Pick a Clean Design and Stick to It

Many desktop publishers run amok on this subject. One of the basic elements of a clean design is the typography, the choice of typefaces and point sizes of the type that you use in your publication. Here is an example from a real, published book where the formatter went berserk:


Here the author (or whoever designed the layout) chose a typeface for the header that is nearly unreadable. This is a fancy typeface, meant for things like artsy newsletters, not a serious work of non-fiction. The words are spaced so close together that they are difficult to tell apart. The typeface itself clashes with the typeface used for the body text. A sans-serif typeface like Arial or Helvetica (which are nearly twins) would look much better.

The formatter used the same typeface for the chapter titles. This typeface looks to be one named “Broadway.” Regardless, it was a very poor choice for this book.

Notice how much better the header would look in a typeface like Arial in an 18-point bold font:


As I pointed out in a previous blog, the best typefaces are those that work well together. You can select a typeface that complements the body text, which is normally a serif typeface such as Times Roman, Palatino, or Garamond, from the sans-serif typefaces that are available to you. You can set chapter titles, headers, and page numbers, in the same sans-serif typeface, with headers and page numbers in one point size and chapter titles in a larger point size so they stand out. You can also use a different typeface for the chapter titles if you wish. There are no hard and fast rules; just be sure the typefaces you pick look good together.

In many non-fiction books, you may also need to have subheadings. You can set these in the same typeface as the page headers, normally in a slightly larger font. You can also set them a slightly different sans-serif typeface, just so long as it goes well with the one used in the headers.

Here is a page from a well-formatted book,
First to Die: The Tragic Loss of the SS Vestris:


The header and page number are 11-point Calibri; the subheading is 13-point Calibri; and the body text is 11-point Georgia. Note that the first paragraph under a subheading has no first-line indent. This is standard book formatting.

The authors used 15-point
leading throughout (leading: the space between lines of text; rhymes with sledding).

To get a good feel for the art of formatting books and other publications, look at ones that are commercially published—avoiding those like the top example, which are a distinct—and ugly—minority. You are sure to pick up a good feel for this sort of thing if you study enough published books, looking at the formatting instead of reading the words.

Typography and Type Design

You might think that typography and type design are basically the same thing. They aren’t. Typography is concerned with the way words look on a page, whether in print or on a computer monitor. Type design is the creation of letter shapes to make up a typeface.

Typography’s focus is on things like word spacing, leading between lines of type, paragraph form, and all the components that make a page of text both look good and easily read.

Type design homes in on the details of glyphs. A glyph is a character in a typeface. Letters are glyphs. So are numbers and special characters like @, #, $, %, &, etc. If you are designing a typeface, you must choose the form of each glyph carefully so it will fit in with the other glyphs in the typeface. Type design is an art form in its own right.

Desktop publishers need not be concerned with the details of type design. Instead, they need to be cognizant of the details of typography. The way text looks on a page goes a long way toward making the material attractive to readers. Choice of typeface and the particular font used, the leading (spacing between lines), kerning (the spacing between characters in words), and the design of paragraphs—including the use of subheadings where appropriate—are all part of the decisions that go into a good typographical design.

But wait. Haven’t I been redundant in saying “typeface and the particular font”? Aren’t a typeface and a font the same thing? No, they aren’t. A typeface comprises many fonts (theoretically, an infinite number of them). Through misuse of the term “font,” it has become—unfortunately—a non-standard synonym for typeface. Calibri, Times New Roman, Verdana, and Palatino are all typefaces. But each of them has variants, such as roman (ordinary text, like this), italic, boldface, italic boldface, condensed, condensed italic, condensed boldface, condensed italic boldface, and often many more. Is each of these variants a font? No. A font is a variant in a particular point size. So, how may fonts are there in a typeface? Since you can have any point size you wish, there is theoretically no limit to the number of fonts in a typeface. But let’s restrict ourselves to body text at point sizes between, say 8 point and 14 points, and further restrict point sizes to one-half point increments. So, we can have 8, 8.5, 9, 9.5, etc. points to our text. That gives us 13 different point sizes of the eight variants listed above. Thus, for this example, we have a total of 104 fonts from a single typeface.

