Monthly Archives: December 2009

Leaded or Unleaded?

To understand leading (pronounced “ledding”), you must understand where the term comes from. It’s called leading because typesetters used to manually insert metal strips, made of lead, between rows of type. The more leading the typesetter added, the more space that appeared between the lines of type.
Leading is measured from one baseline to the next baseline.

Leading is measured from one baseline to the next baseline.

Leading is the space between lines of type. Technically, leading is measured from baseline to baseline. The default leading for body text is approximately 120 percent of the point size of the type. For example, 12-point type would be set with a leading of 14.4 points (written as 12/14.4). The default isn’t always appropriate. If fact, it’s rarely appropriate.

Relying on default leading settings can get you into trouble. Headings, text set in large type, and text set in all caps requires less leading.

It may seem counterintuitive, but often the larger the type, the less leading is required in proportion to the type size. (Huh? That sentence made sense in my head.) For example, text set in 8-point type would require 10 points of leading, but 72-point type might require only 72 points leading, or no additional leading, which is also called “set solid.”

Computer applications vary on how they measure leading. Some word processors like Microsoft Word measure leading as the difference between the type size and line height. For example, such design applications as Adobe InDesign, Adobe Photoshop, and Adobe Illustrator show type set at 12/14 as you might expect as 12-point type on 14-point leading. Word, however, shows type set at 12/14 as 12 points with 2 points of line spacing (which is essentially the same as 12/14). Note that paragraph spacing is different than leading in that paragraph spacing is the space between distinct paragraphs of text.

Deciding how much leading your text requires is not a straightforward process, because, in addition to type size, you must also consider x-height and line length. I can’t offer a formula for determining the amount of line spacing required for comfortable reading; it’s a matter of aesthetics. As you consider the proper line spacing, take the following factors into account:

  • Font Size. Normal text of 10 to 12 points is generally set with one to two points of line spacing. Smaller fonts require more line spacing to be legible. Likewise, large heading or display type will likely require less leading in proportion to the text size.
  • X-Height. X-height is the distance between the baseline and median of lowercase letters. The larger the x-height, the more leading is required because the reader needs more space to recognize the word shapes.
  • Line Length. Longer lines of text require more line space to prevent the eye from reading the same line twice. Lines of 75 characters or more should be double-spaced. Keep your body text between 35 and 70 characters for easy reading.
  • All Caps. Type set in all caps requires less leading because there are no descenders hanging below the baseline, and therefore, there is no chance of collisions between the descenders of one line with the ascenders of the following line.

Notice how fine print and disclosure statements commonly ignore these guidelines. Fine print is typically set in 8-point type or smaller, use a typeface with a large x-height, and little or no leading. Breaking with these guidelines makes the text unreadable, and, if you ask me, attorneys do this on purpose because they don’ want anyone to actually read the disclosures. Follow the guidelines I have outlined here when setting the leading for your own text. After all, you want people to actually read it.


Everywhere You Look: Helvetica

The only movie I’ve purchased from iTunes is documentary called Helvetica. Yes, I own a copy of a documentary about a font, or more precisely, a typeface, and yes, I am probably the biggest geek you will ever meet. Shut up.

Helvetica, the typeface, is everywhere. You cannot escape it.  It is ubiquitous. Every day Helvetica tells us, “Do not enter,” “Public Parking,” or “Watch your step.” The IRS uses Helvetica on our tax forms. The EPA uses Helvetica. The television and motion picture rating systems use Helvetica. Next to Times New Roman, Helvetica is probably the most widely used typeface on the planet.

Brands using Helvetica

Many, many companies use some iteration of Helvetica as the typeface in their logos.

As a technical communicator, I am fascinated by typography. Different typefaces can create different moods, reduce or improve readability, and affect the overall persuasiveness of a communication. Helvetica, however, seems to transcend these characteristics of type. It is neutral, efficient, and utilitarian. For example, the following corporate names probably conjure up different feelings within you: American Airlines, Staples, Bloomingdale’s, Greyhound, Sears, Fendi, Crate & Barrel, Energizer, and Texaco. All of these companies (and many more) have chosen Helvetica as their corporate logotype, and yet, we probably never noticed.

When Helvetica was created for Linotype in 1957, it was an instant hit. Helvetica was clean and modern, and it was adopted by many corporations to modernize and revamp their images. Helvetica became even more popular when it was licensed by Apple and included with every Macintosh computer, and when Helvetica’s illegitimate (near identical, but not quite) twin, Arial, was included on every Windows PC. Legend has it, Microsoft created Arial because it was too cheap to license Helvetica. Whether this is true or not, I can’t say, but Arial has expanded Helvetica’s reach into our consciousness.

One graphic designer interviewed in Helvetica said that Helvetica is so ubiquitous that it’s like air—it means nothing. Another graphic designer said that using Helvetica was like saying, “Don’t read me—I will bore you to tears.” (Only he used much more colorful language than I can use here.)

Depending on the intent of your communication, you might want to steer clear of Helvetica—and Arial—unless you have a special need to assert your document’s neutrality or give your readers the impression that your document will bore them.

If you get a chance to watch Helvetica, take it. You’ll get a better idea of how typography affects mood and readability, as well as the history of one particular typeface. Here’s a trailer to pique your interest even more.

Writing in Style

There are, perhaps, hundreds of thousands of computerized typefaces to choose from. I have some 800 type families on my laptop. All of these typefaces can be a bit overwhelming, especially to the untrained eye. Fortunately, you can categorize most typefaces into one of seven groups. Granted, some typefaces will never easily fit into one category or another.

