Details Part 1

I will be posting a series of articles on typographic detailing that I wrote sometime ago. Much has changed since I first wrote this not least attitudes towards so called universal truths. The context you are designing within as well as personal attitude is important. I reproduce this article not to dictate the rights and wrongs but for those who may find it interesting and wish to pursue these ideas further in their own work. The article is not a prescription for making good design rather you may find it a useful enhancement to your practice. It is aimed primarily at students of design. Disclaimer over (although I’m prepared to edit). This first part deals with letter, word and line spacing.

To create good typography one needs to pay attention to the details. Mies van der Rohe once wrote, ‘God is in the details’. While he wasn’t writing about typography he was alerting us to the idea that what separates art from hobby is attention to detail. It is the job of the graphic designer to ensure that those minute adjustments which make the difference between acceptable word processing and good typography are made.

System settings
System and software settings are established to enable most people unconcerned about fine typography to function sufficiently. System and software settings cannot ensure that all text will be displayed at its optimum best. There is no formula that can be applied to create good text setting each situation must be judged separately. Most raw typesetting on the Mac is reasonably good and needs little or no adjustment made with regards to its overall letter or word spacing, however, there are certain typefaces that benefit from a tighter/looser letter spacing or a tighter word spacing.

Letter spacing (tracking)
Letter spacing can be adjusted to have an overall looser or tighter spacing this is known as tracking. Certain typefaces benefit from a tighter setting, others a looser setting. The amount of tracking is largely down to personal preference – most setting needs little or no adjustment and if it does the amount of adjustment is generally very subtle. Generally capitals benefit from a looser setting. When setting type large, say on a poster, it’s possible to minus track the letter space tightly (close but not touching). The design group 8vo favoured tight letter spacing on their posters for the Hacienda and the Boymans. Purists feel that too much spacing particularly of lowercase can break up the word shape and therefore the word’s recognition. Frederic Goudy famously intimated it was a hanging offence. See Stop Stealing Sheep.


Letter spacing (kerning)
Manufacturers of typefaces establish an overall kerning for each of their typefaces. Kerning is the adjustment of space between two specific characters. The overall kerning of most typefaces is reasonably good, however, there will always be particular combinations of letters that do not fit well together. Kerning is most crucial in display setting although it is always a good idea to scan through your text setting and adjust the more noticeable instances. Numbers are not kerned (they are set on an even body) for when they are set in tables they should line up underneath each other. Numbers that do not appear in tables need to be kerned for example telephone numbers. Certain letters such as a capital ‘T’ need to be undercut by the following letter as in the word Telephone.


Word spacing
The word spacing for most typefaces being set in text is quite acceptable. Occasionally the word spacing of a typeface will look wide in comparison to its letter spacing and in these cases it is advisable to close up the overall word spacing. In display setting it is sometimes necessary to close up the space between words. Ideas of what constitutes the correct spacing between words has varied over time – Edward Johnson advocated a word space equal to a lowercase o whereas Aaron Burns suggests a lowercase r – generally contemporary setting favours a tighter word spacing than in previous times.

word space

Line spacing (leading or linefeed)
A general rule of thumb in text setting is that the visual space between lines should never be less than the space between the words. The eye needs to be carried from one line to the next – lines that are too close or too far apart interrupt the reading process. As the column measure increases so should the interline spacing. Typefaces with larger x-heights need more leading than those with small x-heights as do faces with long ascenders and descenders. In display setting the frequency of ascenders, descenders and capitals can have an influence.


Future posts will include: text setting; optical adjustments; dashes and rules; marks of omission; French spacing; bullet points; ligatures; small caps and non-aligning figures; spelling; full-points; abbreviations; quotation marks; commas; hyphenation; and italics.

Whilst I can’t remember which references influenced which part I acknowledge them here: ‘Details, Details, Details’ Allan Haley Upper and Lowercase Volume 20, Number 4 Spring 1994; ‘A style for the seventies’ Shona Burns Typographic 10 August 1977; Thames and Hudson Manual of Typography Ruari McLean; Typographic Design: Form and Communication Rob Carter, Ben Day and Philip Meggs; Techniques of Typography Cal Swann; Hart’s rules for compositors and readers at the University Press Oxford; and The New Designer’s Handbook Alastair Campbell