At a time when our society is as enthusiastic as it is questioning the emergence of artificial intelligence (which, it is said, is destined to revolutionise many industries), at least one thing seems to be beyond dispute and still allows us to communicate with each other as much as with machines: the written word, which occupies an absolutely central place in our lives.
As we explained in two previous articles, typography plays an essential role in reading. While this art form has evolved to adapt to our digital world, it has nonetheless retained the great rules of aesthetics, polished by centuries of research.

In this third article in our series devoted to typography, we offer you a summary of the main concepts and rules of typographic composition. By following these key principles, you will not only make your content more pleasant to read, but will also reinforce the impact of your message in the minds of your readers.

The 4 Fundamental Principles

Here are the main principles that must be respected to achieve a good typographic composition:
1. Reading is from left to right. The eye’s reflex is always to return to the left-hand margin where all the lines are rigorously aligned.

2. A text is always composed in a single typeface (same character and same size). If you wish to use two typefaces, avoid using characters that look too similar.

3. Respect the layout blanks defined by the golden rule. In a previous article, “How to Build a Layout Template for a Book“, we stressed the importance of these blanks: the margins that are essential to the aesthetic balance between the black of the text and the white of the paper.

Let the page breathe and never get too close to its edge.

Book Layout Template - Margins

4. The text of a book is generally justified, or in block form. Pay attention to the way you manage spaces (for instance, spaces after punctuation are always fixed), and of course to letter spacing. These are complex rules and mismanaging them will produce very unsightly effects, such as rivers (see illustration attached). For the same reasons, avoid widows and orphans.

Source : Wikipedia

Managing White Space in Text

Typography is a concrete art, with no abstractions. There is discipline at all times, as in all workshops where the laws of mechanics applied mercilessly. This was the law of composition in lead type. Every deviation had to be paid for dearly. Once a book was printed and distributed, there was no turning back. A mistake in a book, or worse still, a betrayal of the canons of page construction* earned you the reproaches of your hierarchy and sometimes even a murderous readers’ letter. It was a school of rigour and humility. Nothing was ever taken for granted. The profession of typography is undoubtedly, on a par with the arts such as sculpture, a world where there is no such thing as a quick fix.
*Canons of page construction: the canons of page construction bring together all the layout rules that prevailed in typographic workshops in the past (medieval and Renaissance eras).
So we’re going to continue talking about a subject that is all too often forgotten, yet so important: white space. After layout blanks, we’re now going to look at the management of blanks within the text block, i.e. line spacing, kerning and spaces.

Line Spacing

Line spacing is the operation that consists of defining or modifying the line spacing, i.e. the distance between the text’s lines. It is always measured from line foot to line foot, as all the letters are not the same height (the x-height) but always rest on the base line. The value is expressed in points (picas or Didot points). Originally, strips of metal were used to create spaces between the lines of movable lead types. Since photocomposition, it has been possible to have line spacing smaller than the body of the text, which was impossible in the days of lead.

Source : UX Design

Letter Spacing

Letter spacing is set by the type designer, who decides how much horizontal space should be between two letters:

  • The amount of space (in equal increments) between the letters of an entire text or word is called tracking.
  • The amount of space between two individual letters is called kerning, as can be done, for example, between an A and a V. This second possibility was not introduced until the era of photocomposition. Software such as Adobe InDesign includes kerning tables, but unless you are an experienced typographer, we advise you against making changes to the work of the type designer.

Source : Wikipedia

Abbreviations

This is a particularly complex subject, the rules of which are sometimes difficult to understand, as they are based on centuries of custom, which have of course evolved over time.

Abbreviation is a process that involves deleting letters from a word to save space and/or make it easier to read. It is only used for common words that are often repeated, such as Mr for Mister or Bd for boulevard, or ex. for example, not for words like landscape, green or moose, of course.

There is no universal rule governing the way abbreviations are constructed. Often we subtract the final letters before a vowel and replace the end of the word with a full stop. The idea is to play on our brain’s ability to recognise a word without necessarily reading it in full. To make an abbreviation plural, simply add an “s” at the end but do not add an apostrophe. On the other hand, if you read the abbreviation out loud, you must pronounce the word in full, as Louis XVI is not Louis cross v stick [sic], but Louis Sixteenth!

