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Basic concepts

Created by: Pablo Cosgaya – Colaboración: Marcela Romero – Supervised by: Natalia Pano
  Artículo en proceso de traducción

The purpose of this essay is to provide the student with the basic information necessary for the adequate treatment of texts, a task that will bring together most of the activities from the level 2 workshop.

Typeface family

A typeface family is a set of alphabetic and non alphabetic signs with common structural and stylistic characteristics, which allow them to be recognized as belonging to one system.

The alphabetic signs that compose the typeface family are capitals letters, accented capitals letters, lowercase letters, accented lowercase letters, and capitals and lowercase ligatures. Non alphabetic signs are numbers, punctuation marks and commercial signs.

There are families that have a third system, small caps, capital signs of a smaller size which maintain the lowercase typographic color (unlike a capitals letter reduced to the x height).

Type size

The concept of type size has to do with the printing technique in which movable types are used. It is the vertical size of the type’s face, considering the whole lead block.

This measure includes ascenders, x height, descenders and a small space (called shoulder) for the descender of a line not to touch the ascenders of the line below.

When composing different typeface families with a same type size, the x heights, the capitals heights and the ascenders and descenders may not coincide. The reason for this is that though the original lead type has the same type size for all of them, each family was designed based on different criteria.

Measurement units

Measurement units more frequently used in typography are based on two systems: the Anglo-American one, widely known in the whole world because most desktop publishing programs take it as master system, and Didot one, used in many European countries.

In both systems the measurement unit is called point, abbreviated as pt. Thus, as we may mistake different measurement systems, we need to make clear which we one are referring to: 12 Anglo-American pt conform 1 pica, while 12 Didot pt, conform 1 Cicero. The Anglo-American point is slightly smaller than the Didot one.

Measurement tools

The line gauge is used to measure type size; it is a metallic or celluloid ruler with series of slots or lines repeated several times, with a fixed distance between them. It is used to measure lead types, but it can also be placed on the lines of text until finding the distance between lines by comparison and coincidence.

Another possibility is to use a celluloid sheet with groups of letters of different type size printed on it (usually capitals, lowercase with ascenders, descenders and without them) as indicated under each group. Placing the ruler on the texts to be measured, its approximate type size may be obtained (this varies depending on the family to be measured).

Nowadays layout and illustration programs measure typeface with a tool that looks like a frame or a palette. It is very easy to use: the text to be measured or modified is selected and the desired value is entered in the corresponding box.

Typographic variables

Typographic variables are alternative alphabets within a same family, because they maintain the structural and stylistic relation. These variables allows us to solve hierarchy problems and reading levels within a text, generating different rhythms or weights within a same sign system.

First, variables affect letters in three basic axes:

  • Weight (light, regular, bold, etc).
  • Construction axis (round, regular or roman, and italic).
  • Width (condensed, regular or extended).

Weight modifies the letter stroke and thus its color and that of the text, the axis affects the structure producing variations in rhythm, while width modifies structure and produces changes in text performance.

With the upcoming of typeface systems such as Rotis and Stone (multi-style families that overcome the boundaries of classification groups) a new variable emerged that we may call style variable. The style variable can vary, for example, from a sans serif to a roman, maintaining basic essential features.

Today there are families that allow changing the sign width and weight while maintaining its optical corrections, thus creating the variable needed for the piece to be performed.

Interletter, interword spaces and leading

These measures are part of the font characteristics, that is, the typographic designer defines these measures following the stylistic criteria of the typeface he created.

The interletter space is the space between one letter and the next within the same word: it must be wide enough for each sign to be perceived as different from the next one and be easily read. If the interletter space is too narrow, the signs will touch with each other; but if it is wide, the word may break up.

Interletter space must be regular in order to establish a smooth reading rhythm. For this purpose, the distance between characters must have a relation with the internal space in each sign (counterform). Interword space is the space between words in a line of text. It must be wide enough to differentiate a word from the next one, but not to wide for the line to break into words.

Leading is the space between each line of text. It is measured from the line where letters rest on (baseline) to the next baseline. If this space is too narrow, the block of text smudges, but if it is too wide it breaks into separate lines.

If the line has too many words (wide column), the leading should be a little wider than usual, to make it easier for the reader to find the beginning of the next line.

Interletra, interpalabra e interlínea
El interlineado tiene estrecha relación con la interletra y la interpalabra. Para una lectura cómoda, debe ser armónico. El color tipográfico queda determinado por el peso de los signos y los blancos internos del texto.

Obviously, interletter, interword spaces and leading are closely related. Interword space should be wider than interletter space in order to differentiate a word from the next one, but not too wide so as to loose line unity, and it should be narrower than the leading so that reader may see horizontal lines instead of rivers.

Due to these interrelations, it may be said that there is not an optimal interletter or interword space but that it is the relation between them and their relation with leading, which allows for the adequate smoothness of a block of text.

Typographic color

It is the gray smear perceived when looking at blocks of text. As we have seen, it is easy to deduce that the interletter, interword spaces and leading are closely related with typographic color.

If the interletter, the interword spaces and the leading are narrow, the block will look darker. On the contrary, if the interletter space and the leading are wide, the block of text will look lighter. As we said, the leading and the interletter space are related to letter counterform: in open and big counterforms, typography must have an open interletter space, which will result the right color.

Typographic color will also depend on other factors such as the typeface family chosen and the variables used, which should be taken into consideration by the designer at the moment of choosing a family.

