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Article: Good With Type

You know better, right? You don't choose a fancy script face and then set in all caps. You don't taffy-pull the headline type just because the software lets you. Or maybe you don't know better, and wish you did. Read on.

The typeface is the common thread throughout printed and web-based communications. If you lay out fliers and brochures and newsletters other pieces, being good with type is the most vital of the high-return desk top publishing skill you can have. And to be good with type, you have to know about typefaces. There are thousands of typefaces, grouped into classifications, then into functional styles. Within those style groupings are font families, consisting of variations of the typeface all with similar characteristics—bold, black, thin, book, italic, extended, condensed and so on. There are big font families and small. But what's important to know is that typefaces are individuals with personalities, with strengths and weaknesses. Give a typeface a job that it's not strong enough to do, or is inappropriate for its personality, and it performs poorly, even detrimentally. The words my be great, the headline a champion, but if the typeface tasked to carry the load is a bad fit, the whole piece goes down.

Like what? Choosing a decorative script typeface and then setting in all caps is one of the more egregious examples of type abuse. Script fonts aren't designed to function in all caps. They are crafted to flow in an upper and lower case combination, and then only in a limited capacity. Script fonts are designed for light work—as an elegant, interesting accent. They can't carry the readability load when used small or used continuously.

2) Setting all caps CERTAINLY ADDS EMPHASIS, as it stands out blocky and formidable among the comfortable ebb and flow of upper and lower case type, but a little is enough. Line after line of words set in all caps is disconcerting (feels like you're being yelled at), more work to read and fatiguing to the eye (all the letter forms take up the same vertical space), and the cumulative effect is to render the whole piece uninviting and unworthy of reading.

3) Avoid Underlining. Underlining for emphasis smells of academia, of dry reports and research papers. If you want to add emphasis to a sentence or paragraph, use italics. And keep this in mind when you're applying emphasis: the more you do, the less effective it is (see 4 below) The italic form of many typefaces (typically serif fonts) can be quite beautiful and will serve elegantly for the entire run of type on invitations and other pieces where a sense of dignified class is the emotion you're going after.

4) Don't Overdo It! Too many exclamation points, too many words emphasized in italics and bold, too many caps lose their punch! They clutter up the page, compete with the flow of the layout and collectively whimper instead of shout!

5) Clean Up the Widows and Orphans. Widows are lonely characters (7 or less) on the last line of a paragraph—a short word or (worse) a piece of a word. An orphan is the last line of a paragraph (however long) that sits all alone along at the top of a column. Do what you must to correct such sloppiness—edit, reflow line breaks, adjust column widths.

6) Don't Hyphenate Headlines. A hyphenated headline smells of neglect and ignorance. Break a long headline between words in the most visually pleasing and balanced manner available. The headline is the star. Treat it as such.

These examples may seem obvious in their flaws, yet these same bad moves are made again and again. And that's just the tip of the type-use iceberg. The typewriter and it's still-held-dear conventions can be blamed for a host of other typesetting ills that plague business communications. (see "The Typewriter is Extinct"). Also, download the Typesetting Tips PDF.

—Michael Waite;