Tag Archives: design

Useful Typography

These 26 key rules from Butterick’s Practical Typography might be the most useful listicle I’ve seen in years. A sample:

  1. The four most im­por­tant ty­po­graphic choices you make in any doc­u­ment are point size, line spac­ing, line length, and font (pas­sim), be­cause those choices de­ter­mine how thebody text looks.
  2. point size should be 10–12 points in printed doc­u­ments, 15-25 pix­els on the web.
  3. line spac­ing should be 120–145% of the point size.
  4. The av­er­age line length should be 45–90 char­ac­ters (in­clud­ing spaces).
  5. The eas­i­est and most vis­i­ble im­prove­ment you can make to your ty­pog­ra­phy is to use a pro­fes­sional font, like those found in font rec­om­men­da­tions.
  6. Avoid goofy fonts, mono­spaced fonts, and sys­tem fonts, es­pe­cially times new ro­man and Arial.

My number one rule for this blog is “Pick a template and don’t deviate” since I figure someone much better at this than me spent a lot of time thinking about how it should look.

So I Was Wrong About the Double-Space

Because I learned to type on a manual typewriter back in the dark ages I’ve been doing the period-space thing all wrong for 30 years and didn’t know it:

Every modern typographer agrees on the one-space rule. It’s one of the canonical rules of the profession, in the same way that waiters know that the salad fork goes to the left of the dinner fork and fashion designers know to put men’s shirt buttons on the right and women’s on the left. Every major style guide—including theModern Language Association Style Manual and the Chicago Manual of Style—prescribes a single space after a period. (The Publications Manual of the American Psychological Association, used widely in the social sciences, allows for two spaces in draft manuscripts but recommends one space in published work.) Most ordinary people would know the one-space rule, too, if it weren’t for a quirk of history. In the middle of the last century, a now-outmoded technology—the manual typewriter—invaded the American workplace. To accommodate that machine’s shortcomings, everyone began to type wrong. And even though we no longer use typewriters, we all still type like we do. (Also see the persistence of the dreaded Caps Lock key.)

The problem with typewriters was that they used monospaced type—that is, every character occupied an equal amount of horizontal space. This bucked a long tradition of proportional typesetting, in which skinny characters (like I or 1) were given less space than fat ones (like W or M). Monospaced type gives you text that looks “loose” and uneven; there’s a lot of white space between characters and words, so it’s more difficult to spot the spaces between sentences immediately. Hence the adoption of the two-space rule—on a typewriter, an extra space after a sentence makes text easier to read. Here’s the thing, though: Monospaced fonts went out in the 1970s. First electric typewriters and then computers began to offer people ways to create text using proportional fonts. Today nearly every font on your PC is proportional. (Courier is the one major exception.) Because we’ve all switched to modern fonts, adding two spaces after a period no longer enhances readability, typographers say. It diminishes it.

I hereby officially apologize to every design professional upon whom I’ve inflicted my double-spaced prose.

Why Design is Hard

Okay, this has been bugging me forever. I've been trying to figure out why entering a calendar event on my smartphone or Google calendar or Outlook feels so…annoying?..

Now back to calendars. When I think of months, I reflexively picture a circle, with January 1st at the top and June at the bottom. That uses the spatial processing part of my brain. When I think of a day within a month, I picture a wall calendar grid with four horizontal weeks. That's a different spatial model. When I think of the time of day, I think of a round clock with two complete cycles for AM and PM. My smartphone unhelpfully adds another spatial model by making me enter times in a sort of slot machine interface with rolling windows, which causes me to imagine a tire shape, with the tire heading toward me. Meanwhile, the other options I need to click are spread around the screen and require a mental scavenger hunt, which is another spatial task. 

Add to this spatial overload that my calendar likes to present itself sometimes in a month format, and other times by week. Worse yet, on some of my calendar interfaces the months scroll in a left-right orientation, and on other interfaces the months scroll up-down.

When I read Scott Adams' post about his frustration with the Google and Outlook calendar interfaces and got to the excerpt I've shared above, what struck me was that his arguments helped explain perfectly why designing anything is so hard.  I don't think I could picture the items that Adams describes any differently than he does – to me a month is a block, not a circle and every reference to time (minute, hour, day) looks like a line, i.e. a timeline.  Now take the two of us and multiply by the millions of people who use those calendars and you can understand why it would be near impossible to design something that is comfortable for everyone to use.

Having spent years in direct marketing, print publishing, online publishing and nonprofit management I've had to spend a lot of time thinking about design and usability.  I'm no designer (God help you if you need me to design anything), but I have to utilize design almost every day to do my job. My number one rule of thumb is this – just because I like it doesn't mean that the majority of the intended audience will.  The important part there is "the majority of the intended audience" because even Steve Jobs couldn't design something that everyone would like, but he was able to design products that literally enchanted a huge percentage of the human population. To me the ultimate goal with design is to make it as attractive and usable for the most people as humanly possible and that, my friends, is incredibly difficult and why I have no problem tapping the experts out there to do it for me.