Closing Quotes

If there’s one thing we’ve asked IBD readers to do over the last three years, it’s been to notice details. The problem with this is that people hate details. When they’re good at noticing them, it makes it impossible to function in normal society. When they’re bad at noticing details, it irritates people who are good at noticing details. Take this email (subject: “Ruined!”) that I received from an IBD reader just last week:

I’m reviewing applications for summer internships, and I just came across one where the first and third paragraphs of his cover letter are left justified, but the second paragraph is justified both left and right. And it’s driving me crazy! Why would he do that?! And why do I care?!  I blame you.

I read this email and I thought, Our job here is done. But everyone knows that’s not true. Our job here will never be done. Just walk down the street and you’re sure to find Comic Sans and Papyrus, centered type, clip art, double spaces after punctuation (including one in the email quoted above), undefined color palettes, too many typefaces in one composition, and design elements not arranged on a grid, just to name a few of the things we’ve been trying to rid the world of for 36 months.

Sometimes, the only way to appease detail-induced anxiety is to share your aggravation with others. This is why blogging is so much fun. If you have a blog, you can channel the rage you feel when someone says “presently” when they mean “currently” away from bludgeoning that person with a dictionary and toward a wittily worded blog post that no one will read.

[Note: This was my longest IBD preamble before getting to the point ever.]

So with that, I give you another detail that drives me crazy, and I hope it will drive you crazy, too: smart (curly) quotes versus dumb (straight) quotes. Smart quotes are called that because they know which direction they’re going. There is a clear delineation between the opening quote and the closing quote:

Dumb quotes are called that because they don’t have clarity about which way they’re going. (In fairness, maybe they should be considered quotation marks looking for a direction in life rather than dumb quotes. Seems less judgmental.)

Despite the judgment inherent in how typographers refer to these characters, they each have specific functions. Smart quotes are used as quotation marks around text, as with my hilarious typographic pun here (finger quotes—ha!):

Many typographers will tell you always to use smart quotes. InDesign has a setting in its preferences called “Use Typographer’s Quotes,” which automatically converts all quotation marks and apostrophes to the smart variety. But all too often, these typographers use their beloved curly quotes even when they shouldn’t. Specifically, when you abbreviate feet and inches, the straight quotes (called “prime” and “double prime” marks) are appropriate, as with this typographically sound description of my height:

If you were to use the smart quotes here, my height would go from “five feet, nine inches,” to “five apostrophe, nine closing quote.” (By the way, to get InDesign to give you prime and double prime characters, you have to go to “Insert Special Character,” then “Quotation Marks,” then “Straight Double Quotation Marks” or “Straight Single Quotation Mark.” Every single time. If you copy and paste, it turns it curly.)

In the end, I imagine that what this post will do for you is drive you a little bit more crazy than you already are. Just one more thing to notice out there that will annoy you. And for that, I offer my own closing quote: I’m sorry.

Hanging Out with Punctuation

If you couldn’t guess from today’s headline, it is time to bring the house down with another Typographic Minutiae post. (Please note that the preceding sentence works best if you make that “Raise the roof” gesture while you read it. I can wait if you want to go back and try it again.)

If you’ve ever felt that your punctuation was out of place but weren’t sure why, it probably has something to do with hanging punctuation (or possibly a low-grade psychosis). Basically, it goes like this: When you’re aligning text the way civilized people align text (flush left, ragged right), punctuation should “hang” in the margin or gutter to allow the actual letterforms to align.

I’ve demonstrated what I’m talking about with a quote from one of my favorite authors, Douglas Adams, here:

The example on the left (heretofore “the so-so example”) has some things going for it. It’s set in Minion Pro, which we love, and it’s flush left, ragged right, which, as I mentioned above, is how civilized people set type. However, it does not employ hanging punctuation.

In the example on the right (“the typographically awesome example”), you’ll see how the opening quotation mark “hangs” to the left of the line created by the left-justified type. This is one of those tiny things that you may not think about often, or possibly ever (and if that’s the case, I envy you; please take me to that place), but it can be the difference between so-so type and truly professional type.

