Schools teach sh•t typography

School teaches us plenty of useful facts. If it weren’t for school, I wouldn’t be able to multiply; I wouldn’t know how underwhelming Romeo & Juliet is; and I wouldn’t know about the Bay of Pigs. (You mean, we didn’t ruin Cuba’s pork industry…?)

School, though, teaches us bloody terrible typography skills.

If you spend 6 minutes reading this, I promise that everything you write will look and feel better.

Typography is the visual equivalent to voice. It’s how you know when someone is sarcastic over text or mad on some comment board. It’s also how some posters look great while others make you want to puke.

For example, in school, we learn to type in 12 point Times New Roman, double spaced, with one inch margins. And it’s awful.

Here’s a quick test to see if your heart is beating: which looks more serious, or b?

Comic Sans vs Akzidenz Grotesk

If you chose b, then you have at least some sense of how typography affects the words we write. Clearly, a, set in Comic Sans, the laughing-stock of the type world, looks less serious. Clearly.

This is the first point of good typography:

① Choose a fitting good typeface.

Your system comes with a bunch of typefaces, so which one do you choose? Well, to make things simple, do not use Times New Roman, Arial, Caliber, Cambria, or any other default. I say this not because breaking the mold is inherently good (I’m not that hip); I say it only because using the defaults suggest typographic apathy. It says that you’re lazy and don’t want to put in the time to find a better typeface.

In truth, Times New Roman is a good typeface. It’s just been overused so much that now it says something other than I’m a good typeface. It says I’m a lazy typeface.

So, what typeface should you choose? If you’re not looking to research and buy a typeface online somewhere—if you want to stick to those that came with your computer—here’s a list, you might have some:

Garamond, Caslon, Bodoni, Century, Georgia, Futura, Univers, Gill Sans, Helvetica, Akzidenz Grotesk, and Avenir.

If you stick to these, the things you write will look and feel far better.

good-typefaces

 

② Take care of your body text

The most important part of whatever you’re writing is the body text, not the headers. I know it’s important to have a good first impression, and people pay a lot of attention to the headers, but most of the page is body text, and that’s the part that needs to look good. So before you take care of your kids or health or anything else, take care of your body text.

Okay, so how do you do that?

③ Don’t let your title bully your body

Pages with text on them have a certain shade of grey at a distance; the blocks of text stop looking like lines of words and begin blending in with the white that separates them.

So what does this mean for headers? Well, they should be large enough to stand out–to contrast with the body text in some meaningful way. But they shouldn’t be so large or bold that they outweigh the body text–they shouldn’t push around the body text. They need to complement.

Don't let your headers bully your body text

④ Keep your body text from running too wide

Lines of text should be between 45 and 90 characters wide, with 75 being a safe bet. This roughly equates to two lower case alphabets—abcdefg…

So, how to you achieve this? Well, in word or online, it means changing the margins to be larger than the standard; in school we all learn such bad typographic practices, one of the worst is using one-inch margins on all sides. Margins serve different purposes and, therefore, have different needs. Don’t get suckered into the one-inch cult.

On email, this usually means creating a one-cell table, and typing your entire email into that table cell, then changing the width accordingly. Sometimes this can look quite good actually. And, if you’re so inclined, you can make the borders of the table white so you can’t see them.

⑤ Space well, not double

Another terrible school-time habit we develop is double spacing. This ends up creating a very airy page; it also makes it easier for a title to bully the body text because the body text can’t stand its ground. Line height should be between 120% and 140% of type size. Double Space just means 200%, by the way. So you can see how bad it really is.

On Word, you don’t have any built-in options here, but you can change it in the settings. If you can’t find how, 1.15 spacing or 1.5 spacing will do, depending on the text.

Don't double space

⑥ Choose an appropriate type size

We learn that 12 point is best—or, we learn nothing but 12 point—but in many cases, that’s not true. When working in print, between 9 and 12 point is best—don’t worry, it usually won’t look too small. On screens, 14–23 pixels looks best.

⑦ Contrast only when needed

Dimensions of contrast are the ways one thing is different from another. So, for example, this has two dimensions of contrast from this; the first is both italicized and underlined while the second is neither.

Only one dimension is needed, usually. So make something bold, or underlined, or italicized, or ALL CAPS*, or l e t t e r s p a c e d, or a different size, or a different font, but not m u l t i p l e. It’s just unnecessary.

Make your titles the same typeface and a different size, or a different typeface and the same size. When emphasizing something, make it bold or italicized, but not both.

*All caps is terrible, never use it. Not even in titles.

You’re out of excuses!

Make sure you don’t start putting out ugly typography by taking this post with you. I’ve made it into a free PDF so you don’t have any excuses.

Comments

  1. Great advice for non-designers.

    However, your recommendations made me think about how often we as designers break exactly those rules in order to make content more appealing.
    Maybe you should loosen up a bit and allow people to inject more of their personality. After all, isn’t typography an interesting field to express things, good or bad? To quote Pablo Picasso: Good taste is the enemy of creativity.

    Best regards,
    Marc

    1. Author

      Hi Marc,

      First, thanks so much for reading!
      To your point, yes, this is definitely for non-designers or people just starting. There’s the saying “know the rules before you break them,” and I think that fits here. I’d prefer people make informed type choices than follow the 12 point Times New Roman, double space, 1 inch margins rules forever, wouldn’t you?

      You’ve inspired me–I should write on flouting these rules, maybe you’d be interested in contributing some designs or writing for it?

      -Lucas

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