Category Archives: type tips


Measure = the number of characters (letters and spaces) in a line of type.

If you’re hoping that a live person might actually read your writing, make it easy on them. A measure of more than 78 characters and your reader is likely to go watch an episode of “The Real Housewives of New Jersey” between lines.

Here are the commandments from the bible of typography, The Elements of Typographic Style:
•    45 to 75 characters is a good length for a single-column page
•    66 characters is ideal
•    For multiple columns 40 to 50 characters is better

This is, of course, dependent on your type size. Average size for a printed publication is 10 to 12 points.You would not want to write lines of text 60 characters long in 36-point type. The publication would be the size of your car.


straight or curly?

Hair? Er, no. Today let’s talk about quotation marks.

Curly quotes (AKA typographer’s quotes or smart quotes) are used in good typography. Straight quotes (dumb quotes) make you look unprofessional, reckless, and just plain dumb.

straight small 3

In traditional typography, all quotation marks were curly. But when the damn typewriter came along, the curly quotes were replaced by straight quotes to save a slot for another character. Undoubtedly something stupid, like Q.

Computers are not constrained by space issues, so you can always find curly quotes. In some programs, such as inDesign, you can set your preference to typographer’s quotes. How do you do this in other programs? What, do you think I’m a typography expert? Google it.

Why does it matter? Curly quotes are more legible, and, like gravity, they’re not just a good idea. They’re the law.

apostrophes don’t swing both ways

[Headline appropriated from i love typography]

An apostrophe is the same character as a closing single quotation mark.
this is an apostrophe

Blame the “backwards” apostrophe on applications like Microsoft word that use an opening single quote where a word or term begins with an apostrophe, like ’til or ’60s. The software incorrectly interprets the character as the start of a quotation. You will have to manually fix this. And when you do, the typographic gods will smile upon you.

Use an apostrophe for contractions, REGARDLESS of where in the word the missing letters fall.


Using an apostrophe incorrectly can have dire consequences:




weight and scale

There’s a depressing topic for mid-February. But let’s leave thoughts of liposuction aside and concentrate on type.

Previously I talked about one of the principles of design — contrast. Use it for emphasis, to create hierarchies of importance, to catch the reader’s eye, or simply to liven up your design. Without it the reader is likely to doze off after a couple of your scintillating sentences.

Contrast can be created by mixing serif and sans serif faces (see the Jell-o post). But for those of you itching to use all those cool fonts that came with your computer, get a grip. It can also be done using only one typeface. Various weights (e.g., light and extra bold) and dramatically different sizes will create a clean, dynamic layout.

something caught

too many fonts spoil the Jell-o

How many fonts should you use in one design?

1. None. You should be letting a professional do that.

2. Oh, all right. If you insist:

  • One is a bit boring.
  • Two, if chosen correctly, can be ideal.
  • Three—you’re pushing it, there.
  • Four +: let me just give you a visual of what that looks like to a trained eye:


One of the principles of design is gelatin contrast. If your whole document is the same font, it looks like a great mass of grey. A good designer will wisely go for something in between a grey mass and a quivering, overstocked mess.

HOWEVER. You may not mix fonts which are both serif, or both sans serif.

serif vs.sans

That’s like mixing plaids and plaids. You know that’s not okay, right? Get yourself a nice neutral like Garamond—a serif font that doesn’t have any weird quirks. At a distance, a paragraph or two of Garamond will look like a boring pair of khakis. Now wouldn’t a splash of color look great with those pants?

Let’s try a sans serif like Univers bold with those khakis. The Univers family, which comes in a variety of weights, as well as condensed versions, is an ideal choice. That way you can have the look of a gazillion different typefaces (because you know that Jell-o is still calling to you), but you won’t actually be breaking the rules. Pair those Garamond pants with a Univers bold shirt, and you’ve got the perfect outfit for a summer afternoon.

