Book Design 103: Typesetting Basics

This series approaches book design through the basic fundamentals of typography. In previous posts, we discussed typeface classification and anatomy. Now that we know more than most about how letters work, let’s step back and see how they interact with one another in a group. In Gary Hustwit’s aforementioned and fantastic documentary Helvetica, designer Massimo Vignelli* describes the most important aspect of setting multiple characters on a line and, subsequently, multiple lines on a page:

A good typographer always has sensitivity about the distance between letters. We think typography is black and white; typography is really white. It’s not even black. It is the space between the blacks that really makes it. In a sense it’s like music. It’s not the notes—it’s the space between the notes that makes the music.

Of course, without notes we’d have silence, and without letters we’d have a blank page. But Vignelli is right—when setting blocks of type, we’re not concerned with the letters themselves but with the space between the letters, the words, and the lines.

Some Terminology

Kerning: Kerning refers to the space between two individual letters. Because letters are irregular (look at the negative space created by the grouping of “LJ” versus the nice clean lockup of “JL”), the space between each pair must be fine-tuned for peak legibility. Most well-designed fonts account for this and thus kerning is less a concern in larger bodies of type, but for small collections of letters—as in a logo—good kerning is critical.


Letterspacing: Not the same as kerning! While kerning looks at the space between two individual letters, letterspacing concerns the overall spacing between letters within a block of text. Increasing the letterspacing gives a text block a more airy feel, but too much letterspacing and things start to lose cohesion and drift toward alphabet soup.


Tracking: The space between words. Tracking is less commonly adjusted than letterspacing is, but it can help eliminate widows and orphans without compromising the legibility of individual words.

Leading: As we now know, lines of type used to be set using individual characters cast in lead blocks. To increase the space between lines of type in a paragraph, blocks of lead at varying thicknesses were set between the lines, hence the term leading. (It’s important to note that leading today measures not the space between lines of type but rather the distance between baselines.) As with letterspacing, increased leading often increases legibility (the Internet employs much more leading than does print media, as type is harder to read on a screen), but too much leading and your paragraph won’t hold together.


Widows? Orphans?

If you can believe it, there’s a bit of controversy (or, in any case, disagreement) surrounding these two important typesetting terms, so I’ll explain them as I learned them. A widow (again, as I was taught) is any single word or part of a word set alone on one line, or else the first line of a paragraph set at the very bottom of a page. An orphan is any single word, part of a word, or paragraph’s final line set at the top of a page. Many will tell you these definitions are switched, which is fine, considering language is arbitrary and we’re all spinning toward oblivion, independent of all meaning, endeavor, or ethos. The OED’s definitions seem to align with mine—sort of—though CMS (and, perhaps more importantly in terms of general consensus, Wikipedia) disagree. A common mnemonic that I learned along with the definitions given above, “Orphans have no past, and widows have no future,” doesn’t offer much help, though it made sense to me as a young sponge in design school. Confused? I can say that nobody really talks about orphans these days. When in doubt, call it a widow and do your best to eliminate it.


I say do your best, as there are certainly times when a widow or an orphan is unavoidable. No hard-and-fast rule should supersede good judgment or a keen design eye in creating an intelligible typographic layout. In subsequent posts we’ll delve deeper into how this is achieved; next time we’ll explore how different typefaces and fonts work together to create a cohesive and harmonious design.

Next up: “Typographic Hierarchy”

* Massimo Vignelli (1931–2014) was one of the pillars of graphic design in the twentieth century. Born in Italy, Vignelli worked in the modernist tradition, emphasizing simplicity and geometric harmony in his work. “The life of a designer is a life of fight,” he explains in Helvetica. “Fight against the ugliness just like a doctor fights against disease.” Vignelli is best known for designing the signage and map for the New York City subway system and a variety of iconic corporate logos, including Knoll, Bloomingdale’s, and American Airlines. (Vignelli boasts in Helvetica that American Airlines is the only airline in the last forty years that has not changed its identity. “How they can improve it? They got the best already.” This is no longer the case; in 2013 American Airlines underwent a brand refresh and now employs a more sleek, abstracted emblem and a humanist typeface that more accurately reflects current typographic trends but lacks the timeless simplicity of Vignelli’s design.) Vignelli worked in a variety of other design mediums, including furniture, housewares, packaging, a pipe organ, and, of course, books. “If you can design one thing,” he was known to say, “you can design everything.”