11 Common Mistakes in Amateur Typography

Off the Beat: Bruce Byfield's Blog

Aug 31, 2014 GMT
Bruce Byfield

Digital typography is a mixed blessing. On the one hand, thanks to office suites and typesetting applications, as well as an increasing number of free-licensed fonts, any computer user can potentially produce professional-looking publications. On the other hand, conventions left over from the typewriter, half-understood rumors, and some odd choices in popular office suites have left most of us unable to come anywhere close to realizing that potential.

True, we have calmed down enough so that we no longer feel obliged to use every design feature available. Those who remember the late 1980s, when many design features were first introduced, may still have nightmares about text that was shadowed and otherwise enhanced into total illegibility. Mercifully, as we've grown accustomed to the wealth of choices, we've learned some restraint.

Still, the problems persist. Often, they are embedded in the software. Other times, they are the result of us trying to deal with situations that should be part of the basic literacy we are supposed to learn in school, but rarely do.

For instance, here are eleven of the design elements that are commonly mis-used, and how to correct them:

11. Using Too Many Fonts

The sudden availability of digital fonts made all of us go a little crazy. We used as many as we could, changing them almost at random.

The trouble is, a document needs a unified look. All you really need is one font for the main text, and perhaps another for headings, and headers and footers. If you want more variety, choose typefaces with a large family of different weights.

10. Dot Leaders in Tables of Contents

Dot leaders (aka fill characters or leader dots) are the periods that run from a Table of Contents (TOC) entry to its page number. Almost every office suite uses them because it copies Microsoft Word's default design for TOCs.

The purpose of dot leaders is to make the connection between the entry and the page number clear. However, such a clumsy fix proves that the design is faulty -- a properly-designed TOC shouldn't need the extra help. As typography guru Robert Bringhurst wrote, dot leaders "force the eye to walk the width of the page like a prisoner being escorted back to its cell."

The solution? A solid line is better, but better yet is less space between the entry and page number -- say a space or two. Alternatively, if the software allows, place the page number first, separated by an indent from the entry.

9. Borders Around Images

Many amateur designers are scared of empty space. When they add a picture, they automatically place a thick black border around it to separate it from the text.

If a border is needed, though, your picture may be too close to the text. Often, giving the picture additional white space is more pleasing to the eye.

The only time a border might be needed is if the picture has areas around its edges that are the same color as the background. In such cases, use the thinnest possible border.

8. Underlining for Emphasis
Since most typewriters only had a single font, they used underlining where a professional print job would use italics or perhaps a bold weight. However, in digital typography, we have italics and bold, so there is no excuse not to use them.

7. Always Using Old Style Figures

Old style figures are numbers that each have their own baseline, so that the bottom of some appear above the base line for characters, and the bottom of others below. Amateur designers hear that old style figures are suppos1ed to be more elegant than the usual lining figures, and try to use them exclusively.

In fact, old style figures are meant to be used with traditional humanist fonts -- that is, those based on alphabets designed during the Renaissance. They are not meant to accompany modern humanist or geometric fonts.

Moreover, to the modern eye, old style figures can appear archaic or cluttered, especially in a table or a spreadsheet. Think carefully before reaching automatically for old style figures when you design.

6. Using bulleted and numbered lists

Lists are relatively new to our visual typography. However, you should know that bulleted lists are used when the order of points doesn't matter, and numbered list when they do.

Moreover, the convention is to used bulleted lists only with three or more items. They do not need to be intended from the main text just because HTML and Microsoft Word presents them that way.

In addition, each bullet point should be a continuation of the sentence that introduces it, so that all the points have a parallel structure. Whether each point ends with punctuation or not is up to you, but, once you choose, be consistent.

5. Centering Pictures

Most software automatically centers pictures when adding them. This is fine, if you are willing to number each picture, and refer to the number in the text, but all that is unnecessary effort.

Instead, place a picture below the paragraph to which it refers, and given it the same indentation as the paragraph. The visual link is often all that readers need to understand that the two are connected.

4. Overlarge indentations

On the typewriter, indentations to mark the start of a new paragraph were often half an inch, or even an inch. Fiddling with the tabs was such a pain that nobody cared about being more exact.

By contrast, computers set tabs or indentations easily. As a result, we can now use the same indentations found in books -- usually about a quarter inch, or even less.

(Oh, and speaking about paragraph indentations: mark paragraphs with either indentations or extra space between paragraphs. You don't need both).

3. Using Full Justification

Typewriters couldn't justify a line, so that it started at the left margin and ended exactly at the right margin. When software offered full justification, most of us started to use it exclusively.

The trouble is, full justification rarely looks acceptable. With most software, it leaves uneven spacing between words, and an excess of hyphens. You need to tweak the font and font size, and, often, be prepared to hyphenate manually to avoid such problems.

A left-aligned or ragged right alignment requires less adjusting, and looks almost as good as full justification in a professionally typeset publication. Ragged right is definitely the way to go if you want to minimize the adjustments.

2. Mismanaged margins
Contrary to popular perceptions, margins are not just wasted space. They make the text more inviting by framing it, and, in a printed-document, provide space for you to hold the book or page without obscuring any of the text. They should never be cramped so that you can squeeze your document into the number of pages specified by an assignment or a superior (adjust the font and the spacing, if you really must).

Theories about ideal proportions for margins are numerous. However, a useful general rule is to make the inner margin wider than the outer, and the bottom taller than the top. The exact settings, of course, depend on the page size and how the main text is laid out.

1. Two Spaces After Periods
Two spaces after a period were necessary on most typewriters, because the characters were all the same width. That remains true with monospaced fonts like Courier, but most fonts today have variable widths, and automatically add extra space after a period. Put two spaces, and an unsightly gap sprouts on the page.

Yes, the convention of using one space is only about ninety years old. But adding a second space is unnecessary, and eliminating anything that is not functional makes for a cleaner page.

The Grand Obsession
What complicates all these practices is that tools don't make an expert. Typography is a skill like any other one, with a long history from which best practices are derived, and not to be learned over-night, or even in a year or two.

Yet something about design fascinates us, encouraging us to fiddle with features that we know little about. As a professor commented to me on Google+ recently, "I only wish that students would spend as much time on writing their thesis as in learning how to set it up in LaTeX."

Still, if you can avoid the mistakes mentioned here, you will be on your way to a rough competence. Much of the rest is practice, and learning to restrain yourself from using any design feature that does not have an obvious use or could be eliminated with a re-design. With such a mindset, you may not become a professional typographer, but you can at least avoid embarrassing yourself.

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