Layout: Why so few fonts? What is white space?

A series of posts on Layout, because I can’t put all of this one one page.

Part 2: Fonts, column layout, and Berra dissing on a book written before she was born.

I’m going to make the assumption here that your text is large enough to read, which is a whole can full of open cans of worms… But as pointed out in the comments, small font size is a real headache for some people. If you have the Jonstown Compendium template, that’s got readable fonts, and importantly outputs to a PDF, so that people can zoom in and read. Don’t make fonts smaller to fit things onto a page. Just don’t, and we can get onto other ways in which not to screw up.

Here is a thing we are going to explore now:

The job of text is to be read easily.

I thought about putting that in a different font or underlining it, to make it more clear, but I didn’t, and I have a very good reason.

Here, for your reading pleasure, is an excerpt from Super System by Doyle Brunson, one of the founding texts of modern poker playing. I can’t find the citation, but there’s a point at which he talks about why he has used bold and italics to make things easier to read. Um, yeaaaaah. No.

The 2nd edition took out most of the the bold and italics. The 1st edition is still my go-to text for when I want to make an editor cry.

That middle line about Aces is supposed to draw attention to itself because it’s so important, but in fact the bold and italic combo there makes it horrible to read. The different styles, and the multiple changes in style, reset your brain each time you go from one part to another. The book’s written like someone wants to speak, and that’s not how to write a book.

If you change your fonts too often, you’re doing that to readers. That’s not about bold vs normal weight, but about the multiple fonts and colours some people like to use. Unless and until you’re either good at this, or being paid to put in more by a client with more money than sense, you want to stick to half a dozen possibilities. A main font, maybe a table font, and different header levels, are what most people need. Each of these should have a reason for existing.

I had to look pretty hard to find this example in The Lifethief. It’s got several different fonts in, like the poker book above, but every one of them has a discrete1And sometimes discreet, too, if it’s subtle. reason for being used. The names of skills and other rolls are put in bold, so that they stick out. If you’re in a hurry and just scanning down this page while your players are talking loudly about what they are doing, the things in bold stick out.

Spells are in italics. That does not help readability, but helps sense, instead. You have to stop a little to think about what Befuddle or Sleep are, and you do not count them just as ordinary words or skills I have forgotten to bold.

The tables are a different font to the body, completely. There is a lot of discussion over serif vs sans-serif fonts. In general, we are used to reading newspaper-style fonts with serifs for longer work, but this is changing. Screen fonts and printed fonts have different characteristics too, for various reasons.

Ignore those things. The Jonstown Compendium template comes with font choices and you might as well stick with them2Failing that, use a Times New Roman style, and something like Verdana for tables.. Do not be tempted to resize the fonts in a paragraph, or to capitalise several words in the middle of a sentence. Just type ordinary words and let the way you arrange them be the attention-grabbing thing.

Once you’ve got lots of paragraphs, you’re going to want to lay them out in order, so people can read them. That generally means a column structure, because moving your eyes from one side of a page to another repeatedly is pretty hard on the brain, and doing it in a wall of text is hard. The gutter in the middle of a pair of text columns helps take some of that burden off. So does breaking with headers and art. (More on the headers later, and I already talked about the art a lot.)

Fully justify your columns. It’s slightly less readable because the word spacing gets compressed or stretched, but it is much easier on the eyes when scrolling through long vertical documents. In general if you have two or more columns, fully justify, and if you have only one, then left justify.

You’ve then got two different structures to put your layout into; the page, and the column. Between the two columns, you have a gap, and around them, you have a bigger gap. That serves to make the text entry area, the double column, into its own entity.

This space, called white space or negative space (and a few other things as well) is key to good layout. You don’t want to be crowding your text. In general, the space above a header should be about the header height. The space below and to the side of any words should be clear of distractions. You don’t want to get to the end of a line of deathless prose and find out your brain is suddenly attempting to understand a diagram or gets distracted by a picture. A good rule of thumb for the freedom you need to give words is a line plus the space it is in. If you look at ‘a good rule of thumb’ above, and you take the space from the bottom of the line above it, to the top of the line below, that’s how much space, just eyeballing it, will probably look good around your text. Anything under that, and you are presenting the reader with additional work to do in sorting out what goes where and reading past distractions.

Here is Tirrip on an impala. If you look at the last-but-one line, and estimate how big it is *including the space it is in*, you can see that is pretty similar to the minimum space I left between the image and the text.

Over to the left is a table, and the impala’s tale3As has been pointed out, this is a tail, and I should be nice to my proof-readers. I even hesitated over the spelling, and recall doing so. Did I mention I have a blog on publication and how you should get someone with fresh eyes to check over your work? is pretty close to it. It’s further away from the text, though, and the text does not lead the eye along from left to right, and anyhow, the table’s edge tells you when to stop… so in this case, I’m fine with the impala being that close.

There’s also an added subtlety there – the animal is travelling away from the solid wall of the table. It’s running along towards the negative space. As a portrait artist, I call that ‘looking room’. It doesn’t have anything in the way of the story it is telling.

When you get to the bottom of a column, the eye naturally wants to travel to the next one, so having the impala here means there is not an awkward space. Don’t be tempted to move your columns around to try to fill the space; either do it with prose, or do it with decoration. Weirdly enough, too much negative space on the page can be distracting – it’s ominous and strange, because we’ve been culturally taught how to read certain styles of writing, and pages get mostly filled.

That’s enough from me, for now, I think. Tune in soon for Headers: what are they other than a painful way of scoring a goal?

  • 1
    And sometimes discreet, too, if it’s subtle.
  • 2
    Failing that, use a Times New Roman style, and something like Verdana for tables.
  • 3
    As has been pointed out, this is a tail, and I should be nice to my proof-readers. I even hesitated over the spelling, and recall doing so. Did I mention I have a blog on publication and how you should get someone with fresh eyes to check over your work?


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I haven’t read your first post on this topic so I’m not sure if you have talked about this [I will go look] but the thing that makes the first passage hardest to read is font size. I’m not an expert, but It seems to me that enlarging a passage is not the same as having a larger font size in the original. As someone who has to wear glasses* there are still modern texts where I have to get a magnifying glass out. I know that it may mean additional cost in print versions, but 1 point enlargement may make all the difference to someone with sight problems. It should not be a problem for them when something is a PDF.
Addendum. I’m sure Diana has/will say this, but fonts should be clear as well as pleasing.

*I don’t need new ones as I have my sight completely checked every year, in case someone was wondering.

Hi, glasses-wearer,

I was being a bit lazy in what I wrote, and assuming people were going to be sticking to the template that goes with the Jonstown Compendium. The original of the poker book has a size that’s easy enough to read, and keeps being interrupted by the bold/italic jumps. That image is also suffering from being a screen grab.

That said, I’ve now noted at the top of this post that text should be large enough to read easily. That’s easily done, even if it’s hard to define.

Hi Berra,

Thanks for your reply and amendment. I agree it is a can of worms, but it may be easier to define what is hard to read because of its size [this just struck me]. Keep up the good work.
Best regards.

This is an area close to what I work on, although none of it’s my work, I should add. There simply isn’t a good style/font/size rule, because all fonts are different and some are even different in size at the same pointage. 12-pt in one face may be 10-pt equivalent in another. I don’t want to create a generalised rule, because it would be wrong, but ‘simple fonts, between 10 and 12 pt’ is probably workable for most people. That’s not one to edit in, though – having that taken as gospel would be bad.

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