The paragraph

Before we begin to design, the text of the communication piece we are going to work on has to be analyzed. With this we may be able to discover a more or less complex organization, being the paragraph its minimal unit of meaning. The paragraph is a visual unit important enough as to be present in isolation from the rest of the discourse. Thus, from an editorial point of view, we can say that the paragraph is the essential unit of a piece.

El párrafo es una unidad visual con una importancia suficiente como para presentarse aislado del resto del discurso. Por lo tanto, desde el punto de vista editorial, podemos afirmar que el párrafo es la unidad fundamental de una obra.

Text attributes

In most cases, regulations express criteria which are common to most people. But, this does not prevent us from experimenting with them or challenging their limits The text’s visual attributes must respect its contents, take into consideration literary codes, etc. But the designer’s experience, together with his knowledge of regulations, makes a novel and functional treatment possible.


A text set flush left is formed by lines of irregular length that begin in an axis set to the left and a fray (lateral profile) to the right, that must be controlled to avoid lines being too even, too uneven or dissonant words from forming.

This type of alignment is easy to read because upon finishing a line, the eye quickly finds the beginning of the next one, always on the same axis. This is due to the occidental direction of reading: from left to right and from top to bottom.

A text set flush right is formed by lines of irregular length that end at an axis set to the right and a fray to the left. These texts are more difficult to read, because the fray affects the beginning of each line, and it is no easy to find its beginning.

A centered text is formed by lines of irregular length symmetrically placed upon a central axis. The text has a fray to each side, and must be controlled in order to look harmonic. This is not advisable for a long text.

A justified or blocked text is formed by lines that fill the whole width of the type page. In this type of composition, extreme care must be put on leading and letter spacing. Nowadays, desktop publishing has very much simplified this heavy task. It is advisable to practice different configurations to solve different situations within a same text. To do this, the designer must have a deep knowledge of desktop publishing programs.

Distintas alineaciones del bloque de texto
Las distintas alineaciones requieren diferente esfuerzos en la lectura. Asimismo el espacio se comporta de diferentes manera.

Hyphenation at the end of a line

Desktop publishing programs justify block of texts by proportionally separating or adjusting the space between letters and between words, thus obtaining lines of the same length. To avoid «rivers» or forced spacing that affect the uniform block color, programs put a hyphen at the point where the final word of each line is divided, which makes it easier to distribute regular spaces.

In computers, the mechanism of automatic word splitting (automatic hyphenation) is usually configured to English. It is necessary to adapt it to our language’s syllabification, depending on the program we are working with.

In some programs this adaptation is automatic, like Spanish Hyphenation in QuarkXPress before version 6. In some other cases one has to create the document and click on «Spanish».

As hyphenation rules are different in each language, it is essential to learn which rules apply for the syllabification of our language. In Spanish (or better said: Castilian Spanish) there are two types of hyphenation, each one with its defenders and detractors: 1) syllabic division and 2) etymologic division, where words formed by [prefix+root] are divided following the syllabic method as if they were separate words.


Legibility must be one of the main goals of a designer. A legible text does not have to be boring, schematic or just like everything we know. First, it is essential to bear in mind the meaning of the text we are going to work with and the author’s intentions. It is also convenient to know the interests of the target or potential audience for the piece we will design.

One of the most frequent mistakes unskilled designers make is to put their own esthetic intentions or expressive needs before the interests of the author or of the reader. In general, a text is easy to read when it «becomes transparent» to the eyes of the reader and allows the piece to flow with no interferences.

In his Design, Typography and Graphic Arts Dictionary (DETAG for its initials in Spanish), the Spanish typographer and lexicographer José Martinez de Sousa defines the concepts of legibility and readability:
Legibility (s. Legibilidad) Quality a printed text has of being easily read. The word legibility (unlike readability) refers mainly to personal features of somatic nature (vision sharpness, ability, etc) and it is judged by characteristics which are external to the publication: type of paper, printing ink, size, type and type size, line length, leading, illustrations size, etc (i.e. refers to the forms, not to the content). […]
Readability (fr. aptitude à la lecture; s. lecturabilidad) Easy understanding and interpretation of a text, related to style and the argument (i.e., the content). […]

Orthography for editors

Un buen diseñador (sobre todo si piensa dedicarse al diseño editorial) tiene que estar interesado por la gramática y especialmente por la ortografía, pues tiene la obligación de presentar sus textos con la mayor pureza y precisión, es decir de acuerdo con las reglas del lenguaje escrito. Además de estudiar y practicar estas reglas con frecuencia, es recomendable tener a mano diccionarios y manuales de consulta.

We suggest you visit the site Unostiposduros.com and consult the General Typography Treaty. We especially recommend chapter IX: Composition, spacing and line justification.

Useful definitions:

Orthography Set of rules and exceptions that regulate the writing of a language.

Orthotypography Set of orthographic and typographic rules and exceptions that regulate the writing and presentation of graphic elements.

Bibliology Science of the written text and written communication.

Lexicography Scientific technique for the study and creation of dictionaries.

Style correction A specialist intervention in a text written by somebody else to correct those grammatical uses that do not adjust to a normative institution’s rules.

Typographic correction Intervention of an orthotypographist in a composed text to correct the mistakes it may have.akes it may have.


  • DE BUEN UNNA, Jorge.  Manual de diseño editorial. 3.ª edición, corregida y aumentada. Trea Ediciones, España, 2009.
  • MARTÍNEZ DE SOUSA, José. Diccionario de Edición, Tipografía y Artes Gráficas. Gijón, Trea 2001.
  • MARTÍNEZ DE SOUSA, José. Diccionario de Tipografía y del Libro. Madrid, Paraninfo 1981, segunda edición.

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