And this doesn’t just go for punctuation at the beginning of sentences. Again with Douglas Adams:

Notice in the example on the right that not only does the punctuation hang out in the margin, but so does a tiny bit of the capital T. What’s happening here is that the example on the left is a mathematical alignment (the exact left edges of the typographic characters are aligned), while the example on the right creates an optical alignment (the left edge is created by aligning the strongest visual element of each character). To your viewer, the version on the right creates a stronger line and is therefore more visually pleasing.

Some typographers even apply this to bullet points. I couldn’t find a Douglas Adams quote with bullet points, so I just wrote whatever came into my head:

I actually do not hang bullet points because they hang so far into the gutter, they can interfere with the preceding column of text.

In a rare bit of actual technical information on this site, here’s how you make your text hang in Adobe InDesign: Click on the text box in question, then select “Type” and “Story.” (It’s not intuitive, I know.) This will give you the pop-up window pictured here. Click the “Optical Margin Alignment” box. You can adjust the degree of hanging with the numeric value.

I have to admit, this post is design-nerdy even by my standards. Check back next week, when I promise I’ll have jokes about sweater vests and some photos of funny signs.

Flush Left, Ragged Right: Getting the Perfect Edge

Have you ever asked yourself, Are my paragraphs the right shape? If not, fasten your seatbelts, folks. It’s typographic minutia time again!

When you’re dealing with blocks of text in an exhibit or on a sign, it’s worth taking the time to make sure your type looks as attractive as possible. One of the things some new designers overlook is the actual shapes of their blocks of text. (They’re probably too busy thinking about young people things, like texting and eating paste.)

I like to set my type flush left, ragged right (or left-justified, in Microsoft Word parlance). Flush-left, ragged-right type creates a straight line on the left, and an organic, ragged edge on the right. I prefer to set my type this way (as opposed to fully justified) in part because it maintains even word- and letter-spacing.

But here’s the thing: There’s a specific shape that you should strive to create with that ragged right edge. You don’t want to leave it to chance.

The text below (James Earl Jones’s baseball speech from Field of Dreams) was flowed into a text box in Adobe InDesign with no attempts at tweaking.

I have traced the paragraph and represented its shape to the right. (If my wife is reading this, she is just now realizing that she is married to the sort of person who traces the shapes of paragraphs.) You can see that it creates a haphazard shape. To my eyes, the short first line and the subsequent ski-jump slope shape are particularly unattractive. (Speaking of James Earl Jones, I’m just noticing that the shape above looks like a profile of Darth Vader’s head.)

Below, I have altered the text (through minor adjustments to letter spacing and a few hard returns) to create a more desirable saw-edge shape. The first line is longer than the second, then subsequent lines roughly alternate.

You can see that the right edge of the type still has an organic feeling to it, but it has a more pleasing, consistent look than the original, unmodified version.

Obviously, it’s not pragmatic to do this with every paragraph in a book or a magazine, but if you have three or four blocks of text on an interpretive panel or wayside, attention to this level of detail will make your work that much more attractive.

And speaking of trying to be attractive to people, I think I need to stop having my wife read these posts.

Getting Your Letter Spacing Right

Earlier this year, I found myself in Malaysia, which is odd, because I don’t remember leaving myself there. (Please click here for an audio file of the rim shot that joke deserves.)

I was on Pangkor Island, standing at the end of a dead-end street that, had it continued, would have dumped travelers right into the Straits of Malacca. Luckily for travelers, the road ended and this giant billboard prevented people from accidentally ending up with soggy shoes.

Before I continue, I should point out that a few weeks ago, Shea wrote a post asking what sort of posts you, our readers, would like us, your bloggers, to write about. One response that cropped up several times was that you would like an occasional post about the nuts and bolts of interpretive design. (Very few of you said, “More baseball!”) So because you asked for it, here’s a post about letter spacing.

A lot of people use the terms kerning and letter spacing interchangeably. These people probably have more active social lives than we do, but they are using these terms incorrectly. Both relate to the space between individual letters, but kerning means to tighten the spacing, while letter spacing means to increase the space. And neither of these should be confused with tracking, which refers to letter spacing throughout a block of type rather than between individual letters. (Remember, you people asked for this.)