Like fashion, type styles have changed over time. Most type styles are derived from the time or place in which they were developed and gained popularity. Having said that, many typefaces that fit within a certain style may have been created outside of the time or place of origin typically associated with that type style. You can categorize most typefaces in one of the following seven type styles:

Type Styles

There are seven main categories of type. The blue lines indicate the angles of the stress, the slope of the terminals, and the brackets of the serifs.

  • Old Style. Old Style type is very legible, has minimal contrast between thick and thin lines, rounded brackets where the stokes and serifs meet, and a diagonal stress. The line through the thinnest parts of the O in the figure to the left shows the diagonal stress. (France 1600s.)
  • Transitional. Transitional type bridged the Old Style and Modern typefaces and had more refined serifs, greater contrast between thick and thin strokes, and moderately diagonal stress. (England 1700s.)
  • Modern. Modern type has even more contrast between thick and thin strokes, squared brackets where strokes and serifs meet, and vertical stress. (Italy 1700s.)
  • Slab Serif (Egyptian). Slab Serifs are characterized by very thick serifs, little or no bracketing, and little or no stress. (United States 1800s.)
  • Sans Serif. Sans Serif typefaces do not have serifs and typically do not have any stress. (Switzerland 1900s.)
  • Script. Script typefaces are designed to mimic handwriting and calligraphy.
  • Decorative. Decorative typefaces are designed to add splash to your documents, but should be used sparingly. Outside of bullet characters, decorative type probably has no place in your résumé.

Typeface styles are evocative. They’re reminiscent of the time and place in which they were created because they embody the art and architecture of the time and place of origin. Choose typefaces based on their associated mood and tone.

Form Follows Function

More important than the tone of our document, your type should be suited to the utility of your text. You should chose typefaces that are appropriate for the situations in which they will be read. For example a weighty serif typeface is appropriate for road signs. Could you imagine speeding along the expressway trying to decipher a road sign written in a lavish script typeface? You couldn’t. Likewise, a typeface with heavy serifs would be difficult to read in the setup instructions for a home theatre, where the user is probably crouched in a tight, dark space as he plugs in equipment. So, you can see that the utility of your text will generally dictate the tone and the style of typefaces you use.

The Holidays Are for Special Characters

It’s that time of year when people come together to celebrate the holidays. Although most of my family is local, we all gather only during the holidays. And if your family is anything like mine, you have your fair share of odd ducks. There’s the born-again uncle, who will preach your ear off. There’s gramdpa, who has become a bit peculiar in his declining years. There’s the cousin, who needs to dial it down on the Ritalin. Then, there’s the other side of the family, who are Dutch. Don’t get me started on the Dutch; they are just too weird for words. Despite all their foibles and eccentricities, we love our families. Where else can you find such a colorful collection of special characters.

Speaking of special characters…. Sorry for the painful, cheesy segway.

As businesses grow internationally, and as languages commingle and borrow words from each other, we must be able to type diacritics and special characters that do not appear on our standard keyboards. Words and phrases that we use frequently, like résumé, café, cliché, über-, and à la carte require accented characters. Mathematical symbols and some punctuation are further examples of special characters.

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Anatomy 201: Type Measurements

When discussing or working with type, it’s not only important to understand the anatomy of the parts of letterforms, but it’s also important to understand how type is measured. We’re accustomed to measuring things in inches, yards, or miles, or, heaven forbid, the metric system. Type, on the other hand, has its own system of measurement of which most of us have a vague understanding. For example, most of us understand that normal body text is set between 10 and 12 points, and 72 points is much too large for everyday use. Few of us, however, really know what a point really is.

What’s the Point?

Type Measurements

Type is generally measured in points and picas. These measurements can easily be converted to inches.

A point is a unit of measurement held over from the olden days of manual typesetting. Points are used to measure the size of a font and the space between lines. Another measurement, the pica, is used to measure the length of a line of type. You probably won’t use picas unless you are using a page layout application like Adobe InDesign.

The following table describes the relationship between points, picas, and inches.

12 points 1 pica
6 picas 1 inch
72 points 1 inch

Type purists would tell you that there are actually 72.27 points per inch. The difference, however, is nearly imperceptible, and most software programs use the 72 points per inch measurement unless you change the default settings.

You can write out type measurements in a variety of ways. For example, 18-point type could be represented as 1p6 or 0p18 in pica-speak.

I know working in points and picas is difficult to get used to, but if you’re serious about typography and page design, you’re going to have to suck it up. Measuring in inches is fine for our example of 18-point type (or 1p6). 18 points is easily converted to 0.25 inch. If your type is set to 16 points (or 1p4), however, the conversion to inches is not so simple: 0.2222 inch.

Size Matters

Font Size

The size of a font is measured from just above the ascender height to just below the descender line.

Font size can best be described as the measurement from the bottom of the descenders to the top of the ascenders, but, technically, there’s a little space below the descenders and above the ascenders that gets counted in the font size of computerized type. For example, if you were to measure from the bottom of the descenders to the top of the ascenders of Times New Roman set at 72 points, you might only measure 66 points.

Back in the day, the font size was measured by the actual block the metal type was mounted on. The metal type was not mounted to the edge of the block, so that little space below the descenders and above the ascenders is another holdover from the days of manual typesetting.

There are additional terms that are used when measuring spaces or indents, but spaces are a topic for another day.