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Readability Goals

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by David Bergsland, Typographer and Font Designer

David Bergsland

Readability is the prime virtue of book design. Whether you’re handling book production yourself or outsourcing it, you should know how to assess and, if necessary, improve readability.

This little graphic shows you some of the things that influence how easily you—and your readers—can read a font.


Click image for larger view

Font choice is clearly key. Readability doesn’t happen by accident, and default fonts are usually quite poor. Helvetica, Arial, Times, and many other common fonts have bureaucratic associations that would make it hard for your readers to be comfortable reading your books. Plus, you need an e-book license to use most default fonts.

Free fonts normally do not include an e-book license, and many do not include a desktop license (for print and PDFs), although most are licensed for desktop and Web.

Also, many things are needed for good book design that are not available in basic fonts.

Fortunately, it’s now easy to embed fonts in ePUBs and Kindle books, but you need to budget for them because the licenses can be expensive. For example, the ones I offer at MyFonts are on the cheaper end for professional use; the costs are $25 for a desktop license, $25 for a Web license, and $50 for an e-book license (with 50 percent off on the cheapest license and a discount for buying an entire family).

As you consider font, focus on this list of book design attributes for a font family.

Comfort. Body copy set with the font must be exceptionally easy and comfortable to read. Reading comfort is imperative. Your fonts must be so comfortable and easy to read that your readers don’t even notice them. They just read the book.

True small caps. Although this feature is less important now that it is not supported by e-readers, it is still essential to print design. The e-book standards support small caps, but the e-readers do not, yet. Proportionally reduced capital letters make unacceptable body copy and look unprofessional in headers because the caps that attend the small caps are obviously much darker.

Extremely smooth type color. Body copy must generate a smooth, medium gray type color to make heads and subheads pop off the page, as it were. And since e-readers do not allow control of tracking or kerning, good letterspacing is essential.

Legibility. Headline and subhead fonts need to allow quick understanding which can be picked up at a glance. The same is true for fonts used in captions, pullquotes, and the like.

Oldstyle figures, aka lowercase numbers. They are essential for good type color. Otherwise, figures are shouting just as all caps shout in an e-mail.

Variety of weights. I’ve found that I really need light, regular, bold, and black weights, plus italics, in each font I use for body copy and headings. Many fonts have bold versions that are just barely bold and therefore irritating. Using bold means you want impact. You are trying to get attention.

True, but readable, italics. For many fonts, italics are closer to a script, with all the attendant readability issues.

Whatever fonts you choose, you need column widths in good, readable range. Choose page sizes that give you these usable column widths. This means that you need to adjust the number of words per line as necessary once you have a few pages to look at. The average is 9–12. My rule of thumb for column width is very simple and gives you a good starting point for readability: 40 percent of the body copy point size in inches or the point size in centimeters.

Any column wider than that will be visually confusing to readers. Narrower columns are choppy and break up phrases, which makes content more difficult to read. So 10-point type works well in a column that is four inches or 10 cm wide; 12-point type may need nearly five inches (40 percent is 4.8″). This assumes a normal x-height of about 50 percent of the cap height or a third of point size. If the x-height or width of the letters is radically different than the norm, you will need to make adjustments.

For e-books, the point size to use to get the number of words per line where they need to be is normally 12–16. Yes, your readers can mess this up. But if you start them with a book that is easy to read, it’s reasonable to hope they won’t change it. They’ll just read.

In short, you want to help your reader as much as you can. Your efforts toward readability will pay off.

David Bergsland is a typographer and font designer who has gradually moved into full-time book design. To learn more: The Skilled Workman, bergsland.org.

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