Typography: Common Myths and Mistakes

Since the first GUIs introduced word processors with a selection of fonts virtually anyone with a computer has been able to set their own type (before that we even had typewriters – remember those?) and, for the most part, that’s a good thing. The world as we know it would be very inefficient indeed if every school report, office party invitation or missing cat poster had to be manually set by trained professionals. However, Microsoft Word doesn’t ship with The Complete Manual for Aspiring Typographers – in fact it doesn’t ship with any design sense at all – and so the masses uncritically embrace the MS conventions, blissfully unaware of the centuries (some say millenia) of principles from which professional typography draws from today.

Now, if you’re a designer and you know your typography you probably won’t learn anything new from this little post, though it might help educate your clients about some common myths and mistakes in layman’s typography. At the very least I hope you’ll grimace in agreement as I run through a few gripes of mine with typographical practices perpetuated by non-designers.

Here goes.

Double Space After Full Stop (.)

Let’s be clear about it: there is no need for double spaces after full stops. You may never have encountered, or noticed, this phenomena, but if you have you’ll know how annoying it is to have to go through the lot and correct it (granted, search and replace makes this easier than it used to be, but auto-correcting a 100 page document without manually controlling the result is never a good idea). When I used to work in print, removing double spaces was a routine and part of our artwork preparation cheat-sheet. But where did all those extra spaces come from?

Is the double space (top) necessary to divide the sentences or is a single space (bottom) enough?

Double spacing, i.e. the insertion of two spaces after full stops, became popular with the introduction of the typewriter in the late 1800s. As typewriters were using monospaced fonts it was felt that a single word space wasn’t wide enough to sufficiently separate sentences. Hence, an extra space was inserted to help mark the end of a sentence.

That may well have been a reasonable concern a few decades ago, as noticing the start of a new sentence definitely helps readability (though if personally I think a single space is sufficient even for typewriters). Nowadays, however, type designers assign appropriate horizontal space to each character – including the humble full stop – making double spacing obsolete. A single space combined with a capitalized first word marks the next sentence clear as day. So please, let’s just stop it. (I seriously considered including the word “full” in that last sentence, but figured such a pun would conjure involuntary facepalms and stop you from reading the rest of the article.)

Title case headers

Speaking of capitalising first words, how about capitalising all of them (in headers, that is)? Up next, the incredibly annoying and, unfortunately, equally wide-spread: Title Case Headers.

Sentence case (bottom) makes sense for readability – why do we cling to disturbing capitalisation (top)?

Some people mistakenly refer to title case as camel case, though the comparison is fitting: using title case makes your headline about as calming and legible as a line of camels stampeding across the page. Why on earth would people insist on a practice that deters readability?

Capitalising headers goes back a long time and probably stems from the Germanic urge to capitalize “important” words. Historically we’ve capitalized a lot – including nouns, pronouns, places, honorifics, even adjectives – and we still do (the specifics depending on where you’re from.

As a result the rules of titling are a tad confusing: Capitalize all words, except for for closed-class words such as articles, conjunctions and prepositions. Unless the preposition is a long word like “Between”, that is. Oh, and capitalize pronouns, even though they’re closed-class. And just make your own mind up when it comes to hyphenated words. What gives?

Whether it’s all words or just nouns, ultimately it seems to be about adding emphasis or importance to words. Surely, though, the whole headline is emphasised by definition so unless you want to go full uppercase, why not just leave it as it is? Fortunately that’s exactly what many British publishers (including The Economist, The Guardian, The Times) decided to do, and we’re better for it. Sentence case is much easier to read, and no-one (well, apart from the Germans) capitalizes nouns anymore anyway.

Justified Text

If there’s any client request that invites my confused face more than “can you make my logo bigger?” it’s got to be “justify everything”. It’s easy to reason against it, of course, but just what is it about justified text that makes it so appealing? It seems every Tom, Dick and Harry wants – no, craves – it, no matter how illegible it makes their copy.

Notice the islands and rivers of white space in the justified paragraph (left) contra the even spacing of the left aligned )(right). Which is easier to read?

