Distressed type, or type in distress?
Anyone can set type now, and millions of people do so everyday, perhaps without realizing they’re doing it. If you tweak a blog layout, fine-tune a Powerpoint presentation, or write a document in Word, you make decisions about type and readability that will affect the experience of anyone who reads or sees the work. It’s true that when texting or writing emails to personal friends, you needn’t fuss with getting your type (or grammar, or spelling) perfect. But when you write for an audience or the general public, you’re publishing, and when you’re publishing, it helps to know the basics of how type works.
I taught a class in graphic design in spring 2011, and as a result found myself synthesizing a lot of what I know into little handouts and talks. This article is one of my favorite handouts from the class. It came along early on, when I was teaching about the basics of type, and setting up a framework for discussion. First I gave a talk similar to the following text, and then we talked about the handout, which I’ve titled “We are all typesetters” and included here as a downloadable PDF for personal and educational use (please contact me if you’d like to use it for anything else).
The information here is very basic—a place to start. It’s aimed at students learning graphic design, and specifically the InDesign page layout program. But the general rules, and the story of how type has evolved, are useful for anyone who writes, designs, or communicates professionally, on the web or in print.
The relationship between designers, printers, and typesetters has changed considerably in the 600 years since movable type was invented.
At first, the “designing” and “typesetting,” and for that matter, the type design itself, was all taken care of by printers. Printers were also their own publishers.
In the 19th and 20th century a lot of these roles were split into separate divisions of labor. Up until about 20 years ago, it went like this:
The designer specified (“spec’d”) the type that would be set to fit into her design.
The typesetter (a separate person, usually working for a type house) received these instructions from the designer, and set the type on a typesetting machine, either by handsetting the lead type, or, as technology advanced, by using a keyboard to input the text and various codes. The type was then delivered to the designer on plain sheets of paper at the requested width. These sheets were called “galleys,” and comprised however much type was needed for the project, whether it was a two-word ad or a 60,000-word book.
The designer would then cut and trim the sheet of type to fit her design. If there were small changes they would sometimes be accomplished by cutting out text with razor and replacing it with newly set text. Or the designer would have a new block of type set with corrections in place.
Nowadays, the designer and the typesetter are the same person. As designers, we receive text from a variety of sources, usually digital and already typed in for us. However, when using this supplied type, and when writing or supplying our own text, we need to remember that we are now not just designers but also typesetters. Every time you decide on a font size, or change the length of a line, or break up a clause—or two!—with em dashes, or any number of other things that you can routinely do in various computer programs, you are setting type, and then re-setting it, and then setting it again.
The flexibility is marvelous. But it can also make for some really terribly set type. Your job is to learn the basics of how type works, so that your documents will be well-designed enough to attract the attention of your audience, and readable enough to reward their continued curiosity.
The PDF, “We are all typesetters,” describes some common mistakes that are carried over from the days when we were just writers and typists—not typesetters. It also covers some good typesetting practices to keep in mind as you work on your designs.