Inspired by Sheldon’s “Fun with Flags” series, I decided to collect my thoughts about the beautiful subject of typography in a similar way. My friends and students know that I can go on and on about this topic. Maybe writing it down like this decreases the length of my rants in the real-world.

For this first part, I want to explain some definitions and dispel some myths about typography.

What is typography?

Typography is the art and craft of arranging type to make written language readable and appealing.

In this definition, type refers to the composition of text by some means. I am most used to computer typesetting, so I am assuming that we are doing electronic typesetting here. Most of my examples will either refer to HTML or LaTeX, because I am most familiar with them.

Note that the definition contains the words art and craft. Typography is thus decidedly not all about making a document look “nice” or anything. Some of the rules are grounded in the reality of the perception of readers—see below for some explanations.

What makes you qualified to write about this?

To be honest, nothing specifically. I like good typography. Over the course of my career as a student and a researcher, I have always given some thought about presenting my text in an aesthetically pleasing manner.

I am not claiming that my way of doing things is the best way. I am also not claiming that my documents are the best-looking ones out there. Furthermore, I am well aware of the fact that typography for web pages leaves some things to be desired. For example, I am not quite satisfied with the way quotes or apostrophes are typeset. But this is a limitation of the web medium, not a principal limitation.

Are you saying that looks are more important than content?

No. Typography is not about making bad content look good. You are confusing this with marketing. Of course, your content needs to be worth the effort of typesetting. The problem with electronic typesetting is that—whether we want to or not—each and everyone of us has become a little typographer. Every word processing software permits a myriad of ways of adjusting the look of text. So, unless you are writing everything in a text editor and only apply the design later on—which, coincidentally, might not be the worst idea—you should at least be aware of the basic principles of typography.

But this is all subjective!

As a matter of fact, it is not. At least not entirely. During the course of this series I also want to provide pointers to relevant research whenever applicable. I plan on separating the purely aesthetic aspects, which are certainly subjective or reliant on a fashion-du-jour, from the aspects that have a solid basis in perception.

Let us start with this right now. Here are some interesting research findings about typography:

  1. In Reader Preferences and Typography, Tinker and Paterson reported that there is a close agreement between the apparent legibility and the apparent pleasingness of a text. The study is slightly scant on details, though, as Tinker and Paterson only compared text set in lower case with text set in bold face or all capitals. Still, it seems to point in the direction that certain text markups shall only be used sparingly. Bold face, for example, draws the attention of a reader towards a single word or phrase. The effect is lost if everything is set in bold face.

  2. In Typography and Readability, Burtt examined the readability of text if certain typographical elements are changed. The selection of the font face proved to be somewhat significant, for example. Very ornate fonts, such as Cloister Black were deemed to confuse some readers. Of course, this is not entirely surprising, but it hints at the importance of selecting the “right” font. Furthermore, Burtt reported that combining several font faces can actually decrease the reading efficiency by as much as 11%. Eye movement observations also suggested that long texts should not consist exclusively of capital letters. Burtt also observed that line lengths should not be too large. For 10 point type, line length should vary between 75mm and 90mm.

  3. In The Effects of Line Length on Children and Adults’ Online Reading Performance, Bernard et al. found that medium (65–75 characters per line) or narrow length texts (45 characters per line) are preferred for online reading by adults and children, respectively.

  4. In The Aesthetics of Reading, Larson and Picard examined the performance of participants in cognitive tasks after exposing them to examples of bad and good typography. While Larson and Picard concluded that most readers do not perceive very intricate details such as ligatures or small caps (which may thus be thought of belonging to the aesthetics part of typography), they found that readers greatly prefer good typography to bad typography. I would take the cognitive differences with a grain of salt, though, because the sample size does not seem to be large enough—only 20 subjects, which were divided into two groups. Yet, subjects rated the text with good typography to be significantly easier to read.

I hope I have convinced you that some typographical standards are worth thinking about. In the forthcoming posts, I will always refer to relevant research if applicable, or explicitly state that a rule is “only” based on aesthetic preferences.

Stay tuned.