Skip navigation
Currently Being Moderated

Understanding Book Elements: Fonts

Created on: Feb 21, 2011 2:36 PM by CreateSpaceResources - Last Modified:  Feb 25, 2011 9:13 AM by CreateSpaceBlogger

Understanding Book Elements: Fonts

By Shawn, CreateSpace Graphic Arts Specialist


I have a confession to make: I love fonts. Thick, thin, round, pointy, serif, sans serif. You name it, I love it. I have many books of type specimens. I have worked with other designer friends to create new fonts. I critique font usage on restaurant menus. Heck, I even have shirts that show my preference (or dislike) for certain fonts. Ok, maybe I'm a little obsessed with fonts. I might want to ask a professional about that.



But that's beside the point; what this really means is that I know a lot about fonts. And I know enough to know that fonts very often trip authors up in book design. Like colors, there are literally millions of them out there.



Because there is so much to know about fonts we're going to take this in two parts. This first article will focus on the history and anatomy of fonts. The second article will focus on what fonts say about your book and how to make decisions on what fonts are best to use in your book.



What we know of type actually started, at least in what is considered the Western part of the world, in Greece and early Rome. These cultures set the precedent for most modern languages. Fast forward several centuries to a guy name Johan Gutenberg who made the first commercially viable printing press, and with the help of a few obsessive type-minded individuals, he started making Bibles.



With the coming Renaissance, typography (or the creation or study of letters and typesetting) exploded. In fact, the Renaissance gave us the basis for many of the major fonts used today. Fonts like Caslon, Granjon, and others are all named after their creators.



And these guys were very clever. For instance, each time a printer wanted to print words, he had to hand-set the type on the printing press. Each letter in those days was hand-carved, made of lead and typically placed on individual blocks of wood to fit on the printing press. To help space each individual line of text, printers used lead blanks to evenly and precisely space each line. This action was called "leading," and it's a term still used in design and production today.



While all this was going on, each typographer was searching to get his piece of the world. They started creating complete sets of letters, which became known as fonts. A font is a collection of letters, numbers, and glyphs that typically display the entire alphabet for many languages. So this includes all the vowels with every combination of accent mark, as well as the Greek alphabet and mathematical symbols. Some also include basic glyphs like the copyright and trademark symbols.



And now for a little exercise. Read the following paragraph and tell me what you see:



"Aoccdrnig to a rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it deosn't mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoetnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer be at the rghit pclae. The rset can be a toatl mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit porbelm. Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe."



Now, if you answered, "According to a researcher at Cambridge University, it doesn't matter in what order the letters in a word are, the only important thing is that the first and last letter be at the right place. The rest can be a total mess and you can still read it without problem. This is because the human mind does not read every letter by itself but the word as a whole," give yourself a gold star.



This came from a chain e-mail passed around the Internet in the late '90s. Funny enough, Cambridge University never did a study about this exact concept. But the Internet is like playing the world's largest game of telephone, and details can get a little skewed. However, a bloke at Cambridge also received this chain e-mail letter and went about proving that, indeed, it is partially true. He proved what many typographers already surmised: humans do not read individual letters or even individual words; we see the shapes of the words. It's why a spelling bee champion may not be the best reader in his or her class.



Most fonts typically used in printing are based around this concept. Serif fonts such as Times New Roman, Garamond and New Baskerville all have little "feet" on them and varying line widths between parts of the letter. Originally it was believed that these serifs helped connect each of the letters in a word like puzzle pieces, making them easier to read, especially in large paragraphs. Years later it turns out Cambridge University agreed. It's for this reason that serif fonts are so widely used for the interiors of many books.



Sans serif fonts (meaning "without" serifs) were created around the same time as most of the popular fonts. However, they did not catch on as quickly as their serif counterparts. While more posh and thin fonts have been created over the years, sans serif fonts have always tended to be bolder, with no varying line widths or flourishes. Sans serif fonts such as Helvetica, Franklin Gothic and Century Gothic are usually better for display type: headlines, subheadlines, captions, titles and many other things that are meant to draw attention.



This is what I would consider the No. 1 rule for choosing a type for print: serif fonts for interiors, sans serif for display type. This doesn't take into account the thousands of scripted, flourished, cursive, blackletter and other "display" fonts that are out there. These are more for your covers to draw attention to the book, and we'll cover that along with several tricks to picking the right typeface in the next article.



(By the way, if you liekd tihs litlte tirck, Ylae Law Shcool hsots a Web aatcoplpiin taht wlil mix yuor leertts for you. Log on to to mkae yuor own jeblmud wdros.)



Shawn is a member of the CreateSpace Art Services team. He is an expert in graphic design and the technology that drives it.



You may also be interested in...


Understanding Book Elements: Paper Color

Understanding Book Elements: Trim Size

Average User Rating
(1 rating)

More Like This

  • Retrieving data ...