The beauty of type

I wrote above that desktop publishers—and commercial printers as well—need not be concerned with the details of type design. That doesn’t mean we can’t appreciate the work of great type designers. As you work with various typefaces, you will find that certain characters may strike you as especially artistic in their design.

In examining individual glyphs—or letters—in a type face, it helps to know the names of some of the commonly used features. The height of lower case letters is called the “x-height” because it is easiest to see in that letter. Any rounded part of a letter is a “bowl.” The vertical part of a letter, if it rises above the x-height, is an ascender. If it drops below the baseline—defined as the bottom of the x in lower case letters—we call that a descender.

In thinking about this while composing this blog, I realized that I have two favorite letters myself: the uppercase P from Palatino and the lowercase b from Times / Times Roman / Times New Roman. The bowl of the Palatino P doesn’t quite make it to the ascender, making the letter look a bit like it’s an upper case I with a fancy scroll hanging from the end of the top serif. But it comes off as looking elegant to my eye. It’s certainly distinctive. And the lowercase Times b has the bowl connected directly to the ascender, again elegantly so. It’s as if it suddenly forgot it was a serif typeface when it got to the bottom of the b and rounded the turn towards the ascender.

Here are the two paired, in all their glory (and large size type). Note that the Palatino has the nearly-slab style serif of a Transitional Roman typeface, whereas Times Roman has the wedge-like serifs of an Old Style Roman typeface.


Even though they come from rather different typefaces, the two of them seem to get along quite nicely together—they even form the chemical symbol for the material used in the earliest metal type: lead.

Typefaces for Body Text

Rapidsoft Press a light bulb
When you are laying out the format for a document or manuscript, this is one of the most important choices you will have to make. You will make your choice depending on what kind of document you are designing: a short piece, such as a leaflet, flyer, announcement, or something else that will take up a maximum of, say, three or four pages, or a much longer manuscript such as a book.

For short pieces, a sans-serif typeface—like the one you’re reading here—will do. If you are writing for display on the Internet, these are really your only valid choice, because serif typefaces do not display well at the coarse resolution of today’s Internet. A sans-serif typeface is a good choice for things like flyers or advertising leaflets. Layout of paragraphs, pictures, photographs, or callout boxes are where the real design meat is in these short documents.

When a sans-serif typeface is called for, my go-to choice is Calibri. It just seems more elegant than Arial or Helvetica.


That said, there isn’t a great deal of difference between these three typefaces. Which you choose is a matter of personal preference. For my taste, however, Arial’s glyphs seem short for the point size (Calibri is 14 points, the other two are 13 points) and the periods almost disappear. Helvetica—although OpenType—appears to be an incomplete typeface with ligatures only for fi and fl, and the kerning is a bit sloppy.

When you have a substantial amount of text to set, you would do well to look to the serif family of typefaces. Tests show that readers can comprehend printed text better when it is set in a serif typeface than a sans-serif typeface. Even here, however, sans-serif typefaces do well as page headers or subheadings to set off portions of text where there is a change of pace. Using the same typeface for everything is, in a word, boring.

If you are content to go with the crowd, stick with something like Times New Roman for your body text. But remember: Times Roman was designed for newspapers, not books. To my eye, Times Roman—New or not—looks a bit frowsy, like the ladies in
Arsenic and Old Lace. Here is a short sample of Times New Roman:


For a more modern feel, try one of the newer typefaces that have been developed specifically for digital reproduction. The first such typeface is Minion, which was designed by Adobe typographer Robert Slimbach and released in 1990 as an Adobe Type 1 typeface. It is available today as Minion Pro. Here is a sample of Minion Pro. Nothing frowsy here!

Minion Pro

Notice the ligatures in the letters “fi” in “fix” and “” in “dicult” in these examples. You may have to insert ligatures by hand in Times New Roman, but good desktop publishing software such as Microsoft Publisher will create these ligatures for many typefaces as you type in text. This is a good reason to use your DTP software to enter the text into your document rather than using a word processor, such as Word, for this task. Word will not (to the best of my knowledge) create ligatures for you automatically the way Publisher will, even though they are both in the Microsoft Office suite.

