Typography tidbits

Two months ago, I read The Complete Manual of Typography: A Guide to Setting the Perfect Type by James Felici. I thoroughly enjoyed it. The book contained a treasure trove of information on the history of typography, fundamentals of type and composition, what makes good type, and even tips on how to manage fonts and work with layout programs. It was very well organized. The subject matter went in depth, but was written in a clear and concise manner. All in all, I would highly recommend it as an introduction to typography and as a reference for designers and publishers.

I found several interesting typography tidbits in the book, and I’d like to share them here.

Where the term “leading” came from

To set type using Gutenberg’s technique, the blocks—cast from a lead alloy—were arranged in rows. Those rows of letter blocks—lines of type—were stacked one below the other to form a page, and then the whole rectangular mass was locked in place by a frame that pressed in on all sides. To add space between the lines, thin strips of metal were inserted between the rows, a process called adding lead. Today the term leading is still used to describe the distance between one line of type and the one above or below it.

Where the term “tracking” came from

The term tracking has its roots in one of the original phototypesetting machines, the Photon, which created images of characters by flashing a strobe light through a font that consisted of a rotating film-negative disk. The image was focused through a lens and directed onto photographic film by a prism. The prism was mounted on a toothed track, and it advanced according to the width of the character being imaged. The amount of space allotted to each character, then, was a function of how the prism tracked. These days the track is gone, but the term tracking remains.

Type design as a function of size

Type in small sizes is more legible if the characters are somewhat wider and somewhat heavier. In large sizes, letters corresponding to the same design can be more finely modeled: thinner, lighter, and more nuanced. When various sizes are used together, such subtle design variations are not apparent and the design of the characters seems consistent throughout.

Because metal type foundries needed to create separate sets of printing blocks for every type size that printers wanted to use, it was easy enough for them to follow this calligraphic tradition. The practice continued into the latter half of the twentieth century, when ironically, technological progress threatened this highly sophisticated system. First by means of photographic lenses and later through mathematical scaling, typesetting technologists discovered techniques by which a single type design could be shrunk or enlarged to a range of sizes. A single master image, then, could generate type for footnotes as well as newspaper headlines. Vendors of typesetting systems were happy they didn’t have to design type over and over for every size they wanted to produce, but it was a setback for the quality of printed material.

Monotype and Linotype—machines, not companies

The Monotype machine was an automated type foundry, which from a cauldron of hot metal cast individual letter blocks one at a time (at surprising speed) and spit them out into composed lines, just as if they had been set by hand.

The Linotype machine assembled the molds for a line’s worth of characters and cast them all at once in one piece—a line o’ type.

In the days of handset type, a font comprised one or more drawers full of type blocks in a single size. With the advent of the Monotype and Linotype machines, a font then became a set of molds (or matrices) from which type could be cast as it was needed, on the fly.

Proper names for type sizes

Until the nineteenth century, types in various sizes were commonly given proper names rather than numerical labels. For example :

  • Pearl (5 points)
  • Nonpareil (6 points)
  • Minion (7 points)
  • Brevier (8 points)
  • Bourgeois (9 points)
  • Long Primer (10 points)
  • Pica (12 points)
  • English (14 points)
  • Great Primer (18 points)

The best of Times, the worst of Times

Times is not a classic text face. Designed for use by the Times of London (as its new roman face, back in the 1930s), it has comparatively narrow characters, the better to compose well in the short lines of newspaper columns. Book publishers adopted it because it saved them paper. The lines set in Times seem crowded when compared with a more standard book face.

Times is probably used inappropriately more than any other typeface today. Ironically, it’s no longer commonly used in newspapers, not even the Times.

Two word spaces to separate sentences

The typewriter tradition of separating sentences with two word spaces after a period has no place in typesetting. The custom began because the characters of monospaced typefaces used on typewriters were so wide and so open that a single word space—one the same width as a character, including the period—was not wide enough to create a sufficient space between sentences. Proportionally spaced fonts, though, contain word spaces specifically designed to play the sentence-separating role perfectly. Because of this, a double word space at the end of a sentence creates an obvious hole in the line.

The standard sequence of footnote symbols

The occasional or informal footnote can be signaled by a non-numeric character such as an asterisk. In works with many footnotes, or in any academic or technical work whose footnotes are apt to be cited in the bibliographies of other works, using numbers as reference marks is obligatory.

There is a standard sequence of non-numeric reference marks when more than one appears on the page: asterisk, dagger, double dagger, section mark, and paragraph mark. In practical terms, if you have a need of symbols beyond the double dagger, you should probably be using numerals.

If you enjoyed this post, I highly recommend that you get a copy of The Complete Manual of Typography. I think you’ll find the book useful, informative, and enjoyable.

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Hello! I’m Madeline Ong, a web designer, avid reader, and tech enthusiast. Magic Lantern is an online journal where I write about design, literature, technology, and other subjects of interest. Thank you for your visit. Please make yourself at home.


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