Basic Book Design/Font

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Keep Out of Trouble Rules

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  1. Use 11-point Palatino for text.
  2. Use 14-point Helvetica for chapter titles and 12-point Helvetica for section headings.
  3. Never use monospaced (a.k.a. “typewriter”) fonts, e.g., Courier, except when mocking up documents, i.e., reports, that actually use such a font.
  4. Use unusual fonts only for short items, e.g., the title and author's name on the cover, or for chapter titles.
  5. Don't use too many fonts. Three should be enough for almost any book.
  6. Check books you like the look of, and see which fonts they use. Half an hour in a bookstore looking at fonts can be very useful and enlightening.

Advanced Rules

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The Elements Of Typographic Style, by Robert Bringhurst (2001), contains some useful rules about font selection.

large-print book

Serif vs. Sans-Serif

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Fonts are, in general, divided into serif and sans-serif designs. Serif fonts have little curlicues on the ends of the letters. Sans-serif fonts don't. E.g.,

Times Roman is a serif font.
Helvetica is a sans-serif font.

People don't read words one letter at a time. They recognize entire words at once. Words are, in general, easier to recognize in a serif font, for three reasons:

• The curlicues give the letters a more distinctive shape.
• The lower-case letters are relatively smaller (and the upper-case letters relatively larger). This is called x-height.
• Readers are used to reading serif fonts. What you read most often is easiest for you to read.

Smaller x-height makes serif fonts use less horizontal space. I.e., your book will be shorter if you use a serif font. E.g., the following two sentences are the same font size:

The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog. (12-point Times)
The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog. (12-point Helvetica)

In 1931, the London Times hired typographers to design a highly readable, compact font. Times Roman is now the most widely used font. It's chicken-and-egg: Times Roman is easy to read, so it's widely used; and it's widely used, so it's easy to read.

Points And Picas

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72.27 points make one inch. A point is 0.3515 millimeters. A point is neither metric nor imperial.

Microsoft Word uses exactly 72 points to the inch. This is known as a "Postscript point" since it was the first computer design system to use the 72-per-inch convention. Postscript points aren't technically typesetting points; i.e. two typesetters, one using PS points and the other using real points, will discover that one's fonts are slightly too big and the other's points slightly too small. Slightly means the round-off error is insignificant for all but the largest fonts.

TeX and METAFONT use 72.27 points to the inch. They support other units, like Didot point used in European typography. One Didot point is equal to 1238/1157 points.

A pica is twelve points, or about one-sixth of an inch, or about four millimeters. 12 Didot points are one cicero.

Chapter And Section Titles

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Use a different font for chapter titles. Helvetica is a good choice. It's the most popular sans-serif font. It's the most distinctive font from Times Roman that is still relatively easy to read. It also looks good in bold.

The Chicago Manual of Style (18.28-29) advocates using the same font for text and for section and subsection headings (called subheads). The Chicagoans recommend using ALL CAPS, italics, SMALL CAPS, etc., to differentiate the levels of headings.

Don't use small caps in a heading unless you buy a small caps font. The Small Caps feature that word processors offer you (scaling down capitals) isn't really small caps. More about this later. If you use a small caps font, make sure the heading font isn't smaller than the text font. That would confuse readers.

ALL CAPS are harder to read. This is OK for short chapter titles, but not for long subheads.

Instead, consider using the chapter title font (e.g., Helvetica) for the A-level subheads, and then switching to the text font (e.g., Times Roman) for the B-level subheads. E.g., this book has chapter titles in 14-point Helvetica Neue bold ALL CAPS, section heads in 12-point Helvetica Neue bold Title Case, and subheads in 12-point Times New Roman italic Title Case.

Subheads should never be the last item on a page. In Microsoft Word, use Format...Paragraph...Line and Page Breaks...Keep with next to prevent this.

Monospaced Fonts

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The third type of font should be used rarely or never. These are monospaced or typewriter fonts. The most common example is Courier. In contrast, Times Roman, Helvetica, etc. are proportionately-spaced fonts.

Monospaced fonts were designed for type-writers. Each letter is the same width. E.g., compare Courier with Times Roman:

iii mmm (Courier)

iii mmm (Times Roman)


Times Roman





Notice that in Courier, the i and the m are the same width. In Times Roman, the i is narrow and the m is wide. Monospaced fonts are hard to read and take up more space.

The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog. (12-point Times Roman)

The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog. (12-point Helvetica)

The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog. (12-point Courier)

NOTE: If your computer does not have these fonts installed, similar ones will be displayed.

Low-Res Fonts

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If you use a Macintosh running Mac OS 9 or earlier, your font library will include several fonts Apple developed in 1984 for the original Macintosh and its Image-Writer printer. These fonts include New York, Geneva, Monaco, and Chicago. These were designed to look good at the low 80 dpi resolution of the original Macintosh and its Image Writer printer. Modern printers are at least 360 dpi. Don't use these fonts unless you're trying to make your document have that authentic 1984 birthplace-of-desktop-publishing look. text

Font Size

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Too-small fonts are hard to read, especially for older people or people who don't read much.

Too-large fonts look like a children's book. Your eyes have to move more, and you have to turn more pages. This gets tiring.

Compact-width fonts, e.g., Times Roman, look best in 11 or 12 points. Wider fonts, e.g., Palatino, look best in a smaller font size, usually 10 or 11 points.

"Large print" books are at least 14 points.