J. Hochuli: Detail in Typography

Jost Hochuli: Detail in Typography

18/05/09 – Excerpts from Jost Hochuli’s Detail in Typography: Letters, letterspacing, words, wordspacing, lines, linespacing, columns (2008):

This little book is concerned with those questions of typography that can be considered as belonging to the area of micro- or detailed-typography.

While macrotypography – the typographic layout – is concerned with the format of the printed matter, with the size and position of the columns of type and illustrations, with the organization of the hierarchy of headings, subheadings and captions, detail typography is concerned with the individual components that graphic or typographic designers like to neglect, as they fall outside the area that is normally regarded as ‘creative’.

When reference is made in what follows to  formal matters, this does not primarily refer to ‘aesthetic’ issues in the sense of personal aesthetic freedom or personal taste, but rather to those visible elements that enable the optimum reception of the text. As this is the aim of every piece of typography involving large amounts of text, a concern with formal elements becomes a concern with issues of legibility and readability. Thus, in detail typography, formal elements have little to do with personal preference. (7)

The reading process
As experienced readers read, their eyes spring jerkily along the lines. These brief movements are known as saccades, and they alternate with fixed periods lasting 0.2-0.4 seconds. A line is perceived in a series of saccades, followed by a large saccade as the eye jumps back to the left to start the next line. Information is only absorbed during the fixed period. With average type size, as used for books, a saccade represents 5-10 letters, or about 1-2 words in English. A saccade may begin or end within a word. Of the up to 10 letters, only 3-4 are focused on sharply during the fixed period: the rest are perceived by the eye indistinctly and in their context. If the sense of the text is not clear, the eye jumps back, in regression saccades, to recheck what has already been ‘read’. (8)

Word-images that have already been stored in a reader’s visual memory are read more quickly than unfamiliar ones. (ibid.)

“The registering of eye movements can be used to objectively assess the legibility of a text. The same text will be read at differing speeds if systematic variations are made to the length of line, the size and shape of the type, and the contrast between the colour of the letters and their background. The size and frequency of the saccades depends on teh form of the printed text.  These variables, which can be measured objectively during the act of reading, correlate very well with the subjective impression fo the greater or lesser legibility of a text … .” These researchers confirm – not invariably, but surprisingly frequently – long-known rules of typography. (9)

The letter
The reception of everything written – including typography – takes place in two ways: firstly, in the act of reading itself, that is the conversion in the brain of the perceived succession of letter, and secondly as a (mostly unconscious) visual perception, that triggers associations with what has previously been seen and arouses feelings. (10)

Because the design of their types was too extravagant, and too closely reflected the fashion of the time, many private press and bibliophile editions now look old-fashioned and outmoded. Many of the types designed in our own day will fare no better.

The same fate as befell the romantic, individualistic artists’ types of the turn of the century also befell the apparently objective types from the Bauhaus and its adherents, and for the same reason. Here too, form came first – form as such, and with no regard to optimum readability; simplicity of letterform was the ultimate ambition. Furthermore, the type designers focused principally on the isolated individual letters, and less so on letters integrated into words. (11)

It is almost impossible to define a good, timeless type as such. All that can be done is point to a few particularly conspicuous characteristics. (13)

While the capitals have retained in their basic structure the static, lapidary appearance of inscriptions, the lowercase, developed from them over hundreds of years, shows the dynamic characteristics of flowing handwritten forms, even in the typographic form. (13)

Characteristics of good type: i) each letter must have a familiar form ii) all letters of the alphabet must have the same style iii)  right proportions of capitals  and lowercase iv) proper relationship between capitals and lowercase, in terms of both size and weight (13-14)

Like all two-dimensional shapes perceived by the eye, letters too are subject to the laws of optics. The decisive element in assessing their formal qualities is thus not any kind of measuring instrument, but the healthy human eye. (15)

Optical facts for designing type:

1) For a given height, a circle and a triangle appear smaller than a square. For them to seem to be the same height, they must extend slightly beyond the top and bottom lines.

2) The mathematically equal horizontal division of an area produces an upper half that appears larger than the lower half. To produce two halves of apparently equal size, the dividing line must lie above the mathematical centre, in what is known as the optical centre.

3) For a given weight of line, a horizontal line appears heavier than a vertical line.To achieve optically balanced verticals and horizontals, which appear to be of the same weight, the horizontal must be somewhat narrower. This applies not only to straight lines but also to  curves, which must indeed be somewhat broader at the broadest horizontal point than the corresponding verticals. For optical reasons, right-leaning diagonals somewhat broader, and left-leaning diagonals somewhat narrower than the verticals. Nor are all verticals of equal length equally wide: the more horizontal connections, the narrower the vertical.

4) Where curves intersect with straight lines or with other curves, or where two diagonals meet, lumps will occur, which, unless corrected, will disfigure the letter and make the composition appear blobby.

5) Small sizes of type need to be proportionally wider than larger sizes. (18)

As such, it [italic type] remains the most elegant and yet clearest option for emphasizing individual words or whole pieces of text, whether simply on account of its structural difference with the text type, or, in addition, because of its differing tonal value. (21)

Not till the nineteenth century did ‘false’ italics occur, under the influence of drawn lithographic lettering. Of all the characteristics of true italics, they have preserved only the secondary characteristic of the slope, but not their fundamental structure.

