A Look into Typesetting

I thought I would continue the type-love train, focusing on the rules of typesetting. When it comes to setting type, typing just straight into Illustrator or Indesign does not cut it. There are a few things designers are meticulously taught, and scrutinizingly judged on, when dealing with the dirty details of setting type.

First, the basic of the  basics:




Tracking refers to the overall letterspacing in an entire line or block of text. You should tread lightly when playing with the tracking sizes–– track things out too much and the line will feel too light and airy. Leave the letters left floating in space, and they will no longer resemble words, let alone a full sentence. Track things too tightly and the eye will no longer recognize the legibility of the line or word within that dense mass of information.  There’s an expectation when dealing with typography; we look at words every day. While they may be set in different formats (a display typesetting for a poster, or a paragraph set in a book), the shapes of our letters are usually pretty standard (even though some font designers like to be “creative” here). When you start futzing with the negative space around each letter, you run the risk of changing that letterform’s look, and thus it’s meaning, all together.

Leave the creative tracking to the headers or display type setting only really left to limited words.

Done well it can create an elegant, clean appeal. Done wrong it can be a glaring sign of an amateur.

To test your tracking, get about 3 feet (or more) away from your computer and squint at the paragraph. If it’s too dark of a grey, it’s too tight. If it’s too light grey, it’s too loose. You want a nice even mid tone of grey for your squint test.




Kerning refers to the space between individual letters, also sometimes referred to as ‘kerning pairs’. Glyphs, either keyed into the computer via font design software, or set in a press ala olden days of yore, have a block of negative space attached to them. In order to make the spacing visually correct, the designer will usually have to go in between the letters and kern by manually shifting each letterform to make it feel correct. It is a subtle science, people.

A great trick I learned when handling kerning (aside from taking multiple breaks to take strides away from the computer, and give the screen a nice squint/glare to catch any errant spacing), is to flip the word upside down. While it may take some getting used to in terms of cursor placement, it’s a great way to take the letterforms as abstract shapes. This way you aren’t hung up on what they are, but rather just focusing on the spacing of what’s around it.



Leading, as in that pencil has a sharp point of lead-ing, refers to the vertical spacing of lines within a paragraph. As a general standard, the leading should “always” be set 2% greater than that of the point size of the typeface you’re using. So a 10 point typeface size would require a 12-14 point lead in order to feel legible on the page. Of course like everything else in design land, designers always want to play with this; and like everything else, it all has its place!

Increase the leading too much and no matter what it is that you’re typesetting, it will read like an English Comp 2 poem. Set the leading too tightly, and you’re bound to feel unbelievably claustrophobic.

Focus on the piece, and it’s messaging, and don’t go crazy here. One or two points extra is usually plenty.


Setting large amounts of text

When you’re setting a large amount of text, like a book or magazine, you can sometimes fudge the leading and tracking a bit to suit the overall appearance of the text, rather than focus paragraph by paragraph. Of course you’ll be going through the text line by line, but in the promise of keeping this unruly amount of information visually sane. One thing you will come across are “rivers”, or wide amounts of gaps in large amounts of text. This is fixed by tweaking the tracking slightly, and kerning. Lots and lots and lots of kerning.

I learned this lesson in what feels like would be the method of “the old country”. I type set an entire paragraph of an Italo Calvino book. Letter by letter. Painfully tedious you might say? And you’d be right!

But I learned how to do it, and I guess that is all that matters.

Another thing to watch out for when dealing with large batches of copy (or text, in the industry jargon world) are widows and orphans. Widows are the one lonely word at the bottom of a paragraph, and orphans are lines that are far too short that appear at the beginning of a paragraph or page. Typographer’s are a funny breed, what can I say.

You rectify these issues the same you would a river, carefully tweaking the leading and tracking, and seeing where things can be fudged here and there by kerning.

Hyphens also count against you here, so watch out! You definitely do not want to have 3 hyphenated words in a row in a paragraph, or SHAME on your typographic sensitivities (or really, lack there of).


Justifications and Rags


If we’re already to the point in our relationship where I can wax poetic on the creative merits of tracking and leading,  then let’s get down to business and talk about justification.

Not the kind of justification we’re all used to, but the good kind. The kind that sets type rag right or rag left, or even just straight down the middle. Centered, you might call it.

Rag what?

Rags are what typographers refer to the jagged (or ragged! Get it?) line that is created by a paragraph of text.

Rag left is when something is right justified (so that the left edge is the ragged one), but the most common is the rag right/flush left alignment, with the right edge being ragged.

When you set type with a ragged margin, you need to pay close attention to the shape the paragraph is forming. A bad rag is one that forms a distracting shape– usually S shaped, that bulges and buckles throughout the paragraph. A beautiful rag is one that has short differences between the lines, creating a nice even pace throughout the paragraph.

Here’s a pretty decent rag right/left justified. I’d say this is the most common in the West as it’s how we set our reading direction (starting left and ending at the right).



I also wanted to show a rag left/right justified. I also left the rag a bit sloppy so you could see what a pre-set rag looks like. Take a look at how short the 4th line in the first paragraph is, and then the rounded shape of the 2nd paragraph’s rag. This is what  typographers pay attention to when getting really into typesetting.

There’s also centered justification. Sometimes the computer will force the line or word to stretch out –– via extending the tracking–– to fill the entire line. You’ve got to fix these things, people. Go into the line and restrict the leading until it’s visually the same as the previous lines, fill in as necessary. I also would like to point out the stack of hyphenated words, and  rivers so wide you could take a lovely dip in them without ever nudging anything around it. You fix those by altering the tracking and kerning until they no longer stretch as far and wide as the eye can see.

You can also control the rag edge by having manual page breaks (hitting shift and return after the word you’d like to end the paragraph), adjusting the column width, or altering the copy.

No matter what you are typesetting, I promise you that you will always have to correct your computer’s idea of a rag.

That is if you want great typography.

I love talking about typography like this, and would love the idea of continued dialogue– if you have a question, comment, or have seen something you can’t unsee, let’s hear about it!

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