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From Looking to Seeing: The Craft of Typography

Article Description

Everyone looks at type, but the typographer has to see more, because eliminating all traces of visual discord is what elevates type from being merely legible to being comfortingly readable. Jim Felici, the author of The Complete Manual of Typography: A Guide to Setting Perfect Type, Second Edition, explains how even the untrained eye suffers from badly set type (untrained doesn’t mean unsophisticated), and how discerning eyes are needed to set the fine type that readers deserve.

My book The Complete Manual of Typography is a practical guide, a how-to book. But behind all of its lessons and prescriptions runs a most important theme: how to develop a discerning eye when looking at type. This goes beyond just looking to actually seeing what's going on with all the spatial, graphic, and proportional relationships among characters, lines, columns, and pages. And the closer you look, the more you see. As a friend commented on seeing the book for the first time: "So many details!"

The Pursuit of Invisibility

Figure 1 shows a page of a book I recently read. When I turned to page 12, my eye was immediately drawn to the bottom of the page, which is set with significantly tighter spacing than the top half, making it look darker—distractingly darker. It's almost as if it were set in a different typeface. The difference is dramatic enough to be visible even on your computer screen, which is a notoriously poor device for revealing typographic subtleties.

Figure 1 Even on screen, it's clear that the lower half of this page looks darker than the top, almost as if it had received extra ink during printing. The problem is that the lower paragraph was simply set with much tighter spacing than the text above it, squeezing out too much white space and making the type distractingly dark and, not coincidentally, harder to read.

Typographic "color" issues like this are very common, especially in magazines. Where they occur, pages look blotchy, and the reader is obliged to slow down to wade through the denser passages. It's both an aesthetic and practical problem, but even those who don't notice the color problems will experience the impact on readability.

And that's the key: Typographic problems are not just the concern of connoisseurs; they affect every reader, even though he or she may not be aware of why the text is an effort to read. For people who don't see what's happening with the type, the author often gets the blame for books abandoned half unread.

Connoisseurship enters the picture when a trained typographic eye is focused on the page with the specific goal of weeding out these problems. By and large, the successful typographer leaves no footprints behind. The absence of irregularities and distractions is the mark of achievement. It is, in a way, the pursuit of invisibility.

All readers have expectations of what a page of type should look like, even though these ideas may not be consciously articulated. Throughout our lives, we have become accustomed to savoring the fruits of the labors of typographers and page designers who have followed the longstanding tradition summarized by Stanley Morison, as quoted in the 1936 edition of The Chicago Manual of Style: "[T]he typographer's only purpose is to express, not himself, but his author." [1]

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