Today it is possible to ‘italicize’ a type; that is, to electronically slope an existing roman type. The results are unsatisfactory, as there is not way of taking account of optical considerations. If a typeface lacks an italic, and there is really no alternative to ‘italicizing’ the roman, the slope should not be steeper than 10°, otherwise the distortions will be too great. (ibid.)

The word
With an easily readable typeface the individual letters are always designed with regard to their impact as parts of a word. While being clearly differentiated, they must be capable of fitting together as harmoniously as possible into whole words. (23)

With any printed matter, the printed are interacts with the unprinted area. This applies equally for the individual line, for the individual words and for the individual letters. In the same way that the whole page should have a consistent, even, but not boring grey tonality. (ibid.)

The space between letters is a function of their interior spaces, or counters. The smaller the counter [of the typeface], the smaller the space between letters, and vice versa. (ibid.)

Letterspacing that appears lighter than the median lightness of the counters of the letters concerned produces, in lowercase setting, word-images that appear to fall apart; too tight letterspacing produces blotchy, uneven words. (25)

Things are somewhat less straightforward with capitals. Here, the starting point is a minimum space, that can be increased more or less, depending on the situation. The minimum space is determined by the lightness of the biggest counters (C, D, G, O, Q): if any of the letters causes a ‘hole’ to appear in the word, the spacing is too tight. (ibid.)

Light – the brightness of the unprinted surface – flows from above and below into the interior spaces of the letters and the space between them. The light coming from above is more effective than that coming from below. This means that the n of a sanserif typeface must be somewhat wider than the u of the same typeface, if both letters are to appear equally wide. Similarly, the space between I and A must be smaller than the space between I and V (given that A and V have the same angle).  (26-7)

sidebearings: in a letter’s standard width, it is the space to the left and right

kerning tables: manufacturer-created character groups for letter combinations for which the standard spacings are altered (e.g., Av Ay ‘A L’ Ta Ve Va Wo Ya Ye f) f! [f gg gy gf qj)

ligatures: two or three joined-together letters (e.g., fi, fl, ff, ffi and ffl)

The line
Wordspaces, the spaces before and after punctuation, as well as line length, are important matters for typographers. (32)

measure: length of line

Typographers recommend an optimum of between 50 and 60 or between 6o and 70 characters per line. Tinker claims that a 10pt type with 2pt interlinear spacing is equally readable at measures between 14 and 31 picas (about 6 to 13cm) [...]. (ibid.)

What applies to letterspaces also applies to wordspaces: they too are a function of the counters of the individual letters: teh smaller these are, the smaller the wordspaces; the larger the counters, the larger the wordspaces.

The generally applicable rule for wordspacing is: as much as necessary, as little as possible. A clear but not excessive space will normally be around a quarter of the notional body size, e.g. 2.5 points for a 10pt type. (32-4)

Unjustified setting can be produced in two ways: 1) Unjustified setting with no word breaks and no further attention. Depending on the nature of the work, this rather crude, unpolished form may be entirely appropriate. 2) Unjustified setting with reasonable word breaks and an appropriate ‘hyphenation zone’ (the distance between the longest and the shortest lines). This generally has about the same number of characters in the line, or not many fewer, as justified setting. (34-5)

hard rag: unjustified setting with wide hyphenation zone

soft rag: unjustified setting with narrow hyphenation zone

Linespacing, the column
The longer the line, the more linespacing it needs, for a given typeface and type size. Equally, lighter typefaces – generally those with large counters – need more linespacing than darker ones. The internal form of the letters thus influences not only the letter- and wordspacing, but also the linespacing. For typographers, the linespacing is an important means for changing the ‘colour’, the grey tone of a piece of composition. (47)

The use of line spaces to separate paragraphs breaks up the page, requires too much space, and creates problems when a paragraph ends at the bottom of a page. In every case, indents are the only certain indicators of a new paragraph. (ibid.)

If a page includes passages of text in a smaller size of type, with less interlinear space, the main text that follows must resume the main baseline grid. Whether or not such inserts are indented will depend on the overall typographic design. (49-53)

In typography, details can never be considered in isolation. (53)

The qualities of type
[...] over and above their primary and essential task of acting as a visual means of transport for language, typefaces are also able to communicate atmosphere. (54)

The impression created by any one typeface can only be assessed when all the typefaces concerned are used to set the same text, in the same size, to the same measure, with the same linespacing, and are printed by the same method, with the same ink and inking, on the same paper, with the same margins. (58)

A theoretically less attractive typeface can, through the proper choice and skillful deployment of all the other elements, be so enhanced that, as part of a typographic whole, it hits the right note. For typographers, analyses of the impression created by typefaces are thus often purely theoretical: they neglect the sheer complexity of typographic practice. They also harbour the danger that their results may incline people  to apply prescribed solutions. This is something that creative typographers guard against. (ibid.)

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Oliver Tomas

  • Design historian and archivist based in Vancouver, Canada.
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