Another nice typeface is Palatino. It has an especially elegant upper-case letter P, as you can see from this example:


If you are preparing a textbook, you might consider Century Schoolbook—that’s what it was designed for:


You will find there is an ample supply of decent typefaces to choose from. Be careful, however, and stay away from oddball typefaces. How would you like to have to read an entire 200-page book set in Ravie?


As for me, I generally stick to Minion Pro. It’s readable, has a nice light, airy feeling, and a decent x-height, all of which make for a good presentation in printed output. It’s a true jack-of-all-trades.

Typefaces for Titles

Titles want to be noticed. They should be bold. Attention-getters. Here’s good one for starters—it says, “Look at me!” (For each of these I give the name of the typeface followed by a sample title):


But there are many varieties to choose from. Perhaps an outline typeface for a title?


Or perhaps your book is about something ancient and mysterious. You could use this one:


Or maybe you need a title for a wild western story. You could use this one:


The sample title is from a real book. You can find it on Amazon.com.

If you need a title that looks modern and full of pizazz, try this one:


Some of these title typefaces have both upper- and lowercase glyphs (glyph is a fancy typographic word for a character). Others are in all uppercase glyphs, and a few have uppercase and “small caps” that take the place of lowercase glyphs (e.g., Trajan Pro).

Suppose you have a title that needs real impact. Then why not use this one:


Or it may just be that you need an ornate title like this:


The varieties of headline type are almost as numerous as the designers who invented them. You’re sure to find one that suits you.

How about a touch of “oldness” but still retaining elegance? Like this one:


Here is one that needs a bit of loosening in the spacing to really look right:


Then there is this old choice for an open-face title:


Of course, on a book cover you would use the typefaces in a much larger font than I’ve shown here. The spacing I used on these is “Normal” for the first three; 140% (very, very loose) for the Mesquite Std.; “Loose” (112.5%) for Broadway and Impact; Normal for Copperplate Gothic Bold and Charlemagne Standard; Loose for Felix Titling; and Normal for Caslon Open Face LT Std.

Tips for Publishers

one of a series

Use Real Drop Caps to Improve Your Formatting

Making elegant drop caps is fast becoming a lost art. Desktop publishers who are serious about their work should learn how to make good drop caps to begin chapters.

real drop caps
To learn more about this, and other aspects of desktop publishing, I highly recommend Mark Hengesbaugh’s excellent book, Typography for Desktop Publishers (Homewood, IL: Business One Irwin, 1991).

One of the subjects Hengesbaugh covers is the proper formatting of drop caps. No word processing or layout software available today—to the best of my knowledge—is capable of producing correctly formatted drop caps. It’s something you must do on your own. It’s not difficult, and you will quickly get the hang of it.

Here is an example of a correctly formatted drop cap. It is the first paragraph in the first chapter of First to Die, a book about the sinking of the SS Vestris in 1928, which I co-authored with Kristin Delaplane of Our American Stories® LLC.

Rapidsoft Press Drop Caps

The large initial letter and the extra white space around it catch the reader’s eye, which is drawn into the text. The small caps following the drop cap pull the reader’s attention to the rest of the line. The drop cap extends above the first line of text and is separated from the following line by extra white space.

The bottom of the drop cap lines up with the bottom of the second (or third) line of text, depending on how you choose to format it. Normal formatting resumes with the first line below the bottom of the drop cap.

Note that the rest of the first word of the first line is brought up close to the drop cap.

The poorly formatted drop caps that are produced by software like Microsoft® Word leave a large gap between the drop cap and the rest of the first word of that line. As Hengesbaugh observes, “Parts of words are particularly difficult to find because people read by recognizing whole words at a glance, they aren’t used to putting pieces of words together.”

In a later blog in this series I will show exactly how a drop cap can be produced in Microsoft Publisher.