The Typographic Hub

Type’s deadly sins

4th July 2012

To achieve good typography there are protocols that must be followed, theories to consider and hazards to be avoided! These pitfalls can impede progress or even ruin a design. There are some pitfalls that are worse than most, they are typographic sins that can murder a design if you don’t stay vigilant. So, stay on the straight and narrow and take note of type’s deadly sins.



01 accurate texts

In the beginning the author creates the word, but the word is without form. It is the work of the typographer to give the words shape and make sure they are literally accurate and that all iniquities have been blotted out before the word can be given typographic structure. If the text is not right then the typography cannot be right and if the typography is not right then life will become difficult for the reader. Typographers should have an overriding determination to present works in an unambiguous manner helpful to the reader and make the communication of the author’s ideas easily understood, direct and pleasant.

02 consistancy

Set your typographic house in order to ensure consistency of style in composition so the words make both visual and literal sense: inconstant composition will only serve to set the readers teeth on edge. Base textual treatments on sound typographic governances and stick to those decisions throughout: spellings, headings, captions, numbered lists all need to be treated with uniformity. An elementary example: (a) and (b) must be followed by (c) not (C). A badly organized and inconsistent design can obscure - or even change  - the meaning the text, a well laid out design will make sense of the text.

03 dropped initials

Don’t leave your dropped initials crying in the wilderness, rather they should sit snuggly with the ensuing text. Letters with a projecting left-hand stem (T, V, W, Y) should overhang into the margin, and where an uppercase J has a large bowl also allow this to project into the margin. Where the initial is the first letter of a word avoid a gap between the initial and following letters to make a neat fit. The beginnings of the second and third lines should range clear of the initial. If a quotation mark is required before a drop initial, it too should be set in the margin. If used correctly ‘dropped’ and ‘stand-up’ initials add visual interest to a text; if badly positioned they become typographic abominations!

04 effects

Always be disciplined in your use of effects such as tints, blends, drop shadows and other horrors. Don’t be lead into typographic temptation and deliver your design from the evil of too many graphic gimmicks in a single document. Don’t sacrifice your work at the altar of PostScript effects or your design will simply become more difficult to read and will be judged the hand of an amateur. Good and faithful typography will speak for itself, but if you do feel the urge to use typographic special effects be restrained in your application, make sure they are fit for purpose and remember that less is always more.

05 figures

Mixing old-style and modern figures in the same text is a cardinal typographic sin; and the wages of sin is design death. Reserve modern figs for which they were designed - tabular matter – and banish them from continuous text where they overpower the narrative and destroy the ‘colour’ of the page. Old-style figures are numerals that resemble a typeface's lowercase characters in that they have an x-height and ascenders and descenders, as opposed to lining figures, which all match the height of the caps. Old-style figures harmonize with and sit far more comfortably with upper and lowercase text.

06 ligatures

Ligatures are not merely typographic novelties; they are both requisite and necessary. Don’t forget to use these special characters because ligatures look better than setting the same character combinations individually, they help achieve an even colour on the page, and solve the problem of character combinations jostling each other for space. However, there is a time and place for everything and ligatures should be avoided if you are going to adjust the overall letter-spacing of the text. This is because a ligature is a single character, and if you adjust the overall letter-spacing the internal spacing of the ligature will remain unchanged. If the ligatures don’t match the overall spacing of the your text, don’t use them.

07 punctuation

When it comes to punctuation we have all done things we ought not to have done: and hyphens and dashes in particular are more sinned against than sinning, the unfortunate victims of typographic abuse. The hyphen (-) is used in compounds to clarify the unification of sense (‘a well-known statesman’) or where a noun and adjective are used attributively (‘a poverty-stricken family’). Dashes have a wholly different function: the en-dash (–) is used to donate a span (pp 10–52) or connect two terminal dates (‘the 1939–45 war). Em-dashes — an example of which is given here — are used to show the words they enclose are to be read parenthetically.

08 small capitals

Always use proper small caps rather than dissembling and cloaking with simulated small capital letters. True small caps were specifically created to tone with the weight, colour and proportion of the upper case letters and to sit comfortably with the lower case letters. On the other hand, computer generate capitals of a smaller size are invariably too light and too narrow and lack essential design features such as adjustments to proportions, stroke weights, length of serifs and other details that contribute to the legibility and aesthetics of small-caps. It’s a sophistication that separates the typographic wheat from the chaff.

09 spacing

Using inappropriate sizes of type for the measure is a common typographic transgression that will provoke your readers’ wrath. Uneven and widely spaced words are the result of too large a type size on too short a measure; too small a type size on too long a measure makes it difficult for the eye to follow. In all circumstances words must be evenly spaced and close setting is to be preferred. Words should only be as far apart as the width of the letter ‘I’ and there should be more space between the lines than the words. Double spacing after a full-point is an abomination of typists and should have no place in typography and so only the space of the line should appear after the full-point.

10 typeface selection

Tame the devices and desires of clients for hideous and quirky typefaces, steer them instead towards the restrained and legible. Unholy mixes of typefaces should be avoided with greater reliance placed on design families. Choosing typefaces with an extended family is both logical and helpful as it is an easy way to simplify the typeface selection process. It is also a safe and effective way of mixing typefaces while keeping a client’s project looking clean and uncluttered. Persuade clients that using type’s full armory of upper and lowercase, caps, upper and lower case italic, italic caps, upper and lower case bold, bold caps and true small caps is a better alternative to introducing yet another font into the text.

11 underlining

There should be a total proscription on underlining words to indicate emphasis! This is an archaic habit practiced by typists in the days when manual typewriters offered no other facility for emphasis. It is a naïve habit, which also looks ugly as it simply severs the descending characters: don’t be caught transgressing! There are so many other tools in the typographic box, which can be used to magnify the words: consider using bold, caps, small caps, or italics to draw attention to a word depending on the circumstances. In addition varying the type size, making good use of white space and the addition of colour can also be considered.

12 widows and orphans

Have mercy on widows and orphans. A widow is a very short line – usually one word, or the end of a hyphenated word – at the end of a paragraph or column. A widow is considered poor typography because it leaves too much white space between paragraphs or at the bottom of a page. This interrupts the reader’s eye, diminishes readability and destroys the colour of the page. But widows can be once again be reunited with the text either by some judicious editing or subtly adjusting the word space. Like a widow, an orphan is a single word, part of a word or very short line, except it appears at the beginning of a column or a page. This results in poor horizontal alignment at the top of the column or page. Orphans can be brought back in line by the same means as widows.