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Posted on Tuesday, October 26, 2010 at 4:51 PM

Using type to engage your readers, and avoiding some common missteps.

By Jan V. White

In our context of commercial publishing type is not an art form but a lubricant for ideas. It is not "artistic" but journalistically functional. That's why you -- yes, even you, Editor -- can control it with confidence!

Face it: Regardless of whether it is Centaur or Univers, Times New Roman, or Helvetica, to readers type is just "PRINT" and they see it either too damn much, or too damn small.

Unfortunately, few journalists and editors are more sophisticated than their victims. (They gave up "art" in high school -- remember? Type is part of "design" and, therefore, Art. Ugh! Cop out and pass it to someone else.) To writing-people, the content of the words is uppermost, of course. Any necessary "Artistic Decisions" they are forced to make are based on ancient newspaper axioms passed down as Revealed Truth, which is usually what was in place wherever they got their first job. That is deemed correct -- whether it makes sense or not. Furthermore, the choice of Font (what used to be called "face") is what editors are most worried about. They stick to the safe tried-and-true because they lack confidence in their own judgment in an area where they fear inferiority. Stop! Relax! Let's be REALISTIC about this whole business (See how the look of the type has helped here?) and list some facts:

Readers' reactions

Before settling down to read, all potential readers weigh the cost/benefit ratio of effort expended versus intellectual advantage gained: "Does this interest me enough to invest this much effort?" The way the piece looks at first glance helps that decision. We make up their mind up if the type looks too small or the piece too long. "I think I'll come back to it later" is their excuse for rejecting it.

At the same time, they also decide "what's in it for me." If there is something, their curiosity may tip their reluctance to read. So they look at a piece twice. First, they scan the pages fast, in an erratic sequence of jumps mostly in a north-to-south direction. Then, if something has tickled their curiosity, they follow in slow, east-west flow -- i.e., actual reading!

As clever journalists/editors/communicators, we must understand this psychological kinetic geometry in order to take advantage of both speeds (fast then slow) to persuade the unconvinced hesitators to become readers. We must win them over, and then keep 'em. We must understand the five verbo/visual streams that affect working typography:

1. Type as speech made visible This affects display type headlines, decks, captions, pullquotes etc., where we catch their interest. So type has to be handled subtly, not just big and black. The way it is arranged visually can mirror what it says by its phrasing, breaking for sense, shouting, whispering.

2. Type as story-telling This is the steady, slow text. Like listening to speech, reading is sequential and lineal. A speech can be lively and fascinating in its delivery, or it can be monotonous and boring. That is directly translated into its visible form.

3. Type as explanation Organizing facts, analyzing, listing, cataloging information for easy and fast understanding, and retrieval. Think of this as tabulation, organized charting.

4. Type as image Playing on the emotions and curiosity of the viewer/reader. Not just concrete poetry, but the interaction of words and images so 1 + 1 = 3.

5. Type as technology Pixels enable us to meld the pictures with type, just as Medieval scribes blended images with words (but they used paint on parchment). It was Gutenberg who split the mechanically-set words away from the images. The images were then relegated to secondary status as "illustrations" that were dropped in. That divided us into two fighting professions: the "wordsmith" intellectuals and the "artist" page-decorators. The war between writers and designers has gone on for 500 years.

We can and must return to the intellectually/visually integrated way of communicating that the Medieval monks used. Not because it is "beautiful" or "innovative" or even "creative," but because it works better, and so helps us stay in the race for the readers' attention and preference. Not by amusement or ever-more-startling effects, but by better service.

Writing and editing are now as much visual skills as they are verbal skills. Word-people must have a feel for the type that expresses their words and the layout that presents those words. Journalists and editors must think visually while they are writing and editing. Equally, the visual people must have a feel for the words -- not just how much space they take, but what they say and what their significance is to the readers. Only that way can the intellectuals and the decorators become verbal/visual communicators who blend their efforts to make the most of both content and form.

Hooking 'em

They don't start out as readers, but as investors expecting a return on their investment of energy, time, and money. They are skimmers, looking for stuff worth bothering about. They are searchers. If the publication is free, they are uncommitted, uninterested, uncaring page-flippers. Whoever they may be, they are all first lookers. (Visual reactions! Not verbal. Sorry, Editor!)

We must seduce them into the text, which contains the substance of the story. We must achieve that at first glance. They must want to get in there with "Wow! I gotta read this now!" They must then understand the information (which is a function of blending the editing with visual organization) ... and then, if the story jumps off the page into their minds vividly, they will remember it ... and as a result of feeling well-served, they will think of our publication with appreciation, pleasure, and loyalty.