Historically it was thought that left aligned text was “disorderly” due to the irregular lines on the right side, and so justified compositions became part of a tradition of symmetrical construction around the central folds of pages. That’s history, however, and I fail to see the reason why this idea is so prevalent still. Granted, when it’s done right justified text may to some look a tad “prettier” than left-aligned, but if the modernist typographers taught us anything it’s that the purpose of typography is not to be pretty, but to be readable.

And that brings into question another argument for justified text: that it utilises the space better. This is partly a fallacy as justified text doesn’t actually fit much more on a line, it mainly moves the irregular spaces from the right hand side into your content. This creates disturbing rivers of white space that actually prohibits good readability (you can help this by carefully adjusting your H&Js in inDesign, though it’s not possible with CSS).

In short, don’t go for justified text unless you really have a good reason to – if you want to save space or can’t live with irregular lines, hyphenate and manually add soft breaks to even it out. If you can’t do that (web has it’s limitations), just suck it up. The readability of your content is, after all, more important than forced symmetry.

“In a perfect world, all text should be unjustified and range left.” – Enric Jardi

Double or Single Line Space?

Back in school, I was always told to set our my essays in a certain font at a certain size (usually 12pt) at a certain line space – either 1.5 or double. Umm, double what, exactly? For reasons unknown Microsoft Word decided to dumb down their software and not only change the term leading to line space but also change our concept of it from points (“please set the text at 12pt using a leading of 15pt”) to vague units (“you’re probably too stupid to understand the basic concept of leading, so just hit the button that says “double line space”).

Granted, a limited set of line space variables may be easier to comprehend for the end users – if we underestimate and patronise them – and the consistency of school reports may be impeccable, but at what cost? Imagine if plumbers and electricians all used the metric system, whilst consumers were only taught imperial in school – it simply wouldn’t be very efficient. Changing the global consumer’s understanding of the any typographical concept only extends the bridge between designers and our clients. I know explaining leading to people is pretty straightforward, but wouldn’t it be easier if we all spoke the same language and used the same units of measurement? Refering to leading as single or double line space is not just confusing, it’s also inaccurate.

Now, why CSS calls it line-height is a different story.

Bold and Italics as Styles

One of my biggest gripes with MS Word and any other simplistic “publishing” software and “WYSIWYG” editors is how they apply bold and italics (again, CSS is not without guilt). I’m not criticising the usability here – clicking a button or, better still, pressing CMD+B is quicker than selecting “Helvetica bold italic” from a dropdown – but I am questioning underlying concept. As with line spacing, the simplified alternatives to professional typography offered by mass-market software creates separate sets of terminology and understanding. Reducing bolds and italics to mere buttons infers that they are simply styles applied to whatever font you’re using. They’re not. They’re carefully crafted fonts emerged from months of hard work and incredible attention to detail. And I’m not even a type designer – imagine how they feel!

Bold: Akzidenz Grotesk (AG) regular with bold applied in MS Word (top) and AG bold as supplied by the foundry (bottom)

Italic: AG regular with italic applied in MS Word (top) and AG italic as supplied by the foundry (bottom).

Not that it’s about feelings. It’s about integrity and respect for the typographic profession. If you apply italic without having the italic font of a particular typeface installed, MS Word will create the italic font for you. That’s right. The computer – not a type designer – alters the font to what it determines the font should look like. Not only does this result in sub-par typography, it also makes it unnecessarily difficult to explain to a client why they need to fork out for the whole family of fonts in order to get the range of weights needed.

So make sure your client knows it: they’re not styles, they’re fonts.

Fantasy fonts

Ah, the fantasy fonts. Isn’t it just amazing that we can write the word “Cactus” with prickly letters and use a font made from vine leaves to spell out “Wine”? No. It’s not. There is no need to use Bleeding Cowboy to accompany your Western comic, nor is Double Feature the ideal typeface for a bloody horror flick.

The timeless elegance of the original Scream poster is easily ridiculed by using an over-the-top fantasy font.

