Book Design 104: Typographic Hierarchy

This series approaches book design through the basic fundamentals of typography. In previous posts, we discussed typeface classificationtypeface anatomy, and typesetting basics.

Up to this point, we’ve been looking at typefaces from a bit of a distance. Now I’d like to dive in and get our hands dirty—which is ironic, because in the days of lead type, diving into a collection of typefaces would literally have left our hands ink stained and grimy with lead. Stay with me, people. Please. I beg you.

Typefaces vs. Fonts

While the two terms are used pretty much interchangeably, there is an important difference between fonts and typefaces. Let’s use our dear friend Helvetica as an example. Helvetica is a typeface. Within that typeface, however, there are a large number of fonts—Helvetica Bold, Helvetica Condensed, Helvetica Black Extended, etc. Think of a typeface as a family and a font as a member of that family. Every font has a specific width, weight, and slant. Just like we humans!

In the days of lead type (yes, here I go again), all the characters making up a specific weight, slant, and width of a given typeface (e.g., bold, italic, extended) were stored in a wooden box called a font (think of a baptismal font, I guess, or just think of an old wooden box). In those days, each size required its own font, too—6pt, 12pt, 24pt, 72pt, and just about everything in between. That’s a lot of boxes! In the digital era, we can resize type on the fly, but we still need individual font files for our bolds, thins, narrows, italics, extendeds, and obliques.

Weight

Because serif typefaces employ a complex system of thick-to-thin contrast, the subtle harmony of a well-designed serif font is less amenable to weight adjustments. As such, most serif typefaces come in only two weights: roman (i.e., regular) and bold. (There are, of course, exceptions, especially as newer serif typefaces enter the game: See Bodoni, Clarendon, Sentinel, Archer, and many other slab serifs. Jenson Pro, an old-style serif, now boasts a light, a roman, a semibold, and a bold weight.)

Sans serifs, on the other hand, typically employ a relatively uniform thickness across the font, making the creation of thicker or thinner weights easy—just increase or decrease the thickness of the line across the board. (Of course, it’s not quite that simple, but what is?) Another reason sans serifs commonly travel in more varied weight packs is that, on the whole, they’re younger. In the days when serifs reigned supreme, there were no graphic designers around and thus no real need for all these weights. Then advertising showed up, and here I am with a semi-respected profession and a mind full of jingles and cast-off half truths.

Width

Again, unlike most serif typefaces, sans serifs often include extended and condensed (also called “compressed” or “narrow”) versions. Condensed fonts allow a greater number of characters to fit on a line, which is helpful when space is at a premium. Extended fonts, on the other hand, are bolder and easier to read (in theory, anyway), as each character is given more room to speak. Personally, I think extended fonts look clunky; many are poorly designed “stretched-out” versions of their standard-width brothers. Typically, condensed fonts are more common than extended ones.

Slant

Simply put, a font is either slanted (i.e., italic) or it’s oriented vertically (i.e., roman). Because italic fonts are drawn separately from their roman brothers (many italic fonts skew toward scripts), the word “oblique” is used to describe a slanted font that hasn’t been completely redrawn. “Oblique” is a term reserved almost exclusively for sans serif fonts. Declare that at a dinner party and feel the walls hum with reverence as the room goes dead.

Typographic Hierarchy

When designing a book, it’s best to limit yourself to two, perhaps three typefaces. (Keep in mind that a book’s primary purpose is to convey information to a reader—typeface glut leads to visual clutter and obscures information.) But remember, two typefaces could mean countless fonts, and by selecting robust, well-designed typefaces with a variety of weights and widths, you’re giving yourself plenty to work with. Plus, you’re guaranteeing that your fonts will work nicely together in layout. After all, they’re family!

There’s no more important concept to keep in mind than “contrast” when establishing typographic hierarchy. I like the assured contrast between a serif and a sans serif, so I’ll often choose one of each when working on a book layout. Assuming I’ll use the serif’s roman weight for my running text, I’m left with an entire sans serif family, plus the bold and the italic serif for my system of headers, subheads, sub-subheads, captions, and various informational effluvia.

When setting headers and subheads, choose weights that are clearly different from one another. Rather than pairing a medium or a semibold with a bold, pair a bold with a thin or a light. Set your subhead font several sizes smaller than your header font to establish a clear and unmistakable hierarchy between the two. It may look obvious when a subhead falls on the same page as a header, but a reader should be able to identify a subhead on page 317 as being on the same level as the subhead on page four. Clear, strong contrast makes for easy identification of the pieces of your book.

Understanding typographic hierarchy is essential to the creation of a harmonious and functional book layout. In our final post of the series, we’ll look at the elements that make up good book design, and what it means to create and to consume text on a page.

Next up: “On Book Design.”