List of some abbreviations :
adj. for adjective
A/N for author’s note
c. for century
cf. for confer
dist. for district
ed. for editor
e.g. for for example
id. pour idem
i.e. for that is
max. for maximum
N.B. for nota bene
p. for page(s)
PS for postscript
Six introductory rules :

  1. No abbreviations may be used in poetry
  2. Do not cut an abbreviation off at the end of a line
  3. An abbreviation must not reproduce an existing word, such as test for testimonial
  4. No capital letters except for titles or acronyms
  5. If a sentence ends in an abbreviation taking a period, only one period is used
  6. Abbreviations are hyphenated if the unabbreviated word is: Lt.-Gov. for Lieutenant-Governor

Should Styles be Mixed?

Modern page layout softwares provide us with hundreds of different typefaces, and it is sometimes very tempting to mix them up. Some publishers don’t allow this and only use one typeface in a book, but it is possible to mix quite different typefaces, provided that these few rules are respected.

Rule #1 : Body Text

Don’t use more than two different typefaces in the body of the text, or you’re guaranteed a cacophony. You can already use all the resources that the typeface you have chosen offers you, with no fewer than nine different bold types. If you add italics, you’ll have eighteen options, which is more than you need. Don’t overdo it, or you risk losing your reader with an overly complex document.

If your book contains different elements, such as tables, you can use a specific typeface to make them easier to read. For an index, for example, you could use a narrower version, to reduce the number of pages, and for a table of contents, a slightly higher weight to make it easier to read.

Rule #2 : Body Height

Do not use too many different body heights (or point sizes) — the body here referring to the size of the typeface — for the simple reason that you will break the text’s register, which means that on facing pages you will not get the same alignments. For the inside of the book, you need one body height for chapter headings, another one for running titles and a last one for the text.

Rule #3 : Fonts

We’re using the term ‘font’ here because it’s the one you’ll see most frequently used on the internet for this purpose, but we should really be talking about ‘typeface’.

If you want to combine different fonts but you’re not sure, you can look at websites that give examples, such as fontjoy.com, or typotheque.com, as well as fontpair.co. You’ll see that it’s quite well done.

For the more experienced, who want to experiment with combining different fonts, here are a few ideas:

  • Fonts generally work well together when their kerning* is similar, their proportions between lower case and capitals are identical and their capital height is the same. To see this, check that the x in each font has the same dimensions. The letter x is square in almost all fonts, so it’s a fairly simple point of comparison ;
  • Creating contrast by marrying a serif font with a sans serif font is often easier than two fonts that belong to the same category.

Here’s another example of what kerning can do, the most obvious example being between an A and a V.

Source : Wiktionary
*Kerning: process of adjusting the spacing between characters in a proportional font, usually to achieve a visually pleasing result. Kerning adjusts the space between individual letterforms while tracking (letter-spacing) adjusts spacing uniformly over a range of characters.
(Source : Wikipedia)

Rule #4 : Symplicity

Keep it simple! The more different typefaces and body weights you add, the harder it is to stick to your graphic charter.

Rule #5 : Inspiration

Keep an eye on what others are doing. When you need to learn, it’s only natural to exercise your eye by observing the work produced by the best graphic designers.

Rule #6 : Coherence

Establish rules and follow them from one end of the book to the other. Adobe InDesign’s paragraph and character styles function is ideal for this.

Conclusion

As you will have understood from this article, the rules of a style guide are much more than arbitrary prescriptions; they are the guardians of clarity, legibility and elegance in written communication.

By following the few basic principles we have outlined, you will not only improve the visual presentation of your texts, but also enhance their impact and credibility with readers. Whether it’s choosing the right font, judiciously spacing letters and lines, or respecting punctuation rules, every typographic decision shapes the reading experience. Much more than a set of guidelines, the Style Guide is a language in its own right, a language of form and meaning that deserves to be carefully studied, understood and applied.

As our friend and renowned typographer Dwight Smith so rightly said in our article Typography and its Importance in Book Publishing : “If the typography of a book succeeds, the role of the typography will remain invisible. The reader will experience the pleasure of reading without knowing why.”