Choosing the right typeface is a difficult process, but using the physical attributes of the thing you’re designing for as the criteria to make the choice is seldom a good idea. Instead, choosing a typeface that compliments the underlying emotions or mood of the text often leads to a more subtle, professional and timeless result. Better still, don’t worry too much about adding flair to the text you’re setting. Instead make sure you’re not communicating anything you – or the author – does not want to communicate. For example, setting a party invitation in Comic Sans (though not strictly a fantasy font) might communicate that the party is informal, but it also signals that it will be immature, childish and completely void of finesse.

All typography conveys a certain mood or atmosphere, and it does so best through subtle means. If the difference between serif, slab and sans isn’t quite enough variation, imagine the incredible diversity available when adding different weights, cases, tracking and contrast to the mix. Some would even argue we have too much variation and that a single font – Helvetica, for example – is all we need.

“You can say, ‘I love you’ in Helvetica. And you can say it with Helvetica Extra Light if you want to be really fancy. Or you can say it with the Extra Bold if it’s really intensive and passionate, you know, and it might work.”

– Massimo Vignelli, Helvetica

Join the Discussion

So there you have it – a short list of my personal gripes with layman’s typography. It’s by no means exhaustive, and I’m sure most of you can think of plenty to add to it. Do you have a client who insists on right-aligning quotees or refuses to accept bulletpoints that aren’t indented? Join in and share what typographic practices do you come across that you’d rather be without.

  • Nice article. I felt like I was reading my own list of pet-peeves!

    The other things I hate is the use of underline, and the common use of Arial.

    I would like to link to your article on my blog.

  • A very nice detail on typography, I love the information of double spacing, as it is the biggest problem among newbies. Thanks for sharing the tips.

  • Maggie Young

    This was a great article, with some neat historical tidbits. I know for myself, the double spacing after sentences came from my schooldays.

  • Marc

    This was an interesting read, but honestly I disagree with many of your points. Certainly the double-spacing was ingrained in my gradeshool days as it was with others (and I prefer it), and I prefer it. I also take issue with your capitalization peeves. I’m not exactly an English Nazi, but you’re inventing your own rules and crying that it’s not a standard. (Not to sound harsh, just my choice of words!)

    I also think there are times and places for unique fonts, so I take issue with your implied ultimatum. Everyone has different handwriting, and others enjoy the artistry in design, so why call for a machine-like conformity to Helvetica? That reference is like Le Corbusier saying no more classical architecture to anyone who is a fan. (Not that classical architecture is here the same as a fantasy font; I quite love it).

  • Hmm, very intriguing article indeed! When I saw the title, I thought that it would be about whether one should use serif or sans-serif fonts in titles, or something similar. Instead, I also found out some interesting things regarding the written word too.

    I’ve never seen anyone double space after sentences, to be honest. What you said about line spacing and justified text, however, is a whole other matter…

    Thanks for the article!

  • Ian

    I agree with you about the fantasy fonts, but the point might be better made if the fantasy text was at the same size and letter spacing as the original. If you make design decisions other than what you’re demoing, what am I supposed to be comparing?

  • tehProjectX

    Hello. Interesting read here. But 1 question – what about capitalising the words in the heading of the post? You say this is a mistake and still use it in the article.

  • Quiet funny in regards of the FANTASY fonts but I have to agree with you on this one 🙂

    Excellent reading.

  • Richard Miller

    A man after my own heart. I agree with just about every point in this article. Clients seem to be obsessed with wanting justified text, but equally averse to hyphenation. Keep up the common sense and good taste.

  • You make a fine point. You’ll notice that for that section of the article, the header was not capitalized.

    We started Design Instruct with capitalized words in the headers and for the sake of uniformity, we had to stick with that style.

    Once the redesign of Design Instruct is underway, these are the things we’ll have to consider. 🙂

  • Good article. Informative and interesting. I have to chime in with fantasy fonts. It is one of my biggest pet peeves for designers to depend so heavily on fonts to fulfill the design’s purpose. And the drippy font is NOT scary! As for the double spacing all I can say is “My teacher made me do it!” But my design professor taught me about leading.

  • Yes, this is a great article. Typography is the latest trend which is used in the web design. The common mistake which is done by the designers, double spacing between two lines and words and there is not proper size being used in the content too.

