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.

Kona Lisa

Those of you familiar with the minutiae of art history may have heard of a painting called the Mona Lisa. It depicts a woman named Lisa del Giocondo staring intently at one of those posters where you have to make your eyes go blurry to see the picture. (Art historians have been trying to explain her bemused expression since Leonardo da Vinci painted the Mona Lisa in the early 1500s, but I think it’s pretty obvious.)

I first saw the actual Mona Lisa (the painting, not the person) during a high school trip to France in 1990. I remember standing in the Louvre in front of this centuries-old masterpiece that continues to capture imaginations worldwide and thinking, “That thing’s tiny.” Then, “Nobody better be messing with my Alphaville tapes on the bus.”

Some consider the Mona Lisa the most famous painting in the world. (Dogs Playing Poker is a close second.) While I’m not sure how you quantify and rank fame, one measurement has to be how often something is parodied. If you Google “Mona Lisa parodies,” you’ll find a whole slew of images. (Note: If you Google “Mona Lisa parodies” at work, you’ll find yourself out of a job because of the nature of some of those images.)

In 1883, a counter-culture French art show called “The Incoherents” exhibited an image created by Eugène Bataille of the Mona Lisa smoking a pipe. In 1919, noted artist Marcel Duchamp added a mustache and goatee to the painting in a post card. (Note that Duchamp was 32 years old when he did this, right before he entered his much-acclaimed “Devil Horns and Glasses” phase.)

I was prompted to write about this when I received a bag of Hawaiian “Kona Lisa Coffee” as a secret Santa gift at the NAI holiday party. Because of the nature of the secret Santa program, I can’t say who gave it to me, but it’s someone who has been to Hawaii and whose name appears somewhere in the phrase “Kona Lisa Coffee.”

Two things are of note: 1. Here’s a company (slogan: “Put a smile on your face”) whose entire identity is founded on the fact that their geographical location rhymes with this famous painting on exhibit roughly 7,500 miles away, and 2. This is the second time in less than a month that a photo of my kitchen has appeared on this blog.

I’ve posted just a handful of the countless other variations on the Mona Lisa theme here: Avatar Mona Lisa from the website Fun-Gallery, Italian artist Marco Pece’s Mona Lego, and Mona Leia by artist Jim Hance.

This begs the question, what is it about the Mona Lisa that makes it so popular—so parody-able? Some argue that the popularity of the painting is related to the intrigue surrounding it—the subject (who is that woman really?), the content (what is that woman thinking?) and the physical painting itself (it was stolen in 1911 and not recovered for two years). The Mona Lisa appears in every art history textbook and has been subject to literally centuries of scrutiny and analysis. (Scholars recently used X-ray technology to determine that da Vinci used roughly 30 layers of paint to create the extraordinary skin tone in the painting.)

Interpreters talk about universal concepts (love, family, death, etc.) that are common to all people regardless of their specific culture. While there is no such thing as a universal image, the Mona Lisa is so widely known, especially in Western culture, that it can safely be used as a point of reference with the confidence that audience members will get it.

If there’s such a thing as a viral 16th-century painting, the Mona Lisa is it. To this day, she continues to pop up in contemporary art, music, literature, and every time Princess Leia is involved, Shea Lewis’s email inbox.

Pick a side: Do you indent the first line of your first paragraph?

It has been a while since I have taken a firm stance on some bit of typographic minutia that most normal people don’t care about, so today, I’m writing about whether you should indent the first line of the first paragraph when laying out narrative text. Get ready for a wild ride, similar to previous posts on drop caps, double spacing after a period, and the serial comma. (For those of you who are really into this sort of thing, I have created a category called “Typographic Minutiae” in our sidebar. Tell your friends!)

Not long ago, I was in a meeting with a freelance client whom I had not worked with before. I was nodding at comments and suggestions while going over the first draft of a newsletter: “Take all of the text from this Russian novel and put it on page 3.” Nod nod nod. “And in all the leftover space make this 50-pixel-wide photo huge.” Nod nod nod. “And use 17 different styles for these headlines.” Nod nod nod. “And indent the first line of the first paragraph in these blocks of text.” Screeching record-scratch sound.

To give you a visual of what I’m talking about, see the examples above. (Thanks to Bleacher Report for the text.) I have always set the first paragraph of a block of text, either at the very beginning of a passage or after a subhead, flush left, including the first line, as with the example on the left.

I remember a graduate school professor explaining it like this: You indent to indicate a new paragraph. There’s no reason to indent the first paragraph because it’s obvious that it’s a new paragraph since it’s the first one. Now go design a ball that is really a mask that will save the world. (Grad school was weird.)

Robert Bringhurst, author of The Elements of Typographic Style, which many designers consider the Bible of typography, says it like this:

The function of a paragraph indent is to mark a pause, setting the paragraph apart from what precedes it. If a paragraph is preceded by a title or subhead, the indent is superfluous and can therefore be omitted.

If Robert Bringhurst is not an authoritative enough source for you, Wikipedia says this: “Professionally printed material typically does not indent the first paragraph, but indents those that follow.”

