of the 1930s and ’40s, created the metaphor
that type is like a crystal goblet. She believed
the best text typefaces do not get in the way of the
communication process. They should be virtually
invisible, and like a crystal goblet holding wine,
allow words to be read without the type being seen.
Although this is a wise ideal, it is also a very conservative
view. This does not mean text typefaces cannot
be distinctive in design. Some unique typefaces,
such as Cartier Book or Menhart, make fine text
fonts. The metaphor is, after all, a crystal goblet—not an empty jam jar.
The nature of the text copy will help dictate the
choice of a text typeface. If the copy has a lot of
numbers, a sans serif face may be best since the
character shapes of sans serif numbers are more
recognizable than their serif counterparts. If the job
calls for small caps, the chosen typeface should have
designed, or true-drawn, small caps. Electronically
generated small caps look awkward and amateurish.
If the project is complicated and requires a lot
of typestyle changes for clarity, then one of the big
“super” text families, such as ITC Stone or Frutiger,
would be a good choice.
Then there are times when you’re given a lot
of copy—and very little space in which to fit it.
Whether you’re setting the financial pages of an
annual report, a directory of product names and
inventory numbers or a modest sidebar in a newsletter,
the usual font choices may use space too
extravagantly. Faces with condensed proportions are
the best choice in these situations. Light- to medium-weight
condensed typefaces work well in cramped
typographic quarters because their counters are not
prone to filling in. Condensed sans serifs, rather than
serif faces, work best in tight spaces because their
individual character shapes tend to be more legible.
A serif typeface such as ITC Garamond Condensed
can be effective as small as 9 pt., but when smaller
type is required, sans serif designs such as Univers 57,
Helvetica Medium Condensed or Franklin Medium
Condensed are better choices.
As with small caps, be sure to use true condensed
type designs. Electronically modified type
distorts character stroke weights, plays havoc with
sensitive character proportions and creates unattractive—and many times illegible—typography.
TEXT GOODNESS TEST
There is a basic “goodness” test that can help determine
if your chosen typeface is the right one for text
typography. Look at the block of copy. Do you see
letters? Words? Phrases? Phrases are best. Words will
do. Never settle for just letters. If you see phrases, it
means you have chosen an easy-to-read typeface that
will be subservient to the content.