Persuading 'em to read

Reading is deemed hard work. Many excuse their reluctance to read by saying, "It's hard to read." What they mean is that it is hard to get into … hard to understand … hard to find what they are looking for … and, most important, hard to know why they should bother at all.

Which fonts are easiest to read? All normal fonts in general use are "easy to read." It is how we misuse and maltreat them that robs them of their friendliness. The best type is so comfortable and obvious that it is unnoticed ... invisible ... transparent. The reader should never become aware of the act of reading, for if they notice what they are doing, they stop.

Formulas for "Good Type." There aren't any. There is no such thing as "correct" or "incorrect." There are no laws or rules, except common sense. If it works well, it is "correct." If it doesn't work, it is "incorrect." Everything is relative. Type's flexibility is limitless, its possibilities endless.

Think of type as speech made visible. Open your eyes and listen to it -- literally. Read it out loud, using the clues it gives, because the way it looks reflects a tone of voice: loudness by boldness, whispering by smallness, shouting by bigness, emphasis by comparison, dialect by the visual character. Type can even be onomatopoetic word-pictures and puns. If it follows formulas, it probably looks boring and "sounds" monotonous. If it is handled as the flexible medium that it is, it can help the transmission of thoughts as expressively as does the human voice.

Common-sense insights

Even communication professionals are like everyone else: short of time and patience. We are pulled in every direction by competing signals, and becoming aware of our own reactions can help us service our readers. We must trust ourselves. If we are a bit uneasy about something, we must change it; is that editorial instinct or experience? Who cares? Depend on insights. Not "rules," because those are rigid. On the other hand, once they are understood and absorbed, insights are flexible to allow variable contexts. Most are obvious -- but the obvious is valuable, because it is the basis for logical decisions:

1. Words flow lineally, one word after another, whether they are spoken or translated into type. There are no shortcuts. We hope to push the reader along from start to finish, but they enter wherever something interesting catches their eye.

2. Reading is horizontal, flowing from left to right, in an endless strip. That is an inconvenient form, so we arbitrarily cut the strip into a series of short bits, which we stack as "lines" one below the other in vertical "columns." Alas, the column shapes take over and dictate everything, even though they are nothing but a convenient construct. Encouraging that horizontal flow of thoughts in the horizontal lines is more important.

3. Reading comfort depends on the ratio of 1) line length, to 2) type size, to 3) spacing between the lines. All three have to be in balance. Who judges that comfort? We do (and there are no rules). If we feel uncomfortable, so will our reader. To improve comfort, we must make the type bigger, the lines shorter, or add space between the lines in some combination. As you get older, you say, "All of 'em please!"

4. Type size does not depend on arithmetical point-size with which it is specified. Its appearance depends on the x-height. Everything depends on the proportions used in the design of the font. Forget generalizations that say that "ten-point type is ideal for text." Set a sample, print it out as close as possible to the finished product, examine it, and judge it visually.

5. Readers' habits affect their feeling of comfort. They'll stay with us if they feel at home. Departing from the normal costs us. We should do it when it makes logical sense, with deliberate purpose, but never for the fun of it, to show off, or to be different.

6. All-capitals are hard to decipher in bulk. A few words for special emphasis or character are, obviously, fine. But avoid using them in bulk because that precious info you emphasized in all-caps will be resisted and skipped.

7. Italics, just like all-caps, are uncomfortable in bulk. People find them less friendly, so why risk alienating them? Use italics sparingly.

8. Sans-serif type is harder to read than serif type, though readers are becoming used to it since it is being used more. Make it is easier by adding extra space between the lines to compensate for the lack of serifs (which help move the eye along from left to right).

9. Sizes. Big type implies important thought; tiny type equals footnote. Use the contrast to emphasize what is essential and play down what is secondary or supportive information. You have interpreted the material and thus made the piece more understandable. If this is so obvious, why do we use it so seldom and instead homogenize our thoughts in those monotonous grey columns?

10. Bold type stands out best in contrast to pale type. No news. Exploit its capacity, so pick fonts that yield good contrast of "color."

