Readability: the most important aspect of typography?
If you ever took one of my classes, you know how much I harped on readability—especially the importance of aperture and other page layout factors concerning readability. Aside from the kindness issue (blessing your readers), this is governed by the realities of modern living.
Everyone has too much to read. If you give them any excuse, they will quit reading your work and go on to the next piece in their long list of things they have to read.
I seen my wife throw novels away because they were too hard to read. People cancel magazine and newspaper subscriptions because of reading issues (even if they are not conscious of what is bothering them). Difficult to read books have become commonplace. One of the attractions of ebooks is the ability to fix some of the worst designs because you can change the type style and size to make it more comfortable to read.
Here’s a little graphic to show you some of the things in the physical design of fonts which influence how easily you can read a font.
I’m convinced that aperture is much more important than most people acknowledge. As you can see above in the table, I list seven design characteristics in a font which influence comfortable reading: humanist axis, moderate modulation, slanted crossbars, double story characters, ovals, and a hint of the calligraphic.
I can see now that I was still very ignorant at that time. In the years that have followed I have greatly increased my experience. It’s not important that you understand these seven characteristics at this point. What matters is that you see that Jenson, Brinar, and Caslon (in that order) are the most readable out those six font choices.
What I have discovered I need in a font design are the following attributes
- A humanist axis, but not rigid: We need to believe it was produced by a human
- A wide open aperture: The white space within the character shapes help us see those shapes better
- Moderate modulation: This softens the look increasing the hints of human production
- Slightly slanted crossbars, for the e, A, and H especially: This is just me. I think it makes the fonts look a little “happy” (whatever that means)
- Double-story a & g: These are much more distinctive letter shapes
- Slightly oval bowls: Rigid geometric circles tend to confuse glyph shapes
- A slight homage to calligraphic writing: Again we want indications that a person was involved—not a machine
- An x-height at about 40% of the point size: This increases the white space a little
- Built-in leading at about 5% of the point size
This should give readability and reading comfort that is very good.
More white space considerations
Yet another area I was not familiar with and therefore didn’t take care of in my early years is the whole issue of white space—both within the font design and in the page layout. As mentioned, this is why an open aperture is important, but it goes beyond that. We recognize word shapes by the distinctive outline of the top half of the type. This is why a slightly smaller x-height helps.
But we need to look at the page as a whole. Professional type should have an even color. When your book is seen from far enough away so that the body copy can no longer be read, it must blend into smooth gray shapes. You will come to see that this even type color is imperative. It is what allows the control of the reader’s eye which you need for clear and comfortable communication. You will learn to keep your type as smooth as possible, stepping outside of that only to make important points that the reader really needs and wants to know.
Again, part of this is produced by the design of the fonts you choose. Excellent, consistent letterspacing is one of the major considerations in font choice. InDesign can really help here also. If you have a font that is looking blotchy, you might try to use Optical Kerning. InDesign does a good job of spacing letters optically and evenly. Of course, it is usually better to use and buy fonts which are spaced specifically for text work and which have good metric kerning built in.
Smooth type color needs to become one of your major concerns.
This attribute of excellent typography has a strong influence on readability. That might surprise you. This smoothness is what makes headlines, subheads, and our specialized paragraph styles work. The white space surrounding specialized paragraphs stands out from smooth type color. This white space attracts the eye and leads it to that statement. Without smooth type color, you are forced to make your headers much stronger and the reader often feels like you are shouting at him or her. That is definitely not a comfortable reading experience. Smooth type color needs to become one of your major concerns.
Column width is a major concern
If your column is too wide, readers will have a difficult time finding the beginning of the next line. Basically you are shooting for nine to eleven words per line—this can be stretched with a good font to thirteen words wide. Short line lengths break up too much of the phrasing which makes the reading choppy and comprehension more difficult.
The formula I use for column width is very simple and gives you a good starting point for readability. It’s a practical rule of thumb that’s less complex than most:
40% of the body copy point size in inches
or the point size in centimeters
So, 10 point type works well in a column that is four inches or 10 cm wide. 12-point type may need nearly five inches (40% is 4.8”). This assumes a normal x-height of about 50% of the cap height or a third of point size. If the x-height or width of the letters is radically different than the norm you will need to make adjustments to keep the word count good.
The same is true with leading (or line spacing). We need to give the reader all the help we can to easily find the beginning of the next line of type. Adding a bit of built-in leading in the actual font design helps here. The norm for body text in publishing is 10/12—or ten point type with twelve points of leading.
This is a mere beginning point, though. It all depends on the x-height, glyph width, letterspacing, and line length. Adjust if from there to make it comfortable both on screen and in your hand. You need to set a full page of nothing but body copy and see if it is actually comfortable to read. If you find your mind wandering after a paragraph or two, you’ve got some issues. If you find yourself thinking about something else before you finish the first paragraph, you have real trouble.
- Book Typography Part 3 What makes good fonts for a book (hackberry-fonts.com)
- Book typography: Part 2: Picking fonts (hackberry-fonts.com)
- Tips for Choosing a Readable Type (postnetlakemill.wordpress.com)