Typography Tutorial – Matters of Space pt. 1
June 12th, 2009 by AlexWeldon

It’s about time I got back to talking about typography. Up until now we’ve been discussing how to choose the appropriate typeface(s) to set your text. Many people seem to think that this is the big issue in typography, but it’s really only the tip of the iceberg. Actually putting the characters on the page is not as trivial as it might seem.

The usefulness of a wide right margin

The usefulness of a wide right margin

Type is a fluid. It’s compressible, but only to a certain extent. It can be shrunk or expanded to fit the space available, but there’s only a small window of comfortable pressure – expand or condense it too much, and the readability starts to suffer. What you can do, however, is adjust the shape of the container; type, at least in English, has the nice property of being composed mostly of short words, so the lines can be broken up into all sorts of different lengths, so the same passage of text can be rearranged into any number of shapes and aspect ratios, as long as the total area on the page remains roughly the same.

Most non-designers, when putting a document together in word, simply use a single column, with the default margins. If they need to include pictures, they’ll often put them in at the top or bottom of the page, or if they do put them in the middle, will often interrupt the text above the picture and resume it below. This is equivalent to using a bucket for all one’s water-containing needs. Sure, it’s very practical at times, but it’s hardly the thing to impress dinner guests. Sometimes, it pays to be more creative with text placement.

The horizontal width of a block of text is called its “measure.” Unless the text is justified, the length of an individual line will typically be less than the measure; the measure is the maximum length of any line within the block. Justification is the process of forcing every line (except, usually, the last line of a paragraph) to be exactly equal in length to the measure, thus having clean edges at both sides, as opposed to a ragged margin.

There are a number of reasons one wants to have control over the measure, and like most things in typography, there are always trade-offs to be made. Making the measure wider can help fix awkward spacing in justified text, and is usually slightly more efficient in fitting text into a small area on the page if the paragraphs are long, as every line break represents a little loss of space, since the words usually won’t fit exactly into the space available on the line. However, expanding the measure also brings associated problems – the longer the line, the harder it is for the eye to trace its way back to the beginning of the next line, decreasing readability by increasing the number of times the reader will lose his or her place. Also, if the text contains many short paragraphs, wider measures can actually be less efficient, as a great deal of space is lost when a paragraph ends partway through a line.

Using a sketch to plan layout

Using a sketch to plan layout

There are two ways to change the measure. One is to break the text into columns. On a portrait-oriented 8.5×11 page, two columns are often optimal, as 7.5-8 inches is actually an extremely wide measure, usually too wide – the proliferation of single-column typed documents is mostly a throwback to the days of typewriters, but even in this day and age of powerful word-processing software, the majority of people haven’t outgrown this Dark Age in typographical history, due to a combination of habit and lack of understanding of the technology.

The other thing you can do is to adjust the white space on the page. Changing the width of the left and, particularly, the right margin of a page will result in a corresponding change in the measure. If you have more than one column, you can also adjust the gutters, that is If your document contains many images and/or is likely to be read by someone who might want to take their own notes, having a wide right margin is a very good idea! It allows pictures to stick halfway into the text and protrude out into the margin in an aesthetically pleasing fashion, and provides a convenient place to take notes.

Remember, too, that you needn’t stick to one measure for the whole page. Balance and harmony are important, but especially for text with natural divisions, and when there are images that can be used as visual dividers, you can split the text up into different areas of the page and vary the margins and columns between them. You can also use typeface variations as discussed before, to further create a separation between the different sections.

The key to creating a nice design in these cases is to experiment quickly by means of sketches, before starting to set the actual text. Using lines for text and crossed-out boxes to represent images, do some brainstorming – come up with as many viable layouts as you can before settling on the one that provides the best organization of the information and the most aesthetically pleasing page.

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