Darlene’s Design Tips: Characters Per Line

In reviewing some design portfolios of candidates seeking layout work in the RPG genre, I was very surprised. From the samples I have seen thus far, I wonder if anyone has any feel for using type at all!

The last portfolio I reviewed, there were only two readable pages among twenty. Only those two pages used flush left/rag right alignment and the ratio between the size of the type versus the length of the line was finally correct. Unfortunately, it was all wrong on his other sample pages.

If this person were a student of mine (I used to teach graphic design to University underGrad students), I would point out some things he did that are not reader-friendly, such as his persistent use of justified text. According to Wikipedia, when justifying text type, “the minimum number of characters per line (cpl) is 40 characters; anything less than 38-40 characters often results in splotches of white spaces (or rivers) or too many hyphenations in the block of text.”

Apparently, this designer does not know that using the optimum number of characters per line (cpl) greatly impacts legibility. Basically, anything from 40 to 75 characters is widely regarded as a satisfactory line length for a single-column page set in a serifed text face in a text size. The 66-character line (counting both letters and spaces) is widely regarded as ideal. For multiple column work, a better average is 40 to 50 characters. Font sizes need to be adjusted up or down to achieve it.

Therefore, if designers insist upon using one column of type across an entire page, they must strive to make the type conform to 66 characters per line. Otherwise, the page will look like the suspiciously small type within a lawyer’s contract. Longer lines (between 85-90 cpl) may be acceptable for bursts of discontinuous text, such as in bibliographies and footnotes, but for continuous text, lines with more than 80 characters is unacceptable. On the other hand, study participants preferred shorter lines over long lines, likely because they feel more at ease with the format. Also, short text, such as ragged marginal notes, can be as little as 12-15 cpl.

Whatever the format, the text should be always be inviting and easy. Avoid the mistake of presenting a wall of text with no breathing room. Don’t make leading–the space between the sentences in a paragraph–too tight. Think of the leading as the road that brings the eye back to the right to read the next line. The pathway of white should, at the very least, be 20% of the font size, or two points above the size of the font. That’s what is meant by 10 on 12 (written 10/12). It means to set the text using ten point type with twelve points of leading. The same paragraph set solid is written 10/10.

The designer would be cruel to the reader to set a paragraph solid with a justified type alignment. When the text is set as thick blocks, it becomes an almost impenetrable wall. Reading is slowed and comprehension is compromised. It’s also a recipe for a head ache. I wonder why this mistake is done so often in the RPG genre? Why is there so little regard for making texts legible and accessible to the poor reader? Is it possible people are unthinkingly proliferating the mistakes created by others before them?

Another portfolio I perused showed the complete opposite. This designer used the page like a canvas. Also being an illustrator, she used the text to accentuate her art. She made a statement about not liking there to be too many lines of text on a page. That’s ok if she was also the author. If not, I would hate to be someone who was trying to communicate something vital in the midst of visuals competing for attention. This designer was self-serving, showing off. Her allegiance was not true to her role as designer: to accentuate the meaning of the text.

A good designer makes sure that everything is accessible to the reader. The page is not a canvas for the designer to express himself–that takes away from the purpose of the page and spread. Nor is it a contest to see how many words can be crammed onto a page because printing is expensive. In good design, the words always take precedence. They are supported. Information is easy to find. Reading becomes a joy. Good design is reassuring to the reader. Good design is invisible. It does not call attention to itself. It faithfully supports the meaning of the words and looks easy.

Successful graphic design is Zen.

Sources: Bringhurst, R. (1992). Horizontal Motion. The Elements of Typographic Style, pp 25-36. Point Roberts, WA: Hartley & Marks.

One thought on “Darlene’s Design Tips: Characters Per Line

  1. Kozmo

    I greatly enjoyed this, as someone who once worked in the publishing and editing biz and occasionally wrote/designed for self-publication. I see so many ugly, illegible, cluttered magazine layouts these days, all these hip magazines trying hard to be trendier, more outre, or more in-yer-face than the next — they all need a refresher course at Darlene University!


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