Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Why the best font is often the one you don’t “see”

by Rick Blechta

Not a typeface I'd want to use EVER!
If you read Aline’s post yesterday, you probably guessed this was coming — or you should have!

I’ve always loved typefaces. Being a graphic designer, I also need to have some knowledge about how they work, an understanding as to why that is, and what to use where for the best effect. My collection of typefaces was in the hundreds before I got into graphic design. It now numbers in the thousands — and I still always have my eye out for something new and distinctive.

I don’t think anyone out there wants a treatise on typography, but I will share a few important things I’ve learned along the way. This is not just aimed at writers (whether published or not), but at anyone who’s reading this post.

Not all typefaces are created equal
Every computer comes with a generous compliment of free fonts. Some are really good, some poor, and many of them overused.

Just because a font is overused doesn’t mean you shouldn’t use it. An example: you’re sending out a digital form of your ms to an agent or publisher. This is not the time to exercise creativity in your font choices. You want to know what your deathless prose is going to look like on the receiver’s computer monitor. If you choose something that’s not generally available on everyone’s computer, the software will choose the font for you, and it might not end well. My suggestion: in cases like this, use Times New Roman for running copy and something like Arial or Helvetica for chapter headings, your name on each page, the book’s title, etc. Probably every computer on Planet Earth will be able to display your work in the same way.

Now, if you’re submitting a printed ms, that’s a different matter. Here, it doesn’t matter, so go for something that looks good and reads well. Two very popular (and for a good reason) fonts for book copy are Sabon and Bembo. Your computer probably doesn’t have these, but they are not expensive to purchase. A large proportion of the world’s books use these two (or variations of them). Why? Because they’re very readable.

They also aren’t Times New Roman. Those in publishing see mountains of material in TNR and receiving a printed ms in something else is going to be welcome to them. It’s also distinctive and that can score you a few brownie points.

But more importantly, none of these fonts draw attention to themselves. There’s a saying among typographers: “Good typography is invisible.” Aline already said something like this in her post yesterday. A typeface that draws attention to itself in any way is not a good one. It can be as damaging as poor prose or an impossible plot point. It can draw the reader out of the story. Don’t want that, do we?

If you’re writing business correspondence, I’d also recommend Garamond (a favourite of mine), Caslon, or Minion (another favourite). They’re distinctive and eminently readable.

Above all, every font I’ve mentioned are generally very well designed. That means they’ll go on the page (digital or paper) smoothly, without awkward spaces (called kerning) and they’ll be reliable since most have been around for many years — centuries, in fact, in some cases.

To finish up, may I share a pet peeve? To set it up, there are two types of fonts: monospace and variable.

Monospace fonts were primarily designed to work with typewriters. Every character is the same width. Whether it’s an ‘m’ or an ‘i’, the distance taken up between it and other characters will be the same. The result is an ‘i’ (or other narrow character will have a ton of space around it. The classic monospace is Courier (but there are many others). That’s why (to those of a certain age) if you learned to type on a typewriter, you were always told to put a double space after a period, question mark or exclamation. It showed clearly that you were at the end of a sentence.

Variable space type actually has been around for centuries, way longer than monospace. Each character has a different width, so thin or thick, the space between characters will look “right”. So because of this, you do not need to put a double space at the end of a sentence. In fact, it looks downright wrong.

So if you’re one of those “double-spacers” and you’re not using a monospace font, please refrain from following bad habits. It will make your prose look more elegant, and that’s always a good thing.


Aline Templeton said...

Ah yes, Rick, I thought that would attract your interest! I'm impressed by you huge knowledge of these things.

Rick Blechta said...

Well, the knowledge sort of goes with the territory.