Saturday, August 16, 2008

The Computer is Not a Typewriter

Designers know this but many new to graphic design still treat a computer as if it were a typewriter. Graphic designer Robin Williams has written a couple of books to help us break old habits held over from the days of typewriters.

In the days of typewriters the possibilities for changing text were limited. To make letters look bold-faced people sometimes went back and typed over the text again. They couldn't change the size of type, use bold-face or italics so ALL CAPS, and underlining were standard conventions.

Too many people still format text documents as if they are working on typewriters. They use double spaces between sentences, they indent paragraphs with tabs or, even worse, spaces. They use too much or not enough space between lines, or they use double dashes instead of em dashes.

Robin Williams, a best-selling author of computer books who focuses mostly on design and typography, looks at the kinds of mistakes that everyone makes: the wrong kind of quotes and apostrophes (using smart and dumb quotes in the wrong places), spacing (within and between sentences as well as between lines), tabs and indents, widows and orphans, hyphenation and line breaks and much more. Each of the chapters in her books (above) reads like the Strunk & White Manual of Style, telling the way things should be.

Unlike grammar and usage rules, which can be questioned and disputed, typographical rules are pretty much hard and fast. They all have one goal: to increase the readability of texts. WRITING IN CAPITALS, FOR EXAMPLE, MAKES TEXTS MORE DIFFICULT TO READ. Using fixed-width fonts do the same; today's computers are designed to work with proportional fonts, and these, too, increase readability, allowing words to be displayed in lines with better spacing. The type of fonts used—serif or sans serif—also affects readability and the way readers navigate through texts.

Here is a quick review:
AVOID USING ALL CAPS. IT IS TOO HARD TO READ. Use a larger type-size and or bold-face instead of CAPS.
Don't underline text. Use italics instead.
Don't use two spaces at the end of sentences. With proportional type and automatic kerning this is no longer necessary or acceptable.
Don't go overboard and use too many typefaces in one document. Stick to two typefaces (one for text and one for headings) that go well together.
Use 3-4 levels of type size for Headings, Sub-heading, body copy, and quotes.
Avoid typefaces that look like brush-lettering or hand writing unless there is a specific need for it.
Use well-chosen and appropriate photographs to clarify content.
Use colored fonts for headings if appropriate.

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