11. The context. Type is not an independent standalone entity, but one component of a cluster of related elements. Whether type is reader-friendly or -unfriendly is not merely a factor of the type itself, but of how it fits into its context. Again, there are no rules other than visual awareness. Here is a list of the major variables to be aware of in printed pieces, because they affect the way the type is perceived:

--the page size
--the number of pages
--the language used
--the 'muchness' of the type to be read
--the way the text is broken up
--the way the printed piece is held in the hand
--the weight, color, texture, shininess of the paper stock
--the color and shininess of the ink on that paper
--the quality and resolution of the printing

Bad habits to reject

Substituting traditional folk-wisdoms and clichés for analytical thinking is quicker, safer, and less work. But reflex habits get between your message and the reader.

1. Up-And-Down-Style Capitalization of Initials in Headlines That Robs Us of the Capacity to Allow Proper Names and Acronyms to Stand Out Clearly, Which Makes the Message That Much Harder to Understand and Hopeless to Scan Fast. Not a big problem in any one instance, but multiply it by the number of headlines in your issue, and it certainly becomes a problem. Current trend is all-lowercase, except for first initial, proper names, and titles and acronyms.

2. Centered symmetry may look dignified and traditional, but neat balance is dead, ideal for tombstones. Asymmetrical layout encourages not only kinetic motion and activity on the page, but also that vital left-towards-right flow of words to persuade the reader to continue reading.

3. Arbitrary arrangements where the visual overwhelms the message. The medium is not the message, the message is the message -- despite what the designer may claim as "original solution" that will "attract attention." Will it attract reading? is the question. If it does that, then great, but if it is there merely for its own sake, throw it out, because it misdirects the viewer.

4. Standard formulas and unthinking treatment of anything. It is uninviting and unexciting.

5. Flowing everything into columns whether it is sequential or not. The three-column or two-column page is a prison into which we force our thinking. Break it and arrange the material in patterns appropriate to its structure, instead of squeezing everything into a format that was developed for the convenience of weekly news-magazines.

6. Playing with type just to be different, inventive, "creative." There may well be a good reason why something hasn't been done before.

Turning 'em off

1. Making lines too long. One line is no problem. Even two or three are OK. The trouble starts when you have more than three.

2. Making type too small. If you are uncomfortable, so will the reader be.

3. Irregular word spacing disturbs the smooth rhythm of eye motion along the flow of words. Anything that disturbs must be avoided.

4. Irregular character spacing attacks the way we "read" words, which we perceive as letter-groups, not as individual letters. Loose setting of characters makes words harder to recognize. Inconsistent letterspacing is a sin.

5. Competing against ourselves by making some type units in friendly texture and others less so. Shorter, easier-to-read units inevitably gain more attention than the difficult ones.

6. Using weird fonts, just because they are fresh or new. Only depart from what readers are used to where there is an overwhelming functional reason to do so.

7. Setting type vertically. If something needs to be deciphered, it won't be.

8. Messiness. Type on a background that vies for attention and disturbs the viewer's concentration -- or worse, hampers reading -- will not be read. Words must never fight their background, despite current fashions.

9. Ignoring the structure. The text written as a list should look like a list. Bullets should align above each other. Indentations should be visually/intellectually logical.

10. Nonsensical line breaks. Read what the words say to make the phrasing dictate the line breaks. The spoken language must control the way the thoughts are translated into visual format.

Inviting type

1. As you edit, keep in mind the type-as-it-will-appear-laid-out.
2. Use visual type as a logical extension of your intellectual thinking.
3. Make type so smooth and easy that the reader is unaware of it.
4. Make type big enough -- and then make it a size bigger.
5. Have ample doorways to welcome the potential reader.
6. Break up long, daunting-looking masses into short bits.
7. Organize the material for two-level readership: fast-scan and slow-study.
8. Exploit size to mirror importance.
9. Help the reader find those wonderful nuggets right on top.
10. Isolate elements in space for immediate noticeability.
11. Poke out display as hanging indents for fast scanning down-page.
12. Allow the reader to skip what they are less interested in.
13. Add blackness to focus attention and create rankings.
14. Marry the type with spacing to organize thoughts into zones
15. Use space (as moats) and rules (as walls) to separate or link material.
16. Relate elements to each other logically.
17. Don't think "design" ("What does it look like?").
18. Do think "function" ("Are we transmitting the thoughts clearly?").
19. Do order your copy of Editing by Design, 3rd Edition, by Jan V. White.
20. Get it from Allworth Press, www.allworth.com target="blank">. Less than $29.95!

Jan V. White is a communication design consultant and author of Editing by Design (3rd Ed.), Allsworth Press, 2003. He may be reached at janvw2 [at] aol [dot] com.

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