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.

Papyrus’ Avatar in Avatar

Since December 18, 2009, I have been checking the IBD website daily, patiently waiting for someone to ask a question or post a comment about the use of Papyrus in the movie Avatar. Until July 19, 2010, at 10:17 AM, I had been following rule number three of many unwritten rules about this blog, which states: 3. Quit writing about Papyrus because people will think you are an obsessive freak and may confuse you with Paul. The number two rule is: 2. Sausage is an acceptable commodity for the exchange of ideas and/or information in relation to IBD the book not the blog. The number one rule is: 1. Show total disregard for the proper use of the serial comma in order to annoy Paul.

Cal Martin (whom I will refer to in this post as Cal, the Chosen One, Chosen, or the One) finally posed the question on our Ask a Nerd! page. The question made me happy on multiple levels. First and obviously he asked about the use of Papyrus in the film, and second, there is someone who actually saw Avatar after me. Due to the age and number of children that I have, along with a wife with no interest in going to the cinema to see a movie that doesn’t involve talking dogs or sparkly vampires, see a movie like Avatar is a practical impossibility. I digress, here’s the Chosen One’s question/comment. Cal Martin says:

Hi nerds!

Okay, this is embarrassing. Or else I’m extremely rebellious and worthy of great praise, depending on your world view. I just saw James Cameron’s Avatar for the first time. That’s right – half a year later on DVD on my 27 inch tube television. It felt like I was right inside the picture!

Anyway, please, please tell me that I didn’t just see subtitles in Papyrus throughout the entire movie. I wanted to scream, “Good God, no! Papyrus?!?! Kill me now!” but I was afraid that it might expose me as a geek, and result in my sleeping on the couch.

My question – do you have other examples of huge projects (movies, large scale exhibits, multinational company signage, etc.) that had budgets of millions of dollars, yet made a basic gaffe such as this?

Cal

One, it wasn’t that long ago that I too saw Avatar at home and had that same reaction. I had heard about the unfortunate choice of Papyrus being discussed in certain design circles. (On occasion Paul and I hold hands, a perfectly acceptable custom in India; it forms the design circle of which I am referring to.) For this reason I had purposely avoided the movie. That, along with an unfortunate dream I had involving Smurphs when I was younger, has forever changed my view of blue people.

Chosen, I did make the mistake that you avoided in post-film conversation with my wife by saying it was pretty good despite the Na’vi speaking Papyrus. To which my wife replied that I had successful ruined everything. Which, in my opinion, is a bit presumptuous.

Back to the question at hand, the typeface used in all promotional materials, posters, and even the subtitles in the movies is not exactly Papyrus (seen above in yellow) but some sort of adapted version of Papyrus (seen above in blue). What is surprising to me is that movie with a budget well over $450 million (including promotion) didn’t search from a more original typeface to represent the film. Paul and I would have gladly provided the producer James Cameron this same advice for an amount much less than $10 million.

At the very least someone tried to alter it some in an effort to customize the typeface. Upon closer investigation you will notice that elements of Papyrus have been slightly altered.

The problem isn’t really Papyrus itself. In fact I think it represents the Na’vi and the movie well. As we have stated before in conversations about Comic Sans and Papyrus, it is the overuse that has made it ubiquitous. The real problem is that is also represents Italian restaurants, coffee shops, massage parlors, and churches. As a standard default font found on PCs and Macs worldwide the typeface has found its way into countless designs and lost the intent it was created.

My personal complaint with the use of the version in Avatar is that the subtitles are just too difficult to read. The first goal of subtitles should be legibility. Now if you were watching it at an IMAX theater you could probably read it better than on my or Cal’s home theater screens.

The One, I don’t really have an answer to the second part of your question. I don’t know of any other gaffes that have had an impact in the design community as much as Avatar and Papyrus. It is a really good question and perhaps some other members of the Nerd Herd can provide examples. In the meantime this is a reminder that we should consider every design decision we make important.

If someone had placed more of an effort into researching the use of Papyrus and shown Cameron this connection, I have no doubt that more effort would have been placed in finding an original typeface.

Rule number three has been re-implemented for the future of IBD. Oh yeah, if you haven’t seen it (Avatar not The Crocodile Hunter: Collision Course) the movie is really good.

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.

I’ve Got Problems: Too Much Text!

After my first I’ve Got Problems post, I was immediately contacted by a few readers with specific problems. Avoiding my problems with procrastination, I immediately began working to provide them with options for their problems. That is right after a long vacation in Chicago, some 23 other posts and much careful thought (note no serial comma, just for Paul). Sorry that I put it off until now. You more than likely have solved your problem by this point in time and should be writing this post yourself.

I was contacted by an interpreter who does a fair amount of design work. We will call her “Chris” for the purpose in this post in order to protect her from her co-workers who have created this problem. I will call myself “Mr. Shea” in this post in order to protect myself from the obviously girly name that my parents bestowed upon me and that has created many gender-confused emails and phone calls in the course of my life. It is true, I am a man.

Chris’ problem is related to the amount of text that she has been given to layout in a newsletter. She is unsure what to do with way too much text. Her supervisor (an interpreter) is providing her with the text and has not been receptive to her hints and suggestions to edit or cut copy. In fact Chris has been told that all of the text is “valuable and pertinent information for their museum’s membership and should be included in the newsletter.”

So, what can you do with all this text to make the newsletter inviting to read, mailable and visually appealing? My knee-jerk response would be to provide the proof to the supervisor with type in the smallest point size possible that would allow it all to fit on one page. This would illustrate the need for cutting copy. This is not the best way to ensure future employment, but could be personally satisfying. (Designers are jerks. Paul will take on this issue in a few weeks.)

Here are some legitimate options. The first step that I would take would be to layout a grid that allows plenty of room for vertical columns. Four columns on an 8 ½” x 11” sheet of paper is the max. Make sure the gutters are comfortably wide but not awkward. Think personal space. You know when that office acquaintance is standing just a little too close. Keep the text rag right (also called left justified). The shape provided by this type of margin will create counter space that will give the reader’s eye a break from time to time. You can also open up the line spacing or increase the leading to make it easier to read. Don’t go too crazy with the line spacing but follow the guidelines in chapter 4 of IBD. Dial down the point size on body type and dial up headlines or leading lines. I wouldn’t use anything smaller than an 8 point type, and 10 is preferred. Keep other page elements (page numbers, title bars and other newsletter stuff) as simple and small as possible. If the text is that important then the text should be the focus.

If you provide the best layout possible considering what you were given and the document is still too large, your supervisor may be more interested in revisiting it for an edit. If not then at least you know that you have maximized the text in the space allowed and made it legible. Whether or not it gets read is the real issue.

The next “I’ve Got Problems” post will deal with this confession: “I’ve been told I need to think outside the way I design things and that I should break some rules.” Being somewhat an expert on breaking rules, I feel comfortable taking on this problem so look for my confessions in future blogs.

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.