And won’t you look fresh next to that Jell-o salad the other designer brought?

you could drive a truck through that

Justified text, which lines up on both the left and right margins, can be very beautiful if handled by an expert who knows how to use hyphenation and word spacing correctly (like me). But in general, you should not try this at home. Or in a newsletter. The unsightly spaces which are created make the text hard to read, and look completely unprofessional.

The huge gaps created are bad enough, but when they accumulate on line after line, “rivers” of white space are created. Or, as I like to yell, “You could drive a truck through that!”

And there is just no justification for that.



unhappy endings, part 2: widows and orphans

“My Dearest Beloved, I am writing you this letter with the believe you will treat my message with utmost honesty and sincerity…”

No, no, no. I’m talking about widows and orphans in typography, not internet scams. Duh.

A widow is the last word or line of a paragraph that appears at the beginning of the next column or page.

An orphan is a word or part of a word that appears by itself at the end of a paragraph.

widows and orphans3
Half of the websites written about good typography will tell you the exact opposite, so I went to the boss — The Chicago Manual of Style.

Widows and orphans interrupt the reader’s flow, waste space, and make you look like an amateur.

And never, ever, leave a subhead at the bottom of a column. Never. Ever.

Depending on what software you’re using, you can find lots of info online about how to fix these horrors. If you work with a meticulous editor, as I do, you won’t have a choice about whether or not to fix them. You’ll learn to mess about with hyphenation, letterspacing, wordspacing, and soft returns to avoid unhappy endings. And clients.

use your inside voice


Why? Well, yes, in email it looks like you’re shouting.

But designwise, the ascenders and descenders (the parts of letters that stick up above or down below the baseline—b, k, y, g, for example) help us read words by shape. With all caps, we have to identify nearly every letter.



font choice don’ts

You want to look like a professional, don’t you? Font choices are overwhelming, and so is the amount I could write about this. So for today, three tips to keep you from looking like a boob an amateur.

Don’t choose a typeface because it’s the newest thing out there.

“New” fonts aren’t always the best choice for printed materials that you hope will be around for a while. Remember, someone once thought avocado green appliances were a good idea.

Don’t choose a typeface because it has the perfect name.

Let’s say, for example, that your name is Charles S. Harrington. You want to start promoting your business, and you discover that there’s a font called Harrington. Perfect! But wait! There’s also one called Charles S. So you try them both out:harrington copy

If you’re the master of ceremonies at a circus, the first might be ok on your business card. And if you’re a chimney sweep, the second might work. Fonts have personalities, for lack of a better word. The first font, Harrington, is whimsical and old fashioned (and, let’s face it, pretty awful). It’s not serious, or weighty, or modern. The second font, Charles S., is what’s referred to as a grunge font. It looks like it was scratched and smeared. Think about what you want to portray with your type. If you’re a litigator trying to attract new clients, I don’t imagine you’d want them to see you as frivolous and silly. On the other hand, if you’re an up-and-coming interior designer, smeared and sooty should not be your first choice.

Don’t choose a typeface just because it came with your computer.

comic sans

you had me at the en dash

I’ve met precisely two people who know what an en dash is for. One is my very favorite client of all time, who calls me her “precious jewel,” and the other was the first guy I ever met on a dating site. He turned out not to be such a gem. But he did have a British accent.

If you want to look like you really know what you’re doing when designing with type (to at least three people), here’s what you need to know about the en dash.

An en dash is used to replace the word “to” in ranges of years or time.

1–10 pm
1981 – 2011

It’s called an en dash because the dash is the width of a lowercase letter n.

Whether or not to put spaces before and after the dash is up for debate.

A designer who does not care about my opinion, or that of the dating-site guy or my client, will use a hyphen instead.

1-10 pm

It’s more obvious in some typefaces than others, but,

–  this is a hyphen (it’s for—yes—hyphenation)

– this is an en dash (and from now on you will use it proudly)

— this is an em dash (use this one to add a thought—sparingly—in informal writing)