Typographic Literacy: Part Two
Typographic literacy is on the decline, and subsequently a whole host of errors are now accepted as ‘the norm’. Below is an exploration of some of the biggest typographic faux pas, and the ways each should be corrected.
This convention harks back to the days of monospaced typewriters where it was common practice to insert a double space to distinguish the beginning of a sentence from the surrounding single word spaces. When using proportional fonts this really isn’t necessary, and is, to be brutally honest, just plain ugly.
Typewriters are also responsible for the introduction of ‘straight quotes’, non-specific quote marks designed as a space-saving measure for the keyboard, avoiding the need for separate opening and closing quote marks. Straight quotes are commonly used in place of proper quotation marks or ‘curly quotes’. Many designers will tell you that straight quotes are used to represent feet and inches, but in reality, feet and inches should be represented using primes. Straight quotes are obsolete and should not
Incorrect Hyphenation and Sentence Breaks
Hyphens are the most commonly used method of splitting sentences and indicating ranges of values. However, hyphens should only be used to split words across lines or to connect compound words (e.g. double-barreled). To indicate a break in thought in a sentence, an em dash with hairline spaces should be used (an en dash with a space before and after is also acceptable, but should be kerned appropriately).
Horizontal and Vertical Scaling
Well-designed typefaces have varying degrees of contrast between horizontal and vertical strokes. For example, in most sans-serif typefaces the vertical strokes are optically thicker than horizontals in order for them to look the same width. Distorting type through scaling upsets the balance of a typeface. With vertical scaling the vertical strokes can become too thick, disrupting the left-to-right flow of a piece of type, and smooth curves can appear to ‘peak’ in certain areas. With extreme horizontal scaling the horizontal strokes become thinner than the verticals. If it is really necessary to distort type, it should be no more than 1-2% wider before it becomes obviously noticeable. It is best practice to use a typeface family with the appropriate widths for your needs – many now have multiple widths ranging from Ultra Compressed to Extended.
Many design and layout applications permit ‘faked’ bold, italic and small caps. The apps use mathematical algorithms to stroke, slant and scale individual characters. Adding a stroke to make a bold weight loses some of the details that aid legibility, and simply skewing the typeface affects the overall weight and can cause some strokes to virtually disappear. Fake small caps are achieved by forcing lowercase characters to uppercase and scaling them down, making them feel narrower and lighter than the original lowercase. Commercial typefaces are designed with multiple weights, italics and variants, each with carefully considered optical corrections and custom-designed glyphs. For example, bold weights have greater contrast between horizontal and vertical strokes, italics generally utilize a single-storey lowercase ‘a’, and small caps have been width- and weight-corrected for optical balance. Again, the best solution is to choose a type family with the appropriate variants for your needs. Please, steer clear of auto-styling.
Widows, Orphans and Rivers
“An orphan has no past, a widow has no future.” An orphan is a single word line at the end of a paragraph. A widow is a single line of text at the top of a column. Both result in excessive white space which interrupts the balance of a set piece of text. A river is a line of white space that appears to run through a paragraph of text. Creative kerning and letter-spacing, or rewriting the text is the only effective solution to these issues.
Typefaces are generally spaced for text usage (small) and not for display purposes (large). Manual kerning is required to make display type look evenly spaced, a practice which is non-existent outside the design community, and one which many designers tend to overlook. It is also worth noting that the majority of typefaces are designed with tabular figures – numbers which sit within an equal space so they line up perfectly in tables. For text and display purposes, this needs a lot of manual correction. Some typefaces have sets of lining and old-style figures, but again these tend to be spaced for text use, unless there are size-specific variants.