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Book Typography Part 2: Interior Page Design and Formatting

The previous post was about the importance of typography in book cover design. While a book cover is designed to attract attention, the interior is the opposite. It is designed to be invisible. It should be so readable and well-organized that you don’t even notice the typography. This is where a good designer gets out of the way and lets the author’s words be communicated directly to the reader without interruption. It sounds pretty simple, doesn’t it?


There are a multitude of details that must be considered to create this effect. The first and most obvious choice to be made is the font. Nonfiction books include multiple styles in a hierarchy of information ranging from part titles, chapter titles, heads, subheads, and body text. Many fonts have varying widths, such as semi-bold, bold, and extra bold, to accommodate these varying levels of information.


In book typography, Old Style serif fonts like Garamond and Caslon are most commonly used, as well as the newer and popular Minion. Because they are so familiar and so readable, they don’t “get in the way,” by distracting you from the copy. Sometimes a book like a memoir calls for a more delicate look, or a business book may require a dominant, thicker typeface. Sans serif fonts are often used to give a bolder prominence to the heads and subheads, while serif fonts offer a more readable and lighter appearance in print.


Another consideration in choosing the font is the “footprint” of the font or its proportional size. Even at the same point size, different fonts take up different amounts of space per letter or line of text. You may choose a compressed font to reduce the number of pages in a long book, or an extended one if the book is shorter than ideal. A book can also be shortened or lengthened by altering the leading, or vertical space between lines.


Along with the font, consideration must be given to the margins of the book. The center margin needs to be wide enough so that the reader doesn’t have to pull the pages wide to read the part close to the gutter. A book with more pages requires a larger center margin. Traditionally the outside margin is left wide so your thumb holding the book doesn’t obscure the text. A good typographer will also ensure that the book is laid out on a grid so that each page begins and ends at the same level on the page whenever possible. This way if you can see through the paper, lines of copy on the other side do not make it hard to read.


Once the margins determine the horizontal length of each line, the font size should be selected accordingly. For maximum readability, there should be between 62 and 72 characters per line. Fewer than that makes the eye fatigued because it needs to work harder to keep its place when reading from one line to the next. If the text is too large for the line length, the eye has to move back and forth too much for comfort. The leading also plays into readability and can make it harder or easier to follow the text. If the leading is too high, the eye has a tendency to lose its place, and if it’s too short, it is hard to focus on one line at a time. All of these things subliminally affect a reader’s experience.


The last thing to be considered is something often overlooked by amateur typesetters. This is the way lines end and the sometimes awkward spacing caused by justified type. You want to avoid what are called widows and orphans. A widow is where one or two words end up alone on a line at the end of a paragraph. An orphan is when one line of a paragraph stands alone at the top or bottom of a page. Too many hyphenated words at the ends of lines can also be distracting to the reader. Distracting rivers will appear when space between words aligns up vertically or diagonally on the page creating a visual white line.


All of these things and more go into the interior typography of a book. Programs like Microsoft Word make these difficult to address, which is why the pros use page layout software such as InDesign for page layout. If it is done well, it is indeed invisible to the reader, but nevertheless creates a more pleasurable reading experience.

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