Typography Terms

While graphic design can use color, contrast, and a bunch of other concepts I’ve only dimly heard of, in a book, what we’ve got is … type. If you want to make your book look good, you have to know how to make type sing – how it behaves, how it’s perceived, how to make art from your basic letters of the alphabet. And in order to talk about it, you have to know the vocabulary.

Take a look at the PDF books that I’ve gathered so you know the basics:

Typographic color is a term that’s a little misleading. It refers to a uniform shade of gray that a printed page has – depending on the typeface and the line spacing, it can be light to dark, smooth to highly splotchy. (That last isn’t a technical term, by the way.) For good use of typography, a page can be any shade, but it must be a uniform shade; no areas of extreme dark color and others of spiderweb coloring. That assumes that the entire page is filled with text, by the way – once your settings assure a uniform color, you can dump your story text into it and let the chips fall where they may. Even if you’ve got 15 lines of two word dialogue sentences, it will still look acceptable. But this is where the reluctance to use bold as a signal of emphasis comes from, because it can catch attention (and is thus distracting to the reader) and because it changes the typographic color. A properly designed italic face has nearly the same color as the regular text, but bold by its very nature cannot. Try not to use it, eh?

Kerning is the spacing between letter pairs. Tracking is the spacing between letters in a word. Word spacing is (oddly enough) the spacing between words. Leading is the spacing between lines. And all can be adjusted, but you’ll want to do so for different reasons and at different times in your workflow.

Leading is adjusted once – at the beginning of your layout. Your pages need to have a consistent baseline grid; that’s the way that all lines of text consistently line up. If the front of your page has a different baseline from what’s on the back, then there will be a slight shadow that appears when the text lines don’t line up – and there won’t be a shadow when the lines do coincide. Bad appearance, bad design. There might be a case when you’ve written a line of text that has no descenders; that will make it look like the leading is slightly too tall for that line. But if you narrow the leading at that point, that will throw off the baseline grid for the page: don’t do it. Pick a leading value and stick with it. That will make your book look more polished than any adjustments you might make throughout the text.

Tracking is the spacing between all the letters in the word, and is critical in making the text easy to read. As much as you may be in love with the appearance of the type, tracking adjustments are the first adjustment you will turn to, and as long as you keep the adjustments below +/- .015 em, it will scarcely be noticeable. Adjusting the spine margins is next (and you need to keep that minimal to avoid notice as well). And third is dealing with word spacing; but this is ususally noticeable, and thus, rarely used.

Word spacing can be problematic to adjust. For those who dearly love the way that words look in their chosen font, the idea of adjusting tracking can seem like heresy – so they adjust the spacing between the words, instead, when problems arise. The problem that can come up is called “rivers”; that’s a noticeable trail of whitespace threading through your paragraph of text. It’s unsightly and is a sign of poor typography. That’s why word spacing is so rarely adjusted by hand.

Rivers in text. Do what you have to so that this doesn’t happen.

Kerning is the spacing between two letters. A professional font will come with a kerning table, listing the proper spacing between characters – and given that there are about 70 characters that are commonly used (including punctuation and numerals), that’s 702 combinations, or about 4,900 kerning values just to handle the basics, and that doesn’t cover small caps, fractions, or other alphabets other than the basic English set. You may need to adjust kerning for two capital letters together; I used a free font for one project that had to be manually kerned whenever I used the numeral “1”. But mostly, that’s the benefit of a professional font; kerning isn’t something you have to pay attention to, because you already paid someone to make sure it’s good. If you’re not using a professional font, you may want to get really familiar with your program’s advanced find/replace function or scripting – so you don’t have to do each and every combination by hand.



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