As with all typographic styles, if you follow a specific style guide, you should defer to it. (And whatever style you follow, be sure to follow it consistently rather than mixing and matching.) There are some style guides that say you should indent the first line of all paragraphs, including the first one. For instance, most newspapers follow the Associated Press style guide, which calls for indenting the first line of all paragraphs. That said, I have always hated AP style because 98 percent of its guidelines are intended more for saving money on ink than actual clarity of language. (Most newspapers also fully justify (on the right and the left) narrow columns of text, which looks ridiculous, so if that’s your model for good design, best of luck to you.)

Ultimately, it’s not incorrect to indent the first line of the first paragraph of narrative text. People aren’t going to point and laugh if you do it. But in my estimation, left justifying the entire first paragraph is one of those subtle nuances that sets professional design apart from amateur design.

One Year of Interpretation By Design: What Have We Learned?


Photo by Michael Lorenzo

One year ago today, we asked the question “Why do we think the world needs another blog?” and with that, the Interpretation By Design blog was born. We have yet to achieve our stated goal of eradicating the world of clip art and Comic Sans, nor have we overthrown all world governments in order to impose our own merciless rule. But we have enjoyed the opportunity to dialogue with and learn from readers, as well as to rant incoherently about whatever random thought pops into our heads every Monday and Thursday.

We have gotten to brag about our respective favorite baseball teams winning the World Series (the Phillies earned their title in 2008; the Yankees purchased theirs in 2009). We have discussed design pet peeves (drop caps for me, the typeface Papyrus for Shea), and we have revealed our deepest, darkest secrets (I used to work in TV news, Shea likes Walmart).

We have learned (to our surprise) that our readers are passionate about grammatical and typographic minutiae like the difference between less and fewer and whether to single space or double space after a period—and whether they’re setting that type on a Mac or PC.

We are thrilled to have had the opportunity to use the phrase “Friend of IBD” often, not to mention that our respective marriages are still intact even after our families vacationed together during a blog-intensive week in Chicago last August. We’ve enjoyed (nearly) all of the comments that readers have left (even the one telling me that “life is too short” and that I should “get over it” in my post about drop caps).

In that first post exactly a year ago today, I wrote, “We don’t want your Social Security number, credit card information, or first-born child. You don’t even need a username or password. All you need is an interest in interpretation and/or graphic design and a moment to share your thoughts with us.”

Quiet sign on the road to Hana1Since then, we’ve enjoyed interacting with readers, especially when you send entertaining links and photos like this one from Friends of IBD Lori Spencer and Don Simons, who wrote after a trip to Hawaii, “Hi guys, You’ve got us noticing signs now.”

And that’s really what IBD is about. We know we’re never going to shut down a server because one of our posts goes viral on the Internet, but we hope to have found a niche of readers who find beauty in the quirky, who care about type and design, and who enjoy the way our natural and cultural heritage is presented visually at interpretive sites. We write this blog because we enjoy discussing interpretation and design. (If we didn’t have the blog, we’d probably end up writing all of the same content in emails to one another, only probably with even more snarky baseball-related comments, so it’s best for our mental health that we do have the blog.)

If we have changed the way you look at the world—noticing worn-down signs while others might be soaking in a beautiful rainforest or seascape, wondering whether a specific typeface was appropriate while others enjoy the content of an interpretive exhibit, or cringing at the use of a double space after a period while others read happily along without a care in the world—then our job is done, and we are truly sorry.

And finally, an announcement: For the next year, Shea and I will use the typeface Helvetica every day until a major Hollywood studio makes a movie about us called Shea and Paul and Max and Eduard. The movie will span seven decades and tell the parallel, touching stories of the creation of the typeface and our use of it. Shea will be played by Meryl Streep.

Observations: Type on a Curve, Which Way Goes the Dollar?, Proud to Be an American Cubs Fan, and One Creepy Bear

In the book Outside Lies Magic, author John Stilgoe encourages readers to carry a camera, a sketchpad, or any other recording device to document the minutiae they find noteworthy in the everyday world around them. (The author needed an iPhone. There are apps for that, you know.) One of the things I’ve enjoyed about writing this blog is that it has encouraged me to document things I notice as I’m out and about. Here are a few from the last few days in Chicago:


Typically, typographers advise against placing type on a curve (just because Adobe Illustrator lets you do it doesn’t mean that you should). However, we’re always on the lookout for effective instances of breaking the rules, and this circular exhibit at the Field Museum offers just that. The type here follows the curve of the contours of the exhibit itself.


Our posts this week have been generally positive, which is surprising because Shea and I are typically angry, negative people. So here’s one for the grumps: There are two different diagrams of dollar bills on this machine in the train station, each of them oriented differently. The one on top showing the accepted denominations has the bottom of the bill to the right, while the one underneath is the opposite. Sure, the two diagrams have different purposes, but orienting them the same way could help avert confusing the weary traveler.


How about making an artistic statement with your sales rack? Among the countless vendors hawking logo paraphernalia outside Wrigley Field, this one stood out.


This bear tracking down a foul ball at Wrigley Field is creepy and adorable.