  • Thanks Stephane, glad you enjoy it. Of course, feel free to link to it wherever you want!

  • Thanks for your feedback, Marc. Disagreement is often in order and I honour your opinion, though for the record I am not advocating a world-wide ban on typefaces other than Helvetica. I’m merely pointing out that though fantasy fonts can carry a lot of personality, a more subdued and professional typeface can achieve the same thing and still keep its longevity.

  • I think that the fantasy font example shouldn’t have same font size and letter spacing as original one. Bloody characters has to be big enough for eyes to see that it’s blood dripping not sth else. You should compare effect made by a font, a whole design, not just glyphs over a picture.

    Great article!

  • I think that the fantasy font example shouldn’t have same font size and letter spacing as original one. Bloody characters has to be big enough for eyes to see that it’s blood dripping not sth else. You should compare effect made by a font, a whole design, not just glyphs over a picture.

    Great article!

  • Andrea

    LOL, I was wondering the same thing 😀

  • Very interesting article there.
    I must agree, Fantasy fonts usually make it really hard to read.

    The only time I do use Fantasy Fonts is when I design a poster where the image is in a still state.

    On the other hand, I prefer to use clean and crisp Fonts for most of my designs.
    When it comes to motion graphics, and words flying in and out of view, I don’t want the person watching it having to pause it every time a word appears on the screen. Sometimes I do get that hard headed client that wants me to use some crazy looking font for a video promo, and insists I incorporate that into the Composition. It has driven me to the point of exploding and finally incorporating the requirements I truly need into my terms and conditions in designing motion graphics for my current clients and future clients.

    Great article, made a lot of sense by the way.

  • Great article! I cringe when I see “Bleeding Cowboys”. It’s a pet peeve of mine =D

  • Julie

    Very informative article. Some things I never even knew, like the bold/italic styles. Thank you.

  • John Small Berries

    Back in school, I was always told to set our my essays in a certain font at a certain size (usually 12pt) at a certain line space – either 1.5 or double. Umm, double what, exactly?

    To those of us who are old enough to remember typing our essays on actual typewriters, that’s a silly question. Some of the higher-end electrics may have had fractional line-height settings, but for the cheaper models, the number of times you hit Return was all the control you had over single or double (or triple, etc.) spacing between lines.

    I can’t remember if the manual typewriters would let you pull the return lever halfway, or if you were stuck advancing the roller by whole multiples.

  • Claudia

    I disagree on some points. ‘Fantasy’ fonts have their time and place – if used correctly. You don’t choose it just to have something ‘fancy’ (or cheesy, how you’d like to put it), but if it communicates correctly then it can be correct. They can be especially useful for logos if done correctly.

    Moreover, I also disagree on the justification. If something is justified RIGHT and not with a bunch of ‘rivers’ in it (yes, it can be made to look that way!), it oftentimes can look better and more professional than having ‘rags of doom’ going on. Which often can look lazy if not harnessed. Justifying it nicely is what you use for books, for instance, it makes the content more clear and organized.

    My two cents.

  • Michael

    Hey, great article. I think it’s funny how your peeve about Title Case Headers apparently is NOT shared by your layout department. If that’s you, then it’s extra funny 😀

  • This is a great post, Espen. I agree with everything you mentioned.. especially with the “justified texts”. Last week, I went to visit a doctor. While waiting, I spent my time reading the posters on his reception’s walls. All of the texts on the posters were justified. They appear horrible. I don’t know… maybe I’m just not a fan of justifying texts. So I’m with:

    “In a perfect world, all text should be unjustified and range left.” – Enric Jardi

  • Wow. A lot of pet peeves here. I’m glad you covered them!

  • Michael Carr

    Good article. It is ironic, as Michael points out, that this page has a title case head. Of all the peeves listed here, this is the one causing the most damage. It’s a debate I’ve often lost, but I’m not giving up. The practice nearly always ends up capitalizing words that don’t deserve it, and it devalues proper nouns that do.

  • Julie Leonardo

    I have to say, I remember those days as well. That was so utterly confusing, and I am glad times have changed.