Anyway, back to Malaysia: I was drawn to the billboard in the same way local TV journalists are attracted to abandoned warehouse fires. (“It’s so awful, I have to show everyone!”) I just couldn’t ignore the stacked type, the faux Polaroids, and the composition that makes it look like all of the design elements were loaded in a cannon and fired at the billboard from 100 yards away.

This sign was nearly the width of a two-lane street, and they still ran out of room for the word “beach” in the bottom right corner. Perhaps had they not letter spaced those lower-case characters in the sentence “Keep the cleanliness of the beach,” they could have kept that whole sentence on the billboard. (Besides, readers recognize words as shapes, so letter spacing lower-case type is generally frowned upon.)

The first thing I noticed that made me break out the camera was the script type “Ceria di Pangkor,” set in our old default typeface friend Mistral. Script typefaces are meant to be strung together to look like handwriting. When you letter space them, it breaks the connection between the letters and makes it look like you were writing during a bumpy van ride.

As you blow type up (and by that I mean making it larger, not actually exploding it), the imperfections and inconsistencies in letter spacing become more obvious and distracting. Basically, the larger the type, the more important it is to pay attention to the space between individual letters. The word Pulau (island) pictured here drove me crazy. The blue outline actually causes some of the letter combinations (“ul” and “au”) to touch while others (“Pu” and “la”) are left with space between them. At this large scale, that letter spacing issue is obvious and distracting.

Letter spacing is more art than science. Most computer fonts have letter spacing built into individual characters (one of the many things Comic Sans does poorly), but variations in the shapes of letters and the immense number of character combinations make letter spacing nearly impossible to automate.

Typographers have devised lots of tricks and techniques to help them get it right. Some typographers like to look at their type upside down or in a mirror. (There’s a good post about this on the website Type Cast Creative, where the image above came from.) Others like to imagine balloons of equal volume squeezed between each letter. (The image here is from a website called Computer Arts.) One of my grad school professors swore by the practice of simply covering the bottom half of the type with a sheet of paper to see where the issues might lie. These techniques help us see the gaps between the letters as abstract shapes rather than seeing the letters of the words.

Certain types of letters are more likely to cause issues. Tall, skinny characters likes lower-case i and l or the number 1 are likely to have more space on either side that needs to be tightened up (which is why the year 2011 is going to be a bad one for typography). Round characters like o and e should be tightened up so that their middles come close to touching while their tops and bottoms are far apart. Angled characters like the capital letters A and V or the number 7 are likely to start out too far from their neighbors.

Regardless of which technique you use, the first step is to recognize that the computer does not do everything for you. Getting your letter spacing right means understanding that any display type, whether it’s in a brochure or on a billboard, requires attention to detail.

Had enough? Next week, tune in for jokes about baseball and photos of our kids!

Technical note: Every layout program has its own way of handling letter spacing. I work primarily with Adobe products, and I really like the “Optical” setting (as opposed to “Metrics”) in the kerning menu.

The Great Space Debate: To Single- or Double-Space After a Period

A while back, I declared my allegiance to the serial comma, and I am ready to take another stand.

I believe that double-spacing after a period at the end of a sentence is outdated, clunky, and typographically unsound. (While I’m at it, I also believe that college football’s postseason format is fraudulent, the designated hitter rule is silly, Conan O’Brien was treated unfairly, and Arrested Development was taken off the air way too soon.)

This is not exactly a cutting-edge opinion, but there are still plenty of people out there using the antiquated post-period double space. This is fine if you’re writing e-mails or crafting ransom notes from magazine clippings, but if you’re creating professional-quality printed materials, the single space is the way to go.

monospace-1The double space after periods was a standard in the days of typewriters, which used monospaced typefaces in which each letter or grammatical mark, whether a capital M or an apostrophe, is given the same amount of space. The typeface Courier, pictured here with ugly, gaping double-space holes after the periods, mimics a typewriter and is an example of a monospaced typeface. (Note the way the characters line up in columns, delineated here with pinstripes, because of the monospacing.) The thinking at the time was that the double space helped provide a visual break between sentences, but when the computer came along and allowed for more subtle variations in spacing, the double space became obsolete.

proportional-1Since the advent of the computer, most typefaces are proportional, allotting the appropriate amount of space for each typographic character, including spaces after periods. See the typeface Minion, set with elegant, contemporary single spaces, in the example here.

These days, most style guides, including The Chicago Manual of Style and Associated Press, call for the single space. Another proponent of the single space is Robin Williams (the not-funny female graphic designer and author, not the not-funny male actor), who has written several books on technology and graphic design, such as The Mac is Not a Typewriter, The PC is Not a Typewriter, and The Non-Designer’s Design Book.

You’ll notice that nearly all professionally designed printed materials (books, magazines, newspapers, etc.) utilize the single space. The double space after a period looks especially silly if you are using justified type, which already skews word- and letterspacing to force lines of text into a certain amount of space.

The proponents of two spaces after a period seem to harp on the same point: I was taught that way. Many are trying to stop but can’t. Others refuse to hear reason, desperately clinging to their Sholes & Glidden typewriter in one hand, waving the jagged end of a broken moonshine bottle at you with the other.

In the end, there is technically no right or wrong when it comes to spacing after periods, unless you are obligated to follow one of the many style guides out there that call for the single space. But then again, there’s technically no right or wrong when it comes to wearing tapered jeans and paisley shirts, and people do that, too.

Serial commas: With gratitude to my parents, Mother Teresa and the pope.

Call it what you will: the serial comma, the Oxford comma, or the Harvard comma. It is the cause of much consternation to writers and editors. It causes fights in bars (okay, discussions in libraries). Devotees of the Chicago Manual of Style insist on its use. Those who adhere to Associated Press style consider it superfluous. And there are those who say that it doesn’t matter whether you use the serial comma or not, so long as you are consistent.

Cereal comma: Snap, Crackle, and Pop (note the comma after "Crackle")

Cereal comma: Snap, Crackle, and Pop (note the comma after "Crackle")

I have always been a believer in the serial comma because I think that it eliminates the possibility for confusion. If you’re looking at a list of 1, 2, and 3, it’s clear that 1, 2, and 3 are three distinct items. Consider the example of this hypothetical book dedication from the Chicago Manual of Style:

With gratitude to my parents, Mother Teresa and the pope

You can picture the editors of the Chicago Manual of Style chuckling smugly at the notion that without the serial comma, readers might think that the hypothetical author’s parents are Mother Teresa and the pope. The absence of a serial comma might cause the reader to think that “Mother Teresa and the pope” is one unit equal to the author’s parents. As a believer in the serial comma, I’m laughing right along with them.

If you look at the popular style guides that do not use the serial comma, they are mostly related to the news industry (Associated Press, The Times, The New York Times, etc.). As a former journalism student and journalist, I can tell you that many styles espoused by newspapers are designed more for conserving ink than for clarity of writing (that’s why you see single quotes used in headlines instead of the more correct double quote). The style guides that call for the serial comma (the American Psychological Association, Strunk and White’s Elements of Style, and the Chicago Manual of Style, to name a few) are more concerned with clarity of writing.

Opponents of the serial comma will argue that it can sometimes actually cause confusion rather than clear it up. A surprisingly engaging and in-depth entry on Wikipedia uses this example, again a hypothetical book dedication, this time inspired by editor and writer Teresa Nielsen Hayden:

To my mother, Ayn Rand, and God

Here, the reader might believe that Ayn Rand is the author’s mother when the serial comma is used, but without the serial comma, the confusion is eliminated (“To my mother, Ayn Rand and God”). I argue that you have to work a lot harder to create a scenario where the serial comma causes confusion rather than eliminating it. Another example from the same Wikipedia entry is this:

My favorite types of sandwiches are pastrami, ham, cream cheese and peanut butter and jelly.

Without a comma after “cream cheese,” the reader is not sure whether the peanut butter belongs with cream cheese or jelly. With that, I’m off to the library to pick a fight with a journalist and then go out for cream cheese and peanut butter sandwiches.