Typography 101, or “Keep Mom off the computer”

If you’ve ever seen a website, email, coupon or any other advertisement that looked like someone’s mom designed it using WordArt, you’re aware of the difference between good and bad design. You may not be able to state exactly what it was that made it look bad. You just knew it was bad. But I would bet my life’s savings that part of what made the piece look bad to you was the typography.

Photo of Bill Nye the Science Guy

A brief disclaimer before I launch into my Bill-Nye-esque Typographic-Rules-Everyone-Who-Touches-a-Computer-Should-Know lecture: I started my career by working as a proofreader for a typesetting company that had been in business since 1917. I learned a few things there.

And now begins the lecture.

Image of a 1970s Tom Thumb brand typewriter.

This was my actual first typewriter. It was a piece of crap. Fortunately, I was a kid, so it’s not like I was trying to write term papers on it.

Your computer is not a typewriter.

Decades ago, a writer named Robin Williams published a wonderful book called The Mac Is Not a Typewriter (there’s also a a version for PC users). It’s really inexpensive, a quick read, and a MUST for anyone who produces anything using a computer that another person will see — letters, brochures, websites, marketing emails, internal memos, and yes, even blog posts.

Ms. Williams’ book explains why you learned to do certain things in typing class that actually don’t apply on computers, and why they don’t apply. The two most common typographic errors (and primary indicators that mom’s been playing designer): 1) two spaces after periods and colons, and 2) underlining.

Both were musts on a typewriter, and both are absolute sins in the world of professional printing. But why?

In the pre-typewriter days of the printing press, a single space was used following a period or colon. Whether you’re talking hot metal or Penta system, in traditional typesetting, you have the power of kerning and letter spacing to help you make type its most readable. So, if a period in a particular font seemed to float a little too far away from the end of a sentence, the typesetter would simply kern it a bit, bringing it right up next to the preceding letter.

When typewriters came along, they could only “write” or “print” using one font. One typeface, one point size. The type was monospaced: each character was set within the center of a block, and each block was the same width. The effect was that a lowercase “m,” a lowercase “i,” and a period each took up the same amount of horizontal space. So, when you would type, if you only used one space after a period, the first character of the next sentence could appear almost as close to the period as the character immediately preceding it. A reader might completely gloss over the period. So, the double-space rule was created. Same for colons.

Photo closeup of typewriter keys.

On computers, though, we have access to the wonderful world of proportional fonts! These are fonts just like those used back in the old days of the printing press. The characters are spaced proportionally in relation to their width. The period at the end of a sentence sits right up against the letter immediately preceding it, and the beginning of the next sentence sits a full space away. There is a clear visual break between sentences with just one space. So, to add a second space is overkill.

Quite often, when I’ve explained this rule in the past, people don’t believe it. I always tell them to go home, pull an actual book off the bookshelf (not one that’s been self-published), and look at the periods. You’ll notice there is only one space after every one. Just like in this post. And in all your old school textbooks. And in every magazine.

Another thing you couldn’t do on a typewriter was italicize copy (not for many years, anyway). In publishing and printing, when a proofreader would mark up a typed copy deck to prepare it for typesetting, he or she would indicate that a particular word was to be italicized by underlining it. So, if you were using a typewriter and wanted to italicize something, you’d do the next best thing — use the proofreader’s mark for italics.

To put it another way, to underline text is to ask the reader to pretend the underlined text is actually italicized. We have italic fonts on computers, though, so there is never a need for underlining.

Every time I see underlined copy in a layout — in print or online — I want to cry. It looks absolutely hideous to me. In fact, anytime I visit a website, or receive a marketing piece in the mail, and I see extra spaces all over the place, or an underline, or a hyphen used instead of an n- or m-dash, it’s a huge tipoff to me that what I’m looking at was produced by an amateur. And that communicates some important things to me-the-consumer:

1. This company cuts corners. The business tried to create something themselves rather than paying a professional to do it. In some cases (i.e., if it was produced by a true small business), I can understand this choice, and it’s totally forgivable. But if the company is large enough that they should be able to afford experienced marketing help, I am led to assume they regard such help as non-essential, which means they don’t value the service. And that just happens to be the service I provide. If you wouldn’t hire me, I won’t do business with you.

Plus, if you cut corners on your advertising — your first impression — what else do you cut corners on? Product quality? Customer service? Safety? If you don’t care what I think about your company before you’ve won my business, why would I ever assume you’d care about what I think after you already have my money?

2. This company doesn’t care about details. If you’re a big company, and you have hired someone to produce your work, and it contains these types of errors, you mustn’t be concerned with details. Again, that makes me question the quality of your product and/or service.

I will also conclude that you’ve cultivated a marketing team that hasn’t bothered to learn the basics, so you’re revealing that you either don’t make good hiring decisions, or aren’t interested in hiring quality people. Or, you could be too cheap to pay for a decent agency (most agencies will not make these kinds of errors, but some do, and those are the ones you should run from, quickly), leaving me to wonder where else you’ve gone cheap — product components, maybe?

If you’re big enough to be able to pay for the assistance of a professional marketing, advertising or digital agency, you can afford to pay for a good one. The cheap route has you throwing money away.

Typesetting has been around a lot longer than typing, and the rules that have been followed since the invention of the printing press still hold true. The only difference is that now, thanks to the personal computer and the advent of desktop publishing, people with no training in typography can essentially “set type.” Armed with the proper rules and an eye for details, just about anyone can produce professional-quality printed pieces. But, unfortunately, the flip-side is also true.

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