Saturday, 27 July 2013

Looking good! Thoughts on typography by Jenny Harper

Anyone who knows me well knows that how things look is very important to me. I love art, and crafts, and spent a significant portion of my professional working life designing books and magazines. I learnt a lot about typography from real masters of the art when I worked at William Collins, as an editor. In those days, everything was set in hot metal type and we got hand-inked pull proofs to check. Making changes was incredibly expensive and authors were charged for any changes that were not down to printer error. In fact, we had to mark the proofs using three colours of pen: red for author's corrs, green for printer's corrs and blue for editor's corrs. Costs were allocated accordingly.

I know, I know, I sound as though I came out of the Ark! I was still working at Collins in the mid 1970s when the first computer-set dictionary was achieved, and I remember the excitement in the office when it happened. Proofs changed though – soon we were getting stinky ozalids rather than the elegant pull proofs.

Roll on another decade and I was found myself sitting next to a computer specialist at the University of Edinburgh as he tried to lay out a small brochure for me, using a piece of software called PageMaker on a tiny-screened computer called a Mac Classic. 'It'll never catch on,' I said as I squinted at the screen and tried to follow what he was doing. (Soon afterwards I got a Classic of my own. I still have it.) From being an editor, I found myself also becoming something of a designer, because soon I was designing and laying out books and magazines for a large variety of clients. The early lessons in typography began to stand me in very good stead and I became very interested in what typeface to use when, and why one typeface might be better than another for certain purposes.

I was understandably interested, therefore, in a recent piece in The Week entitled 'How typeface influences the way we read and think – and why everyone hates Comic Sans MS' This fascinating article started by pointing out that the announcement of the discovery of the Higgs Boson – one of the most expensive and fascinating experiments in history – was made using a typeface called Comic Sans MS. In the opinion of the writer, gravitas was thus seriously undermined and the reaction was not one of awe, it was simply to laugh.

Serious stuff, then. But can our views really be so deeply affected simply by how words look on a page? Again, the article continues by outlining an experiment where a serious article was presented in a number of different typefaces, from the aforesaid Comic Sans to Baskerville. The results, from analysis of the 40,000 responses, was that if you want people to take your work seriously, you should use Baskerville. Not Georgia, or Times New Roman, which are very similar, but Baskerville.

Why is Comic Sans seen as funny? It looks like a childish scribble, for a start, but to get technical, it's apparently something to do with 'the management of visual weight'. There's a lot of science behind typopgraphy. Why do serifs (those little trailing edges on fonts like Times but not on Arial) arguably make a font easier to read in large quantities? Why is italic more difficult to read – and capitals almost impossible in quantity?

Fascinating stuff and I could bore you with it for hours. But I won't. Instead, I'd like to ask you a question: Are you ever put off by the size of the typeface or the type style when you pick up a book and open it?

I am. Sometimes I put a book right back on the shelf if the type is too small, even though I feel I'd like to read it. Something in my head tell me this is going to be too intense, maybe a bit boring. I could be very wrong, but that's the message I get.

Remember all those Joanna Trollopes published in the 90s? They used a typeface called Melior, which was in common use for a certain kind of book. It got to the stage that if I picked up a book in that type I put it straight back down because I felt I knew exactly what I'd be getting and I'd already had it.

So, that brings me to another, related, subject. When we buy an e-book (certainly on Kindle), we can read it either in serif or sans serif, bigger or smaller, with more spacing or less spacing – but other than that, we have very little control over how it appears. How does this make us perceive the book? In one way we have ceded less power to the typographer, who could in former times have influenced our reaction quite considerably. In another way, we have lost all power ourselves.

And, in reading most books in one format, one typeface, will everything we read in time become simply one homogeneous, misshapen lump in our minds? We remember the look, feel, and heft of a printed book. We remember whether the paper was rough or smooth, yellow or white. We remember it was fat, or slight. We remember the cover. If we try hard enough, we probably remember the typeface too.

Are these losses important, at the end of the day, or are they offset by convenience?

Over to you!


  1. I looked at a few typefaces when I published my ebooks in paperback, and I found that the typefaces I liked didn't do curly quotes, and the ones I didn't like did, so I was forced to go back to Times New Roman, although I know it's not really a book typeface, however with appropriate space loading it looked okay. Forgot to say, I do like curly quotes, I get turned off by straight ones.

    1. I thought all fonts had the facility for 'curly quotes', Chris (properly known as printer's quotes, I believe). Though Blogspot doesn't seem to offer them! Certainly it's possible to set Word to use printer's quotes.

      I could rant on for ages about line spacing and alignment and 'white space' too!

  2. So totally fascinating Jenny. I've only reently realised how many different typefaces there are out there and generally limit my own use to Times New Roman and Arial (or at work they suggest something else - Century?).

    Am I influenced by the typeface of what I read? To some extent, yes, but probably font size is as much of an isue, and I don't think I mind hugely about that at the moment. I can still read most books without glasses, so I'm not put off by a v. small font, but I can be put off by a very large font - do they think I'm stupid??

    And I hate paragraphs that last longer than a page - do they think I have an attention span that long? But that's a different thing entirely!

    And by the way, what are 'curly quotes'? Quotation marks the way I used to know them, or something else?

  3. Thanks Gill. See my reply to Chris on printer's quotes!

    Nowadays there are a whole lot of new considerations about font usage - is it Mac compatible? How will it look on someone else's screen? Will they even have it on their computer, because if not, it will revert to something like Courier or simply bitmap. Is it web friendly?

    But good typography is a great joy to behold. I love Gill, the sans serif font designed by Eric Gill, of the Arts and Crafts movement. It's so perfectly proportioned, and looks good in most weights (but not ultra bold). As a serif font, my favourite is probably Garamond, but there are many variants of this these days.

  4. I like Comic Sans! I guess that says something about my tastes!A most interesting article and lots to think about.

  5. Thanks Myra. Comic Sans has its uses - just not for announcing world-changing scientific discoveries. There's a clue in the name...

    By the way, 'straight' quotes are called teardrops.

  6. Brilliant article Jenny and I wouldn't have minded if you had 'bored me for hours'. I know Comic Sans is childlike but it's fun and I like it. I read somewhere that CentSchoolbookBT (what an ugly name!) was the best one to use for CreateSpace POD books so that's the one I tend to use now. And I can't imagine why Arial is so popular. It looks so characterless and boring. I'm the opposite to Gill (Stewart, not Eric) in terms of size. If it looks as if it'll give me eyestrain, a book goes straight back onto the shelf.

    1. Arial IS characterless and boring, Bill. but it works will across all platforms and is free!

      Since it has become so easy to prepare a book for presentation (and I'm not talking about the recent move to self pub bing here, but to what has happened since DTP came in), I fear the art of typography has been increasingly lost. I had one work experience girl talk about 'leading' but pronouncing it as 'leeding'. The whole history of Linotype and hot metal has gone.


  7. Fascinating article, Jenny - and by sheer coincidence I was just reading an article in Writing Magazine (March issue) about the dangers of using the wrong font for ebook covers! She said the same about Comic Sans.

    I like TNR but don't like Arial, and I don't think I've used CS. As for size of font - I don't even start reading any print book now where the print is too small. My close eyesight is good but I can't be bothered with the effort. If it's a book I'd really like to read then I would get it on kindle instead.

    1. I agree, Rosemary - I'm afraid I've given up on tiny print. I hadn't thought much about print which is too big, but I think I'd probably dislike that too!

  8. Hi Jenny, It's fascinating to get an insight to the work of others. Great piece, Anne

  9. Break it to me gently.....why does everyone hate Comic Sans MS? There must be a big black mark against me somewhere because I've often used it for e.mails...oh dear....the shame.
    Something I don't like is when the spacing is changed between words, as it is automatically in our posts somehow, so you could run a rule down either side and get straight lines....gggrrrr. When typing up a manuscript we have to leave one space after commas and fullstops and semi-colons etc when we present them and then the whole flippin' lot gets altered....gggrrrrr.
    Really good post, Jennie, I hope our FBing and Tweeting got lots of people looking in...:)

    1. That's what happens when you justify type, Linda. The words have to shuffle about in order to achieve those straight edges. You won't find the same problem if you set it to align left - but then, most books are justified. I used to spend ages going through and adding in some manual hyphenation in order to avoid those big spaces. But you have to be careful with that as well. We were taught never to have more than three lines in a row ending with a hyphen - it looks too ugly.

    2. PS Comic Sans just looks ... comical!

  10. Fascinating post, Jenny (I so hate coming after you on the blog rota because my poasts never seem as interesting as yours).

    I have to say I hadn't thought about the font style in published books, though now I will be looking more closely. I hate it when someone sends me work to look at and it's in one of those weird fonts which are so difficult to read. Font size is becoming more important as I get older, though. This week I've borrowed from the library Hilary Mantel's A Place of Greater Safety which has a tiny font - even one size larger would make it so much more comfortable to read.

    When I worked on a newspaper we used curly quotes, of course, but if something was cut and pasted from an emailed press release it changed them to straight quotes so we'd have to go through checking because if the editor caught them there was strong disapproval, not only for the wrong quote marks being used but because it was obvious we had cut and pasted instead of phoning the source and getting our own quotes. Don't think they would bother now.

  11. If you're using Word you can use a Search and Replace to catch any teardrop quotes that might have crept in. Otherwise I think it's just sheer hard work and a lot of close attention.

    I think standards in newspapers have really dropped - many young reporters aren't even allowed out to go and talk to a source, it all has to be by phone. And it's so easy to get copy printed these days – a well-written press release is manna from heaven to a hard-pressed journo